ST. LOUIS — As May descends towards June and MLB owners and players fight over the proper amount of money to start up baseball here in 2020, I wanted to strip away all the white noise about the game and talk about what makes it particularly great in the first place.
It's all the little things that consume our attention every night when the first pitch is thrown.
Now, I could sit here and list 20-25 things without a problem but since 10 is still a cool number to deal with, let's stick with that for this latest piece that should get you thinking about baseball and what it does for you.
It's true that you don't know what you have until it's been taken away, and baseball is a prime example. Right now, we should be arguing over Mike Shildt's lineup card and why Dexter Fowler is still in it. Instead, we wait. In no particular order, let's talk about it.
10) The sound the bat makes when it gets all of a pitch
It's a sweet and surreal sound, one that echoes across the stadium like a "you've got mail" notification. If your head was buried in your phone, it's now up and trying to find where that line drive landed.
This is a unique sound, one that owns its turf and stands apart from the other bat to ball effects, like when a pitcher gets all of a hitter's approach and breaks the lumber in half. The sweet spot of a bat, swinging across the plate at lightning speed, finding the ball on the right part of the seams, will never lose its luster.
9) The Yadier Molina Glare
Right before he sets himself and calls the pitch, the camera can often find Molina's eyes behind the mask glaring out at the field and back up at the hitter. A runner is on first base and warrants extra surveillance. It's almost like he's daring the batter to look down and steal a sign. It's intimidating no matter where the game is being watched. There's something about Molina's eyes that pierce through the camera and most likely, the opposition on first base. I can't get enough.
8) The smell of a stadium
Think of a perfect spring night. Your nose is catching the grass growing back after a mow and the flowers blooming nearby. The trees are waving around premature green leaves that will turn brown one day. The air brings in someone's barbecue pit, which just plated a few steaks on the heat. The motor from someone's car hits your face right as the kitchen door opens with your own dinner permeating. That's a ballpark to me. You smell the beer, food, and natural odors of the game coming at you all at once. Freshly cut grass healing, the dirt bouncing off the ground like energetic kids at a playground, and the grills and ovens across the field box firing up the first wave of food. I remember getting this whiff back at Busch 2.0 and not wanting to leave after the game. I never want to leave the game.
7) A runner stretching a double to a triple
A daring escape is how I would put it. The hitter has smashed the ball to the gap or into the corner. Extra bases have been shipped already. A lefty goes opposite field and the ball spirals into the corner and takes a weird bounce off the inside part of the wall. Since the play is in front of him, the hitter-turned-runner can realize the outfielder isn't going to corral this one easy, so he takes off for third base. But the outfielder has gotten control and fires a decent throw into the base, but the runner gets there just ahead of the tag. Time called, dirt stains abound, and the crowd is going nuts. Maybe it was the first hit in innings or an hour, or it could have simply been a nice hit. It's like a slow movie hits its stride and gets the audience back.
6) Reluctant curtain calls
Most hitters will simply hit the top step and salute the crowd without hesitation, because they understand it's taking in the appreciation being given to them. But some players have to be coerced. Guys like Paul Goldschmidt, selfless competitors who don't think what they did was a big deal. They don't see catching all of a pitcher's offering and launching it 420 feet into dead center is all that meaningful or instantaneously vital enough to acknowledge. But the dugout doesn't give him a choice, because the crowd is waiting feverishly. So Goldschmidt gets his helmet, finds the step, and gives the briefest of salutes. The crowd eats it up, admiring the attitude of the player while still living in the euphoria of that home run.
5) A pitcher shouting as he leaves the mound after a big strikeout
It could have been a 12 pitch at-bat. He threw the guy all of his pitches in multiple formats. He got a piece of one, fouled off another, almost struck out, and then watched three balls barely miss. It's not showing up the opponent but merely celebrating the one-on-one victory. After all, baseball starts off as a two person sport. Pitcher versus hitter, with the catcher waiting for the end result and the fielders on standby. Remember Chris Carpenter shouting after he closed out the inning with a strikeout? There was a part of you that figured he was secretly raging against drivers who couldn't merge properly, fruit on pizza, and the actual game he just help redirect to a safer destination. You pumped your fist and shouted too, waking up your child. One day, they will understand. What baseball can do to the soul.
4) "Deuces Wild!"
Mike Shannon has said it over a hundred times. Two on, two out, 2-2 count. Maybe the runners will just go with the pitch, thinking a double could plate two instead of one. The pitcher may be paying too much attention to the guy on second. Shannon continues, "He's got his sign and comes set. Checks the runner ... and here's the pitch." Foul ball. Do it again. Every time Shannon says, "deuces wild," the game tightens up and the moment intensifies. Suddenly, you have taken three turns, gotten off the highway, and have no idea where you are. Or you kept going on the highway, landing in Des Peres instead of Richmond Heights. Who cares? The only important thing comes next. "HE STRUCK HIM OUT!" Sweet action to the ears.
3) A tailor-made double play ball
Thankfully, the Cardinals have a pair of glove magicians up the middle in Paul DeJong and Kolten Wong, so it takes an act of true world disturbance for them to mess this up. The ball is hit just to the left of DeJong, and he scoops it up. Next is the dish to Wong at second. It can't be too hard or too far away from his chest, because there's a runner closing fast on the second baseman. It's perfectly thrown and without hesitating or worrying, Wong pivots and fires to Goldschmidt. Crisis averted. Inning over. They make it look too easy out there.
2) A game-changing catch
Harrison Bader may be inconsistent at the plate, but he's a highlight reel in the outfield. While his baseball card will tell you he plays center, the man covers left-center and right-center as well. In 2019, Marcell Ozuna and Fowler just figured if it's close, Bader will get it. The Cardinals are down 3-1, and can't afford to give up much more. Miles Mikolas has put a couple runners on, and the next pitch is launched to center field. A collective "uh-oh" takes over Busch. Bader races back, finds his footing, sets himself, and jumps towards the wall. Out #3. Inning over. Crowd goes nuts. People at home hurt their couches as they jump in the air. Pillows are thrown. Dogs and cats have collective panic attacks around the city. But what a catch.
1) A walk-off home run with a vicious bat flip and helmet toss
It's impossible to watch a game-winning home run just once at home. You rewind and soak it in over and over again. It could have been a long comeback or a final breaking of a tied up game. The hitter gets enough to pull it out of right field, just over the wall and out-stretched glove of the outfielder. It's not a sure thing at first, but the hitter is rounding first with ease. The game is over, but the memory has only begun.
I could go on but when you start to approach 1,500 words in a column that isn't investigative reporting, there's a need to pump the brakes. I am not sure if there will be baseball this year. That's just being honest. The human element, in safety and financial strains, could deter it. But if there are games, these are the things I will cherish the most upon their return.