The End of One Thing and the Start of Something Else (3)

April 23, 2020
 
(This is the third in a series of articles. The first can be read here, and the second is here.)
 
 
When I was a kid my mother would give us a dollar for doing a chore around the house, and my brother and I would walk down to the convenience store on the corner to buy baseball cards. This was in the late 1980’s, when a pack of baseball cards cost .50 cents.
 
The convenience store was on 3A in Weymouth, a triangle-shaped building that faced streets that crossed at an angle, with an old church on the far corner. 3A is a busy four-lane road that loops around a portion of Boston Harbor and then crossed a bridge into Quincy, but our access to the store was down a quieter residential street. The shop sold Topps cards there, but we were able to get our hands on Donruss packs at the Hanover Mall. I liked those more than the Topps set because the Diamond Kings were beautiful, and they had extra MVP cards for every team.
 
That was a small exposure…small exposure one.
 
We watched games on TV-38. I remember the futuristic lasering of the baseball diamond, which would give way to a picture of Fenway Park, and then some slow-motion images of Boggs and Dewey swinging and Roger striking someone out, all to a jazzy tune that I can still hear in my head. The games started at 7:10 and usually wrapped up by 9:30 at night, and while I didn’t often get to watch more than an hour, I could usually catch a few innings after dinner.
 
I don’t know the details of how we had TV-38, whether it was provided by cable or if you could watch the games through an antenna. We had cable, and it was in the standard package. I don’t know how much it cost, but I doubt it was a significant burden. We were not rich, or anything close to it.
 
Exposure two.
 
Exposure three is radio. They still have radio: my kid is seven and he loves listening to the radio. For a brief period, before the world went crazy, he’d often walk to the bus stop muttering some line from a Mike Bloomberg ad, because he had heard it playing before leaving the house. It remains the most astonishing part of this presidential year that a campaign so much on the cutting edge of technology could sputter into nothing. Poor Mike.
 
My kid listens to the radio, and I used to listen to the radio. I like listening to baseball on the radio more than watching it on television. I still do it, though the trait makes me a damned dinosaur. The MLB package gives you radio feeds for all of the major league teams, and I love hearing the regional ads that come on. If you need an auto mechanic in Queens, I know a guy.
 
Newspapers…those were a thing. Sometimes we had a subscription to the Boston Globe and sometimes we’d have to wait until we visited my grandparents to get a hold of theirs. The Sunday edition had…and has, I believe…a terrific spread of articles, which we’d bring home with us and leave out until the pages got tossed away. Batting leaders and stats for all of the teams and write-ups…they’d come every Sunday.
 
That’s four…four exposures. What else?
 
Magazines. Sports Illustrated, of course, and The Sporting News. We had a subscription for Beckett Baseball Card Monthly that we’d fight over every time a new issue came along. 
 
The USA TODAY had a weekly newsprint publication that was $1.00, and it was dedicated entirely to baseball. I can’t remember the name of it, but I’d buy it almost every week. A dollar…a lonely dollar…for fifty pages of baseball content: a few articles and pages of stats to chew over.
 
And…six…baseball card shops. We moved to the Cape when I was eleven and there was a baseball card shop we’d ride our bikes to. It was a space where we could hang out and pester the owners and talk about baseball.
 
I met Mark Fidrych because of that shop: I went in one day, and the owner said he was drinking at the motel bar across the street. I remember my uncertainty at entering the place, which was exactly what you’d imagine a motel bar on the Cape to look like at 3:00 o’clock on a school day. But the Bird was kind, and no one was checking ID’s. He gave me a signed picture and scrawled his name an old Topps card I had raced home to dig out.
 
That’s six exposures…six access points that meant that baseball was just around when I was a kid.
 
And the seventh was games. We played baseball. We’d go out of our house and play games, or make them up to fit the contours of our yards. That wasn’t an uncommon thing, to play catch or have a game in the street or a backyard. If you were out playing, someone might come along and join in. I didn’t play that much, but there were some games.
 
So there were sometimes games and there were always loose baseball cards to sift through or a radio to turn on or some print material to read. At night there was the local game to watch. This Week in Baseball was on Sunday, right after Meet the Press or The McLaughlin Group. I didn’t give a damn about those old guys yammering about Reagan or Bush…give me Mel Allen’s voice and Ozzie Smith doing backflips and I was in heaven.
 
