True believers

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The best season of the year is finally here. Baseball season. Sure, it's only a game - but it’s a game that can be very serious business to the young people who play it.

I once was one of them, playing in the 1940s and 1950s on some of the many semi-professional teams that once were common in San Francisco, as in many other cities, as well as on teams in the Mendocino County, Southwestern Oregon and Western Canadian Leagues.

We were true believers, all of us. For there are no heretics on a baseball diamond. We accepted, without question, that the game must be governed by the mystical number of three and its multiples. Three strikes and you're out. Three outs per inning. Nine players per side. Nine innings per game. Sixty feet, six inches from pitcher's mound to home plate. Ninety feet between bases.

We knew, too, that there were foul lines within which we had to play, and that if we were hurt or weary, we had better stay in the game anyway. If we left, there was no returning. And we knew we had to do everything, to hit, to run and to field.

It was that way because there was no other possible way for it to be, the way it had been since the 1800s, when mustachioed men wearing dark suits and derby hats had laid down the rules.

The ball, for instance: It is ideally sized. At 5 to 5.25 ounces and 2.86 to 2.94 inches round, noted Roger Angell, baseball's poet laureate, the ball "is a perfect object for a man's hand," one that "instantly suggests its purpose. . . to be thrown a considerable distance - thrown hard and with precision . . . If it were a fraction of an inch larger or smaller, a few centigrams heavier or lighter, the game would be utterly different. . . Feel the ball, turn it over in your hand . . .You want to get outdoors and throw this spare and sensual object to somebody."

And that 90 feet between bases, as sportswriter Red Smith observed, "represents man's closest approach to perfection. The fastest man in the world hits a grounder to an infielder, who fields it cleanly.  The hitter must lose the race.  But if the ball is bobbled or slowed by the grass, he can win. That's perfect balance."

There were unquestioned patterns of behavior as well as rules to guide us. We invariably swung three bats round and round over our heads - Louisville Sluggers, naturally - as we waited our turn to hit, and glared threateningly at the pitcher as we stood in the batter's box pawing at the ground.

We glanced coolly down to the third base coaching box where coaches and managers ran their fingers over the bills of their caps, across the front of their uniform shirts, along the outside of their thighs, pinched their noses, scratched their ears, passing us secret orders we never dared challenge, telling us to hit, take a pitch, bunt.

In the field, we spat on the ground and into our gloves between pitches, rubbing the saliva deep into the leather of the pocket as we earnestly chattered, and chattered.
"Get him out, Mick . . . humbabe . . . you can do it . . . YOU CAN DO IT! Easyout! Easyout!

That's how the professionals did it, and we were certain, many of us, that our play was preparing us for professional careers.

Like apprentices in any other trade, we had to master a special vocabulary. If a pitcher was left handed, he was a "southpaw," of course. Men on base were "ducks on the pond." As a second baseman or shortstop, I was part of the "keystone combination."
Unfortunately, I was a "banjo hitter" as well, one of those batters who hit too many "Texas Leaguers" and easily caught "cans of corn," and had too many "K's" - strikeouts - charged against him.

We never asked how those terms came to be used, for the "why" of things didn't concern young ballplayers, only the "what."

We were careful never to step on the white foul line as we trotted on and off the field, although we did kick first or third base on the way by.  It was things like that which caused - or didn't cause - all the otherwise inexplicable happenings in baseball, a game in which the element of chance was as important as the precise rules we followed.

There was no other way to explain such things as why a ball hit to a particular spot in one inning would take a nice easy bounce into your waiting glove, but in the very next inning, a ball hit to the same spot would bounce up and over your glove.

That's why I ate a liverwurst sandwich on a roll - always liverwurst, always on a roll -- and washed it down with tomato juice - always tomato juice - before every game.  Boy, how I learned to hate liverwurst; but once I had followed such a lunch by getting four hits.  It had to be the liverwurst.

Standing out on the field we learned our importance. We were part of a team, sure, but each of us stood apart, alone.  Each of us had a unique role to fill if we were to be a team, for there were nine of us, and nine different positions.

When the ball was hit, only one of us would reach it, and that player would be the center of attention; everybody would be watching, the other players, the spectators.  What happened next in the game would be solely his doing. He was in control of his destiny and the destiny of those around him.

It was the same when your team was at bat, in that tense, electric moment before the ball was hit and attention shifted from batter to fielder. You stood alone at home plate waiting for the pitch, the entire team relying on what you would do.

There was no faking and no hiding. You did what you did in public. Your performance, your past, was never forgotten. It was etched forever in cold, hard statistics, facts that could never be challenged. Whatever you did would be compared to what others were doing, or had done, no matter when they had done it.

You were competing against players alive and dead, whose recorded performances would never die. Many of them were hitting or had hit .300 - and so should you. Many were playing or had played errorless games - and so should you.

And those umpires we argued with - the argument was just another part of the ritual of baseball.  We knew a pitch was not a strike or a ball because it crossed or didn't cross home plate at a point delineated in the rulebook. It was a strike or a ball because the umpire said it was a strike or a ball.  A base runner was not out because we tagged him before he reached the base.  He was out because the umpire said he was out.

We learned those things, and more.  But we, of course, thought we were only learning baseball.

Dick Meister, formerly labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor, politics and other matters for a half-century. You can contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 250 of his recent columns.