When I was 9 years old, I truly sucked at baseball. In the summer of 1977, I had one base hit, all season.
That one base hit was a good one, though, and I’ll tell you about it in a minute. It rounds the bases in the memory diamond of my brain every time April rolls around and baseball season gets started.
Youth baseball in the town I grew up in was kind of messed up back in those days. You had a couple years of T-ball, a couple years of underhand slow-pitch ball, and then when you were 9 years old, you were playing fast pitch — and you were playing against kids who were 10, 11 and 12.
I mean, that’s really messed up. When you’re 9, 12-year-olds were pretty much men to you, and really intimidating. Our starting first baseman had a mustache, our center fielder had already spent a couple years in juvie for drug trafficking, and I’m pretty sure our relief pitcher worked the night shift at the local machine shop driving a forklift. Our shortstop played bass for Springsteen whenever Bruce went on tour.
It was a rough town.
I was scared of most of these kids, and that’s my excuse for sucking at baseball when I was 9, although there were other kids my age who were good enough to compete with the older kids. I just wasn’t.
In the field, I was a disaster waiting to happen. At the plate, I was able to take a few walks, and reached base a couple times on errors, because there were plenty of other disasters in the field like me. Usually, though, I struck out. Occasionally I made contact and popped out to an infielder.
Then there was the base hit. When you only have one, you remember it.
There were two outs and the bases were loaded, in a middle inning and my team was down one run. As I nervously started to walk up to the plate, one of my teammates — a 12-year-old who had been bullying me for years — grabbed me and looked me in the eyes and said the only encouraging thing he ever said to me.
“Dig in there and get a hit, Grob,” he said. “I know you can do it, you do it in practice all the time.”
I was terrified of this kid at the time, but I laugh about it now, because in six years I would be 6 inches taller than him and outweigh him by 100 pounds, and after picking on me every day throughout grade school, ever since he’s realized I became that much bigger than him, he’s somehow managed to completely avoid me for over 35 years.
I think he knows what’s coming to him.
Anyway, he told me to dig in and get a hit, so I did. On the first pitch, I ripped a line drive to right-center and knocked in two runs, and our team won the game, and I was rewarded with a lot of slaps on the back and head rubs from the big kids.
And moments like that are what make baseball truly America’s game. It’s a game where individual achievement is measured and rewarded, but the success of the team is the most important thing. You might hate your teammates, you might be scared to death of them, but you support each other for the good of the team.
There’s a famous monologue in the great movie “Field of Dreams” by the character played by James Earl Jones that sums it up better than I can.
“… The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again. …”
So when it comes to Major League Baseball pulling the annual All-Star game out of Atlanta, due to Georgia’s voter suppression “can’t give people a drink of water law,” I totally understand that it’s upsetting to people when professional sports applies punitive political pressure to state governments via the threat of economic damage. I can see how it just doesn’t seem right.
This is not a new thing, though — the only reason Atlanta even has a pro baseball team is because in 1965, the city was forced to agree to allow black people to sit with the white folks in Fulton County Stadium, as a condition for the Milwaukee Braves to move there.
Atlanta was told, if you want a team — and all the money that comes with a team —you’re gonna have to integrate. We don’t care how powerful and influential your segregationist senