En Route: Departure, Arrival and the Baseball Space Between

On a trip across the pond, Giancarlo Stanton was one of several surprisingly familiar sights from home. (via Arturo Pardavila III)

Down on planet Earth, some 40,000 feet below my west-moving window, the icy water off southern Greenland is nearly a mirror of the sky I fly through, all white clusters and blue swirls drawn out by blazing sunlight. The date is April 12, 2018. The time: nearly 9 a.m. in Texas and 3 p.m. in London. At the speed of 514 mph, which is considerably faster than Statcast’s most bodacious home run, I am making my return to the land of the Pastime following a fortnight in the land of googlies and grubbers, of leggies and lollies: the land of cousin cricket, jolly old England.

I must write it now, early in the tale yet late in the trip, even as the pack ice south of Qaqortoq turns the whorls of cerulean water into history’s most glacial reminder of spring: A baseball writer in London, sans assignment, is no baseball writer at all.

I saw it coming, of course.

As our Norwegian Air Dreamliner lifted off at 5:15 p.m. Central Standard Time on March 31, I took one last look at my iPhone and knew the end — rather, the interruption — had arrived. The score read 8-2, and there it remained, stuck in midair, as we made our way out of cell reception and into the thin white clouds above the vast green fields east of Austin. At that instant I grabbed a pen and opened the blank pages at the back of the book I had packed for vacation, The Sherlock Holmes Mysteries. Elementary, my dear Tony Watson: I would be without baseball.

“Nine hours from this moment will deliver the first sign — be it the bunt sign, the fastball sign or the Citgo sign at Fenway — of the good old American Pastime,” I scribbled. But I was wrong about that. Baseball, I’d learn, has a way of traveling through space to find a guy’s field of vision, even when he isn’t looking for it.

Stymied, I turned off the phone and stared at the world passing west as we headed east toward England. The green fields glimmered like outfield grass and brought to mind the sandlot. Yep, some 20,000 feet below the Dreamliner, farmland conjured up barefoot kids in 19-century overalls playing catch with a hand-me-down ball.

The game had begun in a dream, I imagined. It had turned real in the fields.

From the Dreamliner I stared through space. My window framed what I saw. A road became a baseline, a tawny farm plot the mound. In moments the gauzy white clouds became a cumulus roof, and aside from the sad meditation that we had flown above Tropicana Field and its Teflon dome, a make-believe ballfield was gone from sight.

***

At 1:30 a.m. on April 2, a cold rain fell outside the window of our Notting Hill flat. Jet-lagged into oblivion, I had gone to sleep at 4 p.m., about eight hours after arrival at Gatwick Airport, and risen at 10 p.m. Now, upon finishing a story in the Holmes mysteries, I turned on the television — rather, the telly.

Channel surfing, or whatever the Brits call it, I saw no baseball: no ESPN, no MLB Network. So I clicked on channel 706, featuring BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra, and listened to an interview conducted during a break in a game — rather, a “test” — between cricket teams from England and New Zealand.

“I’d love to bat one more time for England,” said the appropriately accented interviewee, apparently retired from the sport, in the broadcast from Kiwiland.

“Well,” replied the similarly accented interviewer, “if you had the opportunity to bat one more time for England, how would you want it to go?”

The man answered quickly, as if he’d considered it long before the inquiry.

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“I want to feel the ball hit the middle of the bat…”

Boy, howdy!

“…and go to the farthest boundary.”

Indeed.

A revolution had separated our accents and ballgames, but the U.S. and the U.K. still shared the basics of both the language and the old bat-and-ball sports. We might discuss our different games in different terms, but yeah, we could all catch on.

Sipping coffee as the rain came down, I thought longer about his words: “I want to feel the ball hit the middle of the bat and go to the farthest boundary.”

But for the prepositional phrase, it might have been uttered by any player in the history of the American Pastime, any batter who’d felt the perfection of solid contact and wanted to feel it again. The sensation of a ball striking the sweet spot, no matter the shape of the bat, is one that goes beyond borders to claim the allegiance of our sensory neurons and episodic memories, each a feature that evolution has supplied to the experience we have in common, regardless of the flag under which our games take place. As for the “farthest boundary,” well … that is to be gone beyond.

***

Upon disembarking at Gatwick, I had glanced through a window to see a Dreamliner whose tail was adorned with an image of Babe Ruth, “American Athlete.”

Baseball had traveled.

In fact, even before my Bambino sighting, I had spent the past eight hours watching three movies, all chosen at random and each featuring a shout-out to baseball. In Wonder, the 10-year-old protagonist boasts a Mets sticker on his school locker.