How many of those things still happen?
 
My kids never see baseball card packs at the store, and anyway they’re too expensive now. My son has an allowance of five dollars when I remember to pay him: he hasn’t shown much of an interest in spending that on cards. If he could get two packs for a dollar, I think he’d go for it, but I’m not giving him twenty bucks a week to adjust for that particular inflation.
 
Television broadcasts are more expensive than they used to be. I only do the MLB package, which is $150 a year, but that blocks out the local teams (I live in Virginia, so I can still catch most Red Sox games). I have no idea what the cost of a cable ‘bundle’ is for a team, but I imagine it is a lot.
 
We have radios, but I think that is probably anachronistic: I don’t know anyone else that still uses a radio much, unless they’re in a car. Most kids aren’t going to sleep listening to the game over at the ballpark. Newspapers? If I ever moved back to Boston, the first thing I’d do is get a subscription to the Globe, but it’s a rare gem in the business…most newspapers are suffering. Magazines? Same.
 
There are very few baseball card shops and card shows, and there are very few kids able to ride their bikes to a card shop if one existed, anyway. Kids don’t go out and play anymore, not in the same way we did. There’s Little League, but sports are a formal thing now.
 
I don’t mention this to bemoan the present and glorify the past: that’s not my point. The world has changed, and probably those changes are for the better. There are new exposures to baseball that didn’t exist when I was a kid. Fantasy baseball didn’t exist: now it’s everywhere. That’s great: fantasy sports allows a new way of connection to players and other fans. There are no more newspapers, but they’ve been replaced by hundreds of good websites with articles that tackle sports from all possible angles, and many of them allow you to participate in a community of fans who share your interest. There are good parts to being a fan these days.
 
But the fact holds: when I was a kid, I was saturated in baseball. Baseball was something that was around me, something that was always audible, always within hand’s reach.
 
It is not like that anymore. Baseball increasingly needs to be sought.
 
 
*            *            *
 
Jumping around slightly: I don’t think I watched a single major league game last year. I don’t think I sat down and did nothing else except watch a baseball game, at least until the playoffs.
 
I have children, and it is easy to blame them for everything. I have to read them stories and let them watch cartoons and feed and bathe them when a concerned stranger complains that they are more grass stain than skin. I don’t have the freedom to sit in front of the television for four hours.
 
And I don’t have the inclination.
 
Perhaps that sets me in the minority among the diehards who care enough to populate this site, but it puts me in the majority of the American population. Very few of us have the luxury to dedicate the three-to-four hours it takes for a game to unfold, and there are more distractions beckoning our attention than every before.
 
And the game itself is getting less interesting. Strikeouts are up, stolen bases are down, and…here comes the manager to make another pitching change.
 
Do you know what the average number of pitchers in a game was last year? Per team, I mean. Go ahead and guess.
 
It was 4.41, a new record. That is an average of nine separate pitchers playing in a game, which means that a night at the old park will feature seven pitching changes. Riveting stuff.
 
Baseball-Reference has a metric of the average time of a 9-inning game. It states that the average length was 3:05 in 2019. The database says that that the average time of a game in 1988 was 2:45…a twenty-minute change in the length of a game.
 
That may seem slight, but it’s a gradual change that has significant ramifications. Length is another kind of an exposure…or a barrier to exposure. It keeps people out.
 
I was working in a high school when the Astros played that marathon Game 5 against the Dodgers in the 2017 World Series. It was a terrific game, and I stayed up to watch the whole damned thing. The next morning, I wandered blearily through the school hallways hoping to sight some die-hard who looked as disheveled as I felt. I didn’t see anyone: none of the kids cared.
 
That is apocryphal: some kids must care. But the number is declining.
 
 
*            *            *
 
We are getting closer to a thesis. Two more articles, I think, will get us there.
 
On the subject of exposures: I visit my family at some point every summer, and inevitably I have to think about whether or not I want to bother dragging my children to Fenway Park. The oldest has been to a game: when he was small enough to not need a ticket, he got a chance to see David Ortiz hit a homer, a moment that panicked him when the crowd stood up in unison. The youngest hasn’t gone yet, and while I will someday take them both, I am waiting for a moment when they will have more than a passing interest.
 
