Saturday, October 06, 2007

The Joy of Baseball is in its Youth: A Series of Notes to Self by Andrew Mendillo

Hanley Ramirez is an exciting player to watch, maybe the most in all of baseball. At 23, he will be this much fun for years. Jose Reyes, Ryan Braun, Hunter Pence, Joe Mauer, Delmon Young, Troy Tulowitzki, the Uptons, Chris B. Young, Dustin Pedroia (my personal favorite), Chad Billingsley, Phil Hughes, Justin Verlander, Clay Buchholz. Baseball does not get much better than its young stars. On top of their super abilities, they play with integrity. They bring a vintage feel back to the game, a feel I do not remember in baseball.

Not very long ago, baseball was a game of giants. We rooted for the home run heroes to murder the records of our fathers’ teams. The home run derby was the highlight of the summer, even pitchers joked about how “chicks dig the long-ball.” I remember having Frank Thomas’s poster on my wall, despite loving the Red Sox. I pretended to be Mark McGwire in backyard wiffle-ball—my cousin was my bash brother. We played home run derby every day; we imitated their batting stances. Every spring, when little league started, I remember teams of kids hoping we could pick our numbers giving us the privilege of having number 25, 35 or 33 on our backs. (But of course they went from 1-16, and only the fat kids got the high numbers.)

Oh fat kids! A lot of fat kids played. I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but I’m sure more fat kids played baseball than beach volleyball. The reason for this is that they had major league fat guys to look up to. I’m excited to see the fat baseball player re-inventing himself. For years David Wells was scorned for being the fat guy in the MLB, and it was unfair because baseball is not exclusive to athletes. It’s a fat man’s sport much like bowling and sumo. Wells wasn’t alone, other fat guys were around but they sucked. David Wells was the fat guy on the field with super athletes, but now he can wait in buffet lines with C.C. Sabathia and David Ortiz— super sized super-stars! I miss Tony Gwynn, Cecil Fielder, Mo Vaughn, John Kruk, and Fernando Valenzuela. But, I am giggling at the sight of Miguel Cabrera, Joel Zumaya, Andy Marte, Joba Chamberlain and Prince Fielder!

The big hitters of my childhood were big guys. Frank Thomas, though not fat, was the biggest man I had ever seen. I saw him in person at Fenway Park and gave up pitching the same day. Thomas was much bigger than the rest of the players on the field; his arms were the size of everyone else’s legs. He used his muscles to hit the ball further than anyone else in the game. Everyone in the game wished they could hit with the power of Thomas, but if you wanted to hit as far as him, you needed a perfect swing like Ken Griffey Jr. Things were promising watching those stars as a child. If I wasn’t born as big as Thomas, I could perfect my swing like Griffey—ah, innocence.

Then juice squeezed its way into the media, and the feelings toward the home run hitter, and baseball changed. At one point, I remember jokingly saying Rafael Palmeiro was Major League Baseball’s Ned Flanders only to see he was MLB’s number one suspect. I was so hurt to see what these players were actually doing behind closed doors. Steroids turned the game ugly, we know this much. But back in 1988, would anyone actually believe Jose Canseco could be on TV with a gorgeous model and Peter Brady, and not be the one banging the model? It’s surreal! For people like me, the image of Canseco is forever linked with a clip art picture of a prescription bottle that reads “steroids.” I secretly wait for Canseco to announce that this is all an attention scheme, but it is in fact the harsh reality. My favorite player became Greg Maddux.

If morals didn’t deter the young players out of trying steroids, the public humiliation in getting caught has. These young guys are big, bigger than me, but in no way could I imagine Dustin Pedrioa taking anything illegal to better his game. These last couple of seasons have been a joy to watch because of these young stars, and my fantasy teams are proof. I have been so excited about the young crop that I have sacrificed proven players to load up on fun guys I prefer to root for. Granted, some moves were not so bright. I drafted Troy Tulowitzki over Adrian Gonzalez for my utility role, dropped Griffey for Billy Butler, and when having the option of picking up either Chris Young (SD) or Tim Lincecum, I chose Lincecum—in both leagues. Making my fantasy league’s playoffs is now a fantasy of its own.

Baseball is great to watch when the players on the field play to the best of their abilities. They work for every out, and every run. I’m pleased with the changes that are apparent in the last few years. Baseball is back to where it should be in my mind. That may be because I, like many, chose to disregard the passing of Aaron, and see the no-hitters by Verlander and Buchholz as the greater, more enjoyable games. Granted, I may be just a little over excited at watching my Red Sox win with youth. It’s been a joy watching Pedroia dig to China to preserve Clay’s no-no, seeing Brandon Moss disassemble the scoreboard on the Green Monster, and Jacoby Ellsbury make such a good catch he had to confirm with an umpire that it actually happened!

This also could be more of a subconscious reaction to the fact that all of these players are younger than me. And that from now on, everyone in this new generation of baseball players would have been born after me. I first made this discovery my senior year in college. That year I watched Chris Rix of Florida State flip over a lineman for a touchdown. The star quarterback was the first athlete I remember watching who was younger then me. It made me jealous. No less jealous am I to watch New York women use the image of David Wright as an aphrodisiac. This guy is my age and literally can choose any girl he wants, while playing the game I love, and getting paid to do so!

Many people reading this may have had these thoughts years ago, but think back to how that felt. You played in high school; you were good, but not good enough. You remained a fan and watched players younger than you emerge as stars. But the group before this one did so with controversy, they cheated. I am seeing my generation of stars bring the hustle back to the game. At first it is depressing, but with more thought, it is something to be proud of. I may not wait in line anymore for an autograph, and feel silly wearing a jersey of someone my younger brother’s age, but I have no problems rooting for these… (here I go)… “kids.”

Andrew Mendillo is a comedy writer and die hard Red Sox fan living in Brooklyn. While writing this opinionated piece, San Diego keeps it's playoff dreams alive throwing Greg Maddux up against LA's David Wells, and Frank Thomas hits a walk-off single to beat the Yankees...thus making Andrew feel stupid for writing about his feelings.

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