In Murder on the Orient Express, Edward Ratchett meets Hercule Poirot in the dining car and, over coffee, says to the well-known detective, “I’ve never sat so close to fame before. No, I tell a lie. I was on a bus with Ty Cobb.”

In Interstellar, fans attend a game at what looks like a Little League field. When the camera shifts from the grandstands to the field, we notice that the players are grown men in familiar pinstriped uniforms. The camera then pans to the outfield fence, where a sign reads: Welcome The World Famous New York Yankees. Alas, in this dystopian future, even the Yankees draw puny crowds.

So there it was: In the first movie, the Mets logo is a simple reminder of childhood loyalty, the kind that comes unquestioned — like a devotion to good old Santa — but that soon outstrips our innocence to become a lifelong obsession. Still, no matter how manic our behavior becomes, the obsession is rooted in incorruptible youth.

The kid will always love the Mets, even when he grows to hate them.

In the second movie, Ratchett’s mention of Ty Cobb is both a nod to our sepia-toned nostalgia and an acknowledgment that baseball, referenced here on a European train, has become a distinctly American sport. When Ratchett mentions the Georgia Peach to Poirot, the worldly detective is for once mystified.

“Ballplayer, Detroit,” adds Ratchett, cluing in the sleuth.

In the third movie, a dystopian dustbowl has somehow made space for baseball. So, says Interstellar, even the bleakest future in the dreariest America must still include the Pastime. Otherwise, it is no future at all.

And anyway, without baseball, how on Earth could we call it America?

***

At 5 p.m. Tuesday, April 3, I strolled the elevated walkway of the famed Tower Bridge. Some 42 meters — sorry, metres — below, the River Thames dawdled toward the North Sea. Along the walls stood a display of the world’s great bridges, among them the Brooklyn Bridge. Listed with the Interesting Facts was this item: “A quintessential American icon; appears on baseball programmes and stamps.”

Even with an alternate spelling, the factoid recognized the storied nature of cricket’s American cousin. What other sport, after all, would have worked itself so seamlessly into a trio of movies on a U.S.-U.K. flight? Indeed, does Ratchett reference Hunk Anderson, starting guard for the 1923 Chicago Bears? Do fans attend a game inside a dystopian gym, there to hear the nostalgic sounds of sneakers on a hardwood floor? Does the 10-year-old boy slap a sticker of the New York Red Bulls on his locker?

No, the characters each touch on baseball — not football, not basketball, not soccer — because to touch on baseball is travel back to the grass and soil. It is to go beyond the contemporary psyche of Uncle Sam and his Monday Night Football minions and into a deeper ethos, one that recognizes with quiet confidence that no matter how popular the NFL and its “brand” become, no matter how fashionable the NBA and its “marketable stars” have gotten, baseball is the sport that has told our stories.

On the Tower Bridge, a historian might have wondered if one of those “baseball programmes” had referenced the alternate logo of the 1947 Dodgers, the team that featured the barrier-busting Jackie Robinson. Though rarely seen, that logo boasted an image of the Brooklyn Bridge, and a bridge is always more than physical.

Tower Bridge itself had connected to a visual history that began in a 1744 British publication titled A Little Pretty Pocket-Book. In its pages are a rhymed description of “base-ball” and a woodcut depicting a triangular playing field with posts serving as bases. Not only had humans played baseball in ye olde U.K., they had done so more than three decades before American independence. Still, the game had gone across the Pond pretty doggone quickly, and the story that followed had never lost its place.

***

Greenland, by name, is a lie. The land is little but a reflection of the visible wavelength and a rejection of all other color. In it dishonesty, though, Greenland is a guide to the truth: In a place where it won’t be found, green is what springs to mind.

***

On Wednesday, April 4, I stood outside Center Court — sorry, Centre Court — at Wimbledon and gazed at the ivy on its walls. Dormant, it seemed reminiscent of the vines at Wrigley Field just before the bloom. Inside, the court lay gleaming like only grass can, when it’s waiting in abeyance for athletes to find their footing. It brought to focus Arizona and Florida: green, pristine and ready for the first of the bounces.

Later, at the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum, I studied a display about the evolution of tennis. “Lawn tennis wasn’t the first sport to have seen folks trying desperately to bat a flying object,” the narrator said in my earphones.

Indeed, just as baseball had evolved from rounders — and perhaps from stoolball and tut-ball and, most likely, parallel to cricket — so had lawn tennis come from jeu de paume, rackets, badminton and a sport called battledore and shuttlecock. Humans had been trying to whack things for ages, and in a variety of settings.

