John Feinstein Blog: Baseball More Than A Sport, It’s A Companion
Every Friday morning I make an appearance on the local CBS radio station here in Washington on a very popular show called, ‘The Junkies.’
The hosts are four guys who grew up together here and have very successfully turned their love of sports into careers in broadcasting. All good guys. I enjoy doing the bit with them each week.
Last Friday my appearance began this way:
“So John, did you watch very much of the ‘Skins game last night?”
That, of course, was a reference to the opening exhibition game played last Thursday by Washington’s NFL football team—the one owned by, almost without argument, the worst person involved in American sports in any way, shape or form.
This is NOT going to be a rant against him or the racial-slur team nickname he is spending millions of dollars to try to defend.
Actually, this is about baseball.
My answer to the opening question Friday was this: “Fellas, the only time in the last 25 years I’ve watched exhibition football (and that’s what it is EXHIBITION football as opposed to the ‘pre-season,’ label the NFL slapped on it years ago) was in 2004 when I was working on my book on the Ravens.”
I had expected an opening question about the weather in Louisville, which is where I was to cover the PGA or perhaps about the Washington Nationals, who, in spite of their various struggles, are in first place in the National League East.
Nope. It was, “Did you watch very much of the ‘Skins?…”
The question was yet another reminder of how completely out of step I am in many ways with the rest of the American public when it comes to sports.
I enjoy football—a lot. I truly love college football, in spite of the completely corrupt nature of those who run it, and there’s no doubt the book I’m fondest of among those I’ve written is, ‘A Civil War,’—the book I wrote 18 years ago about the Army-Navy rivalry. The playing of the alma maters at the end of Army-Navy is just about the only occurrence in sports guaranteed to make me cry. (That and watching the Mets or Islanders play most nights)
I also enjoy the NFL. About the only time I don’t watch football on TV every Sunday in the fall is when I go to a game. I can tell you the final score of every Super Bowl and, in most cases, what the key moment in the game was. For the record the key moment in Super Bowl III was not Matt Snell’s touchdown. It was when my father walked into the room where I was watching and demanded I stop pacing up and down in front of the TV even though my pacing had been the key to the Jets building a 16-0 lead. When Johnny Unitas came off the bench and promptly drove the Colts the length of the field my dad said, “Go ahead and pace.”
I paced. The Jets won.
Anyone who knows me knows how much I love college basketball and golf—especially watching great golfers as opposed to hacking up a golf course myself. I still get teary-eyed whenever I walk into the Palestra. I can smell the pretzels sitting here on a summer morning in August and feel the cold Philadelphia wind on a January night. I hate cold weather. I love the Palestra on a winter night.
But there’s something about baseball—something I feel deep within me that no doubt dates to boyhood. I know this is generational, that kids today grow up more often with football memories than baseball memories. Growing up on the west side of Manhattan, I played every form of bat-and-ball one could find. My friends and I played baseball every day after school. If we didn’t have enough guys, we fungoed and had invisible baserunners if need be. We also played punchball in the schoolyard. One of my great thrills was reading Sandy Koufax’s autobiography and learning that he and his buddies also called a Spalding rubber ball a ‘Spal-deen,’ when they played punch ball. At PS 87 we played punchball, across the street at Junior High School 44 where the yard was bigger, we played stickball. There was also wallball if there wasn’t enough room for one of the other games.
I was the kid who rode the subway to every game possible; learned to keep score about the same time I learned to read and stuck my transistor radio (if you haven’t heard of it, google it) under my pillow when the Mets or Yankees were on the west coast. I was usually asleep by the fourth inning but occasionally made it to the sixth—which I thought was pretty cool. In those days west coast games started at 11 o’clock in the east. In today’s world, I might have made the seventh inning stretch on occasion.
My passion for the game has never ebbed. When I’m home on a summer night, I flip around the baseball package to watch games, but I usually end up (sigh) watching the Mets—in part because they’re still (sigh, again) my team but also because even when they are at their worst it’s worth listening to Gary Cohen, Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez.
There are different reasons why I stop on a certain game. If the Red Sox are playing in Fenway or the Cubs in Wrigley, I’m inclined to watch. If Clayton Kershaw is pitching, I’ll watch. If the game is late, I’ll DVR it so I can watch all or some of it the next day. I NEVER turn away from Vin Scully.
I read box scores every morning. I look at attendance figures. I note pitcher’s ERA’s as compared to their won-lost records. It bothers me that The Washington Post, the first newspaper I read in the morning, uses a shortened box score that doesn’t include RBI. Seriously?
Years ago, my ex-wife complained to me about how much baseball I watched, listened to or spent time reading (and writing) about. “The problem with baseball,” she said, “is that it’s ubiquitous.”
Exactly. From early March to late October it is there just about every day—the damn All-Star break being the exception to that rule. Baseball’s not like football where most of the week there’s nothing but talking heads breaking down games for the 15th time or a feature on the third-down running back. There’s actual competition; something new to watch, listen to, read about or talk about.
It doesn’t have the violence of football—except on occasion when I throw something at the TV set watching the Mets—and I know football fans want to talk about their sport 365 days a year. I get that.
But there’s still nothing better for me than spending time in a ballpark, keeping score and second-guessing the manager. My wife (second and last) points out to me that I always come home from a baseball game in a better mood than before the game. It’s one reason she lets me go.
It isn’t, as I said, that I’m not passionate about other sports. I DO throw things at the TV when the Islanders are playing too and I’ve been known to shake a fist when Rory McIlroy makes a key birdie. But baseball is more than a sport to me. It’s a companion.
It IS ubiquitous. I thank God for that.