September 11, 2007

Bennett Envisions a Career in Vintage Baseball

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If I were good at baseball (6-0, 185 pounds instead of 5-10, 160, and far more coordinated), I would be a second baseman, not a corner outfielder. I would bat second — leadoff when the leadoff man was injured or getting a day off, not ninth because my coach told me he needed me to bat “second leadoff.” When I got my first September call-up in the Bigs, I would bat eighth because I am a line drive and seeing eye singles hitter. I would hit the ball to the opposite field not because I couldn’t catch up to the pitch but because I would be trying to move the runner over. Pitchers wouldn’t throw over repeatedly to first to hold me on, but they would be aware of me because I would have a reputation for being a sneaky base-stealer, and favoring the hit and run (not because I was known for diving back to the bag and coming up short).
I would always take the first pitch and lead the league in pitches per plate appearance, and not just because I was praying for the pitcher to walk me before I struck out looking.
After I retired, I would eventually work my way up to managing a small market club. I would bench players for not running hard out of the box, but would rarely raise my voice or criticize in an unconstructive fashion.
When I became eligible for the Hall of Fame, I would get two votes from the beat writers who covered the club I had played for my whole career. They would vote for me out of respect and because they considered me a friend, not because I was a serious candidate.
So, what does it say about me that in my wildest fantasies I’m a decent ballplayer with a skill set that is largely not desired any more? Besides highlighting my severe inferiority complex, it just makes me realize how much I sometimes long for the days of fundamentals, small ball, team loyalty and fun nicknames (Enos “Country” Slaughter, “Toothpick” Sam Jones). And while I’m sure it wasn’t all nicknames and stoop ball (how Sandy Koufax got his start), it just seems like such an ideal time to me — a time I would fit into well.
Well, as the old cliché goes, history may be repeating itself. There is a Vintage Base Ball Federation (yes, baseball used to be two words) that is gaining prominence around the country. With 225 teams in 32 states, the league plays baseball with some amalgamation of the ever-changing rules from 1860-1900. We’re talking about gloves that are closer to the one that didn’t fit so you must acquit than the butterfly net gloves of today. We’re talking about pillbox hats, six balls for a walk, quick pitches, the hidden ball trick, a pitcher’s box instead of mound and umpires smoking cigars — part theater, part competition, part history.
I would be perfect for this league. The slightly deader, heavier and wider ball stitched in a “lemon peel” style (four triangles as opposed to two peanut-shaped pieces) and heavier, wide-handled bats increase the prominence of bunting, hit-and-runs, suicide squeezes. Gone is the flashy infield play of diving stops and cannon throws from your knees in the hole at short. Instead, infield play is more of the catch-and-flip variety.
“In today’s game, people expect every play to be made and get upset when there is an error,” said Ball Four author Jim Bouton, who is the commissioner of the VBBF. “In Vintage Base Ball, nobody expects a play to be made and everybody is thrilled when it happens.”
Besides this league sounding like a way to boost my self-esteem, I think I would also enjoy Bouton’s insistence that the game should not only include rules of the era, but the characteristics of the era (somewhat ironic because he was kind of the egotistical, stubborn Jose Canseco of his time by releasing Ball Four, which was a diary from a season during his playing days). This means that in addition to fun 19th century rules like a batter (or striker if we want to be authentic) being out if a ball is caught on one bounce, or the striker getting to request a low or high strike zone as he approaches the line (batter’s box), part of the rules force you to follow the more gentlemanly aspect of the game as it was in its first incarnation. Handshaking is the only allowed celebration, spitting is not allowed, the umpire must be addressed as “sir” and a joyous round of “Huzzah!” is usually given to the fans and the opposing team after the ball game (Tobias from Arrested Development would be so proud). No more primadonnas.
Best of all, though, baseball was played in the late 1800s with one umpire (or blind Tom) who stood behind the pitcher (bowler or feeder). Often the ump — usually predisposed with a cigar — would be blocked from the play and could not make a call. In this case, one of the captains can request a “Gentleman’s Ruling.” According to the bylaws of the Vintage Base Ball Federation, “Only players involved in the play must truthfully relate what transpired and a call can be reversed.” If that doesn’t work, the ump can appeal to the fans in what is called a “Crank Call” (the antiquated term for fans). Can you imagine that today? “A-Rod, you swear you didn’t slap at Bronson Arroyo’s arm when he came to tag you out?” It would be chaos. Appealing to the fans? I’m sure White Sox fans would be forgiving to overturn a call that went against the Cubs.
I think I could handle it, though. My basketball coach in high school yanked me from a game when I raised my hand after the whistle blew because I thought I fouled the ball-handler. The ref was beginning to make the signal for offensive foul, but changed his mind when he saw my eager hand fly into the air faster than Hermione’s would in a Hogwarts’ classroom (did I just make a Harry Potter reference?).
The theater goes beyond on field conduct, though. If you had shown up to the recent VBBF World Series in Western Massachusetts, you would have been greeted by children hawking programs in outfits suited for Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol. Inside, you would have seen men dressed as Keystone cops patrol the aisles looking for the gamblers in bowlers and vests who dart around the stadium trying to convince the players to throw the game. A couple of women scattered throughout the stadium were held up signs declaring their right to vote, while Bouton himself announced each batter through a giant cone that P.T. Barnum would have been proud of.
Best of all, though, you would have heard all the early-era jargon and nicknames that each player is required to have. If I were to describe myself as a vintage base ball player, I would be a muffin with lots of ginger that hit mostly daisy cutters and banjo hits. That’s a player who is used as a last resort but is excitable and has lots of dedication, but hits mostly ground balls and weak fly balls. I would cheer on my teammates on the base paths by telling them to stir their stumps, and encourage my pitcher to blind the other team in the current frame.
While I probably don’t have the time to start a vintage base ball team right now, with Bouton’s plan to build a $15 million dollar 19th century replica stadium in Westfield, Calif., it doesn’t look like the VBBF is going anywhere for now. Once I gather my eclectic band of 18 misfits though, I’ll only need $360 from each person (chump change be­cause of my lucrative jour­nalism career) to get the team going. The league limits the number of former minor leaguers to three per team, but I currently know none. So, if you know of any who will be looking to blow some time and money five years from now, send them my info. Until then, “Huzzah!”
A retraction:
In my column last week, I inaccurately portrayed a friend of mine who I grew up with. In the column, I put words in his mouth that he did not accurately represent his opinions or feelings. For this, I apologize sincerely.
Chicago mention:
The Bears’ defense held LaDanian Tomlinson to 25 yards on 17 carries, the second worst rushing day of his career. It’s even crazier when you realize 10 of those yards came on one carry.