Behind glass stood an illustration of an early racket game, played by a dapper gent and a well-dressed lady inside an elegant parlor. As art, it compared to the famed Currier & Ives print whose legend reads, “The American National Game of Baseball. Grand match for the championship at the Elysian Fields, Hoboken, N.J.,” which features an early umpire dressed in formal attire, spectators wearing top hats and a pitcher throwing underhand. The similarities go in both directions.

During the first Wimbledon tournament, in 1877, men’s champion Spencer Gore served underhand. These days, American tennis player John Isner serves overhand, shall we say, at 157 mph, just as Aroldis Chapman throws overhand, at 105.

Things change. Still, they trace back to common stock.

Two days hence, in the Theater District — sorry, Theatre District — I came upon a lane of galleries and shops. One featured illustrated prints of Victorian Era cricketers, men who played the game before, during and after major league baseball had its debut in 1871. One illustration, made for the 1849 Oxfordshire Cricket Club, featured a dandy gent in a fine ladies hat — or so it appeared. Another featured a cricketer wearing what resembled a baseball cap.

A second shop displayed cigarette cards of “The World’s Best Cricketers.” On one, cricketer J.M. Taylor leaned on his bat as if idly playing croquet. On another, A.W. Carr completed a follow-through so fluid and powerful that it compared favorably to that of any baseball slugger.

After leaving the Theatre District, I made my way past the Tower of London. There, beyond the moat and outer walls, a British father asked his young son to pose for a picture while pretending to hold a sword. The boy did as requested, raising both hands high above his right shoulder.

“No,” his dad giggled, “you look like an American baseball player!”

***

On my penultimate day in London, and for the first time since my departure from the States, I at last laid eyes on an actual baseball player. He was no mere hint of a baseball player, of the kind I had seen wearing Dodgers caps and Red Sox caps and particularly Yankees caps throughout my London fortnight, and no mere intimation of baseball, of the kind I’d both conjured and had impressed upon me.

My visit to Kensington Palace, you see, had called to mind Frederick, the Prince of Wales, a Palace resident who in 1749 played in the first recorded game of “base-ball.” My visit to Wimbledon had brought to my attention a 19th-century racket “held together with hand-made nails,” reminiscent of the fact that early American baseball players handcrafted their own bats. My visit to the National Gallery had put me in sight of Hendrick Avercamp’s circa-1615 painting A Scene on the Ice near a Town, in which an on-ice game of kolf — an early form of golf — gives assurance that even in northernmost climes, people have felt the need to whack a ball with a stick.

Giancarlo Stanton, the most bona fide Yankee I had seen thus far, certainly felt the need to whack a ball with a stick, but as I gazed at his image from the sidewalk outside Bodean’s BBQ in Covent Garden, I realized with quite some clarity that he was hardly achieving his aim. Peering through the window at the big-screen TV, I watched as Stanton whiffed on one swing after another, all the while realizing that if he could have crafted his own bat, it might have been three feet in circumference.

Stopped in my steps, I watched as the scene shifted to the studio, where, by appearances, the hosts were discussing Stanton’s apparent strikeout issue. Whatever the issue, I remained less than astonished that a Yankee had served as the first baseball player I’d seen, even at a place that clearly catered to, you know, Yankees.

Moments hence, I continued through Covent Garden, in step with people speaking languages other than English and with accents other than Yankee, until I came upon another unexpected restaurant, Frankie & Benny’s New York Diner and Deli. Inside the doorway, its walls were lined with photos of the 1950s Yankees. I gazed at the images. I took pictures of pictures. The Yankees, it seemed, were calling me home.

***

Leaving Greenland, the Dreamliner is cruising above the Labrador Sea en route to North America. Somewhere south of our flight path, steamships from Great Britain would have delivered many of baseball’s pioneering players from the old country to the new, plying the waters of the North Atlantic en route to Ellis Island.

In time we mount the edge of North America at the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada’s easternmost province. Precisely 37,999 feet below the Dreamliner lies a land whose whiteness refuses to budge, the stubborn ice clinging fiercely to an arctic expression of winter despite our 544 mph airspeed. In minutes, though, a vast white valley gives way to forested slopes. Rising boldly through the whiteness, the trees announce not spring’s arrival but our arrival to spring.

Baseball, at 544 mph, is approaching.

