Return of The Summer Game

Baseball over the years has meant many things to many people. Not only has the game reflected society, it's changed it. Helped to mold who we are and where we all stand as a country. Greats of the game have gone off to fight in wars and events of the world have touched the game as well. Now, it begins anew with the 2005 season.

The rich history of "America's Game" or "The National Pastime" is one that in many ways has both been influenced by and been influential on society as a whole. Whether it was the issue of African Americans forming their own league amid social injustice in 1920 or of Jackie Robinson becoming the first African American player in the major leagues in 1947. Baseball further dealt with equality when women decided that they could do anything, including forming The Women's League, filling a gap caused by World War II. Baseball has been a part of an always changing society, and yet also remained a place where people could go to escape and forget their troubles. Spring training 2005 is winding down, and now baseball fans raise their sleepy eyes from winter hibernation to hear the updates of players on their favorite teams. Who is showing improvement after an injury laden season? What minor leaguers are showing promise, trying to make the "big club?" What new pitches are the pitchers trying out? It's a time for the baseball aficionados to indulge and to binge on the sport that they live and die for.

Roger Angell laments the ritual of spring training in his book, "The Summer Game", in which he talks about the fans that come to watch, and how they react to youngsters from the minor league affiliates taking the place of the regulars in games. "The spectators accept this without complaint. Their loyalty to the home club is gentle and unquestioning, and their afternoon pleasure appears scarcely affected by victory or defeat." It's a time when baseball fans have the freedom to hope, even if it may be a delusion.

The first recorded game was actually in 1846, at Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey. Cartwrights Knickerbockers lost to the New York Baseball Club. It wasn't until 1857 that amateur teams finally gathered to discuss establishing rules for the game, and the following year the National Association of Baseball Players was formed making it the first organized baseball league.

During the early days of baseball, fans were only sometimes charged for admission to games. Imagining that now is not nearly as hard to imagine as events that unfolded in 1882 when fans stopped coming to games because liquor was being sold and patrons were imbibing in excess. Taking away the distribution of beer at games today, would be just the same as telling fans their money isn't welcome.

As the league grew, however, so did the expenses of the guys playing the game everyday. They did it out of love for playing, something Dallas Green recently said he thinks players today "don't have," but there was only so far the teams could go on no money. Depending on donations had worked, but not well; now teams had to get their financial support in the only way they could: winning.

It was also in those days that the game relied on contact hitting, bunting and base stealing. Because of the "dead" ball they played with in those days, few homeruns were hit. The value of the homerun today is so high; players can have a high strikeout percentage, and still walk tall if they hit the ball out of the park in remarkable numbers. The thrills were not there as they are today, but people still came to spend an afternoon at the ballpark, to pass the time of a summer day and engage in something leisurely. It had its charm and draw even then. But...

Then came "The Babe". Round, robust, and a born entertainer. In 1914 at the age of nineteen, George "Babe" Ruth was signed to a contract with the Baltimore Orioles, who were a minor league affiliate of the Boston Red Sox at the time. Ruth spent only a few short months in the minor league system before making the team and quickly becoming as well known for his drinking and large belly, as he was for his explosive results at the plate and on the mound. He pitched a fourteen inning game (giving up only one hit in the thirteenth inning) in one game of the World Series with the Sox, a record that still stands today. He hit 29 homeruns the following season.

The standard was set, and Babe truly became the first superstar of the game, creating the excitement and competitiveness you see in the game today. There was no ESPN and sportswriters didn't forget they were not actually a part of the game. Players like Babe Ruth brought in more fans and more revenue, and the game for better or worse became all the richer and a more viable source of financial success for those involved. The word "superstar" is used quite a bit today, but the idea of any guy pitching fourteen innings seems superhuman by today's standards.

With each summer comes a new star or more records chased, but it is all for naught. You are never going to see another as great as George Ruth.