It is expensive, and it is a hassle. I am a loyalist: if I’m going to a game, I want to ride the ‘T’ in and walk from Kenmore: I remember my first game and the many games since, and I want to give my children the same memories: that sense of a crowd moving towards something.
 
At the same time, my kids are still young…bedtime is 8:30. When we visit our family, the schedule is crowded enough without adding a baseball game into the equation.
 
Instead I take them to minor league games. In addition to Pulaski, we have the Salem Red Sox close by, and a bunch of other teams scattered about. My summer plan, before summer was cancelled, was to check out all of the other Appalachian League parks, and write reviews of them.
 
It costs next-to-nothing. I can ply my kids with ice cream and popcorn and then leave after six innings. I don’t think I’ve gone to Salem without at least one of my kids getting a ball from a coach (I splurge for the seats on the third-base line), and there is no great drama getting to the car.
 
I don’t know how much it sticks, though.
 
I remember the first time I went to Fenway, how much I was aware of a sense of building, and then that climactic moment, after the crowded Green Line train and the walk through the clamor of Kenmore on a game night, of climbing out of the tunnel and first seeing the lights and the grass. It is a moment that has lost none of its power to astonish me. It hooked me, the sense of moving towards the privilege of bearing witness to something great. The foundation to that moment was laid in all of the little avenues and exposures to the game that were surrounding me. And then it was real.
 
 
David Fleming is a writer living in western Virginia. He welcomes comments and questions here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com. 
 
 

COMMENTS (14 Comments, most recent shown first)

evanecurb
Ages 10 and 11 there were daily baseball games at the field at the elementary school two blocks from home. Started as soon as school let out in June, every week day, 8 am. Just like The Sandlot. So many kids playing we’d close off the game to newcomers when it got to be 9 on 9. If you didn’t make it there by 8:30 (I often didn’t; my older brother always did). All players were boys aged 10-13. No adults present, ever.

Ages 14-16 my best friend and I went to every Salem Pirates home game. Fifty cents admission if 16 or under. Measured in by lawns mowed. Mr. Cross’s lawn: $4 equals 8 games admission, or four games if you get a coke and hot dog. Good baseball, too. I was amazed how much bigger and stronger the players were and how much harder the pitchers threw compared to our high school games. I realized the players were only a few years older then me. Dave Parker, Art Howe, Kent Tekulve, Ed Ott, Mario Mendoza, Craig Reynolds, John Candelaria.
7:36 AM Apr 28th
 
billsizer
My first game was at Tiger Stadium in 1962, and I too still remember first seeing the grass. The pitcher was AL ERA champ Hank Aguirre.
7:34 PM Apr 27th
 
evanecurb
Steven: That’s funny! I’m thinking of a comeback...slowly, of course...
9:03 PM Apr 24th
 
Steven Goldleaf
We weren't laughing at your accents, Bruce. We were laughing at your clothes.
6:44 PM Apr 24th
 
evanecurb
I have a Fenway subway story. In 1988, four friends and I, all from Virginia, went to two KC-Boston games at Fenway. We took the subway in. While on the subway, we noticed a couple guys near us who were snickering at our southern accents - nothing obnoxious, but I could tell they were doing the ole "get a load of these bumpkins, will ya?" kinda thing. Pretending not to see them, I waited for a lull in the noise, then looked at my friends, and in my loudest, most exaggerated Southern twang, said: "Hey Y'all, what position does Larry Bird play?"

The guys who had been snickering burst out laughing at that point. Hopefully I gave them a story to tell for years about those yahoos they saw on the way to the Red Sox game.
1:47 PM Apr 24th
 
jfenimore
Well, I feel like the old guy here, as my first two games were in Yankee Stadium in 1961.
Baseball cards, which I bought at the 5&10 downtown using money from returning soda bottles, cost 5 cents a pack.
When talking about the first MLB game seen in person, my school's principal where I worked when I was in my early 20s, told me in his first game he saw Carl Hubbell pitch in the Polo Grounds.
Yikes.
Later, when talking about the first Broadway shows we had seen, one teacher told me her first was Ethel Merman in Gypsy.
I didn't feel old then.
10:46 AM Apr 24th
 
DaveFleming
Thanks for the kind comments, all! I'm refraining on responding until i get to a conclusion, but I am reading them and looking forward to answering some questions. All my best.
10:33 AM Apr 24th
 
steve161
Bruce, some minor league cities did have those things: the ones in the Pacific Coast League, until the Giants and Dodgers moved west. Both San Francisco and Los Angeles featured outstanding sports writers in their daily papers.