Meeting the game more slowly were Harry Wright and his brothers George and Sam. Having crossed the Pond in childhood, the British immigrants followed in the steps of their cricket-playing father by executing googlies and grubbers on the fields of New York and New Jersey in the mid-19th century. One day, while coaching brother George in cricket at Elysian Fields, in Hoboken, N.J., Harry glanced at an adjacent field and saw his first game of baseball. Smitten, he went on to become the adopted father of the game, essentially creating a number of baseball innovations: spring training, the farm system and strategic roster construction, a contemporary favorite.

A bloke from the U.K., in other words, made the baseball we know today.

***

At 11:10 a.m. Central Standard Time, the Dreamliner passes into American airspace above Lake Michigan. In minutes, a gap arrives to whisk the sunlight through a shelf of white clouds and down to the water beside Milwaukee. Gazing out my window, I wait for light to fill the frame with what I want to see: green grass, a tawny mound and white lines to the outfield walls.

Unable to find the Brewers’ home, I gaze at earth between Miller Park and Wrigley Field. In time we pass above Rockford, Ill., a town described by The New York Times in the 1860s as “the cradle of the great American sport in the West.” There, from 1868 to 1870, future sporting goods magnate Al Spalding starred for the Forest Citys before Harry Wright signed him to play for the Boston Red Stockings in the inaugural season of the National Association, known today as the first major league.

Three years later, Wright led Spalding and the Stockings on a trip to England to spawn interest in baseball by playing exhibition games against English cricket teams. Brits cared little for the game, however, and the effort failed. The financial hit was catastrophic. Nearly insolvent, the National Association folded in 1875. The National League was now the league, just as the national game was now baseball. Proof came in 1943, when the Rockford Peaches became a founding member of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Nearly 40,000 feet below my window, the Peaches eased the fear that baseball would fade while the Allies fought the war.

We move south, swiftly, above the birthplace of Ward Miller, a teammate of Honus Wagner on the Pirates and of Three Fingers Brown on the Terriers, and the birthplace of Ronald Reagan, who began his career by using wire reports to create the play-by-play call for Cubs games. Below us next are the birthplaces of El Tappe, Al Demaree, Robin Roberts, Arthur Sunday and Old Hoss Twineham, boys who played ball in the Midwest fields. In time we cruise above the Missouri River, beside which the land has turned from winter brown to springtime green. We are getting warmer. Arriving next is Oklahoma. Down below, near McAlester, the mines turned Mickey Mantle into a man. Slumping, he said to his dad, Mutt, “I don’t think I can play baseball anymore.” Replied Mutt, “You can work in the mines with me.”

The rest is Yankee history, of both kinds.

The Texas border comes next. Below is Paris, where, for the 1913 and 1914 Boosters of the Class D Texas-Oklahoma League, Dickie Kerr posted a combined record of 41-15 before moving to the majors and notching a 21-win season for the White Sox. Years later, as a coach, Kerr advised an injured minor league pitcher named Stan Musial to forget the mound and focus on the bat, advice The Man accepted.

Next is Dallas, where Mantle is buried, and Waxahachie, where Paul Richards was born. After his playing career ended, Richards served as a big league manager and mentored 16 players who themselves would become managers. After Waxahachie is McGregor, birthplace and burial place of Sarge Connally. Between birth and burial, Connally yielded a walk-off grand slam to Babe Ruth, he of Norwegian Air. Next, Waco calls up Jimmy Zinn. After pitching for the 1916-1919 Waco Navigators, the righty made his first big league start in the first game of a September 1919 doubleheader for the Athletics. His opponent: Walter Johnson. Zinn didn’t win.

Winning seven games for the 1947 Waco Dons, however, was Monty Stratton. A decade earlier, he had lost a leg in a hunting accident. After Waco, he pitched three more seasons, on a prosthetic leg, in Texas towns ranging from Vernon up north to Brownsville down south. By whatever means, you reckon, he had to have the game.

In time, on approach, the Dreamliner descends through the clouds and into the light, where a ballfield comes into view. Through my window its grass is green.

Storyline behind me, I have made it home.


John Paschal is a regular contributor to The Hardball Times and The Hardball Times Baseball Annual.
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Paul G.
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Paul G.

*applause*

Am I the only one that stopped reading to look up “Qaqortoq?”

kenai kings
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kenai kings
“… baseball is the sport that has told our stories.”. Well said! For many years I have ponder my fascination with baseball. I was a ‘no bat’ catcher for two years in grade school. I thumbed my nose at baseball to play Lacrosse in high school. Only beer and softball could bring me back to imagining diving catches in the outfield and long Hr’s off my bat. In my later years now it has become clear to me… baseball is a reference point we all share . So in that way, baseball need not be the subject but it serves… Read more »