The Phillies became a team in 1883, playing their first game against the Providence Grays, and defeated 4-3; named the Philadelphias by owner Al Reach, who became the first professional baseball player in 1866. Of the name, Reach said he chose it because, "People will know who we are and where we're from." The team won their first pennant in 1915, and has followed with pennants in 1950, 1980, 1983 and 1993. Say what you will about the passion and aggression of the Phillies fan, but their devotion seems only to have wavered after the 1994 strike. Phillies fans don't take to whining millionaires. Don't tell it to the guy who works at the shipyard or Pepsi or sanitation plants. "Go cry in your pile of money," as comedian Ray Romano tells his wife when she complains.

And Veteran's Stadium may not have had the frills of the Phillies new home, Citizens Bank Park, but inside its walls there was a long, storied history. Rick Wise no-hitter in the opening season at the Vet in 1971, and Terry Mulholland's no-hitter in 1990. Mike Schmidt setting the all-time Phillies homerun record in 1980, with 48. Steve "Lefty" Carlton setting a Phillies record for most strikeouts in a season with 310. Curt Schilling tied the record in 1997, also at The Vet. And of course, the monumental moment; one glorious pitch by Tug McGraw in 1980 to win the only World Series title the Phillies have, beating the Kansas City Royals. The fans would crown their gods, but who can blame them when that Championship win still stands alone today. Give us something more to love, and believe us we will...we will!

The 1960s was a time when pitching had true dominance, and pitcher Bob Gibson made pitching miracles an art form. It was especially due to pitcher friendly parks like Candlestick Park and Shea Stadium. Recently, it was reported that Phillies pitchers were secretly commenting that the glorious new Citizen's Bank Park is a joke for pitching. It might explain why the Phillies are trying to create a ground ball pitching rotation, but many wonder if designing a team tailored to a park is such a good idea.

The ‘70s saw more of this kind of dominant pitching, with greats like the Mets Tom Seaver, who struck out nineteen Padres in one game, including ten in succession. This topped any pitcher in the twentieth century, and no other pitcher has struck out ten in a row to date.

In 1968 the oldest active player at the time Chicago White Sox pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm broke Cy Young's record of 906 games with 1,118 played in Major League Baseball, at the age of forty four. Just as impressive was the fact that in 1967 he had been pitching for sixteen years, and experienced the most successful season of his career with a 1.31 ERA.

There was also the "birth" of the great Steve Carlton. There are plenty of left-handed pitchers, but only one "Lefty". What did he do that was so great, so special that he owns that title above all other pitchers before him or since? It had a lot to do with his belief in the power of conditioning; he focused on physical fitness and followed that with complete devotion. Cy Young once said, "A man who is not willing to work from dewy morn, until weary eve should not think of becoming a pitcher." Carlton epitomized the Cy Young mantra, and in the decade of the ‘70s, his domination was undeniable. He was fifth in wins with 178 in the seventies. 1972 was his most awe inspiring season, when he won 27 games for the last place Phillies and finished the season with a lean 1.98 ERA, winning the first of his four Cy Young awards.

The ‘80s and ‘90s are where all of my strongest baseball memories live. Pete Rose (playing for the Cincinnati Reds) becoming the all-time hits leader on my birthday. Going to a Dodger game in California as a kid, and the excitement and electricity of the crowd and the game that so affected me. It stays with me to this day...nothing like the smell of stale beer and hot dogs. The 1993 NLCS and World Series seem like they happened yesterday, and as a Phillies fan I'm sure wishing they had.

The ‘80s and ‘90s of course are when the game truly became about the hitters. There is no denying the power of the homerun, but I believe fans will take their team winning any way they can get it. Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, all brought energy to the game and fans fed off of that energy. Regardless of all that has taken was a lot of fun.

And still we are going to love it; we wait, we love to talk about it...dare I say even complain about it? Yes. We love the debate. I don't have love for any other sport as I do for baseball. Winter for me is waiting for it to return. And all the same qualities it had since the very beginning remain pure in my mind, regardless of the controversies. So let the summer game begin.

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