I've often thought that my early baseball experience was lessened by the fact that we had to get to the games by car, first to Gilmore Field and Wrigley Field, then to the Coliseum and Dodger Stadium. Now, when I visit the US, I particularly enjoy going to games that I can reach via public transportation. There is a sense of community you get riding the Metro to Busch Stadium with a bunch of people, almost all of whom are wearing Cardinal colors. Even though I'm not, except for a cap.

Not that I was aware of missing something at the time. It's just that, having lived the last 42 years of my life without owning a car, I've come to realize how liberating it is not to be tied to it.
8:18 AM Apr 24th
 
evanecurb
Good job, Dave. I can relate. A lot of my childhood immersion inRichmond was Little League. It was a huge deal in that community. We did the kinds of stuff you mention - baseball cards, pickup games, and tabletop baseball games played with dice.
I’m
I used to envy people in big league cities who had games on TV every day and a good sports section in the paper - those were luxuries those of us in minor league cities didn’t have.
7:01 AM Apr 24th
 
Tigfanman
Relate to being immersed in baseball. Did most of those things in addition to checking out and reading every baseball book in the local library.
8:13 PM Apr 23rd
 
Gfletch
I don't know exactly where you're heading with this series, Dave, but I am surely enjoying it. Hazarding a guess, I think it might be about how most fans are created by their environment. You can become a fan in many ways, but if the number of ways is limited, the odds get harder and the competition stiffer.
5:12 PM Apr 23rd
 
jgf704
Great article Dave.

FWIW, I was born in 1961 in Pittsburgh and grew up a Pirates fan, of course. But I moved to Amherst, MA in 1983 for grad school (finally graduated in 1991) and it was there that I became a huge baseball and Red Sox fan. I have similarly vivid memories of all the things you mentioned like:

* Red Sox games on TV-38 with Ned Martin and Bob Montgomery. I, too, loved the theme song.

* Trips to Fenway -- I probably made 3 or 4 trips every season from 1984 through 1989. We'd drive in on Route 2, and park at the Alewife Station. The whole idea of rail transportation was new to me, so even just taking the Red line and transferring to the Green line at Park Street was its own fun adventure, even for a 20-something. Not to mention the unexplained mysteries of "take any Green Line train but the E" and especially "get off at Kenmore, not Fenway". And Pittsburgh (Three Rivers Stadium) had nothing even remotely approaching the collection of vendors and shops that were on Lansdowne Street. I always made it a point to buy a bag of peanuts from the same guy, as well as buy a sausage grinder (with peppers and onions). I'd browse a souvenir shop after the game.

* The Boston Globe Sunday sports section was magnificent. Like you said, a full page (or was it 2) of just baseball notes from Peter Gammons. The fact that the other sports had their own similar spread was gravy.

Anyway, thanks again for a great article. It prompted me to recall some great memories.

P.S. I believe it was USA Today Baseball Weekly. The cool/snarky kids on rec.sport.baseball would refer to it simply as McWeekly. :)
4:23 PM Apr 23rd
 
kgh
Dave,

Thanks for the article. Regarding the number of pitchers per team: this affects the time of the game, the number of strike outs per game, and the composition of each team's roster (including, these days, a ridiculous number of pitchers). This is something that baseball can fix. They can fix it by making serious rules changes. Perhaps there's an article to be written about baseball's reluctance to change its rules; perhaps it has already been written.
I listen to baseball on the radio, by the way. It is anachronistic, but beautiful too. One need not be 'glued' to the radio as to a TV. You can get up, go to another room, and never miss a beat (or home run). Viva la radio!



3:58 PM Apr 23rd
 
MarisFan61
One of the most engaging things I've read in my life.
Beautiful article.

About that last thing, with which I resonate totally but it's not why I said the above, which was a feeling from the very beginning:
I likewise.
When I'm asked what's my greatest memory of going to a ballgame, myt answer always is, the first time and every time I get to the ballpark and first see the field.
3:23 PM Apr 23rd
 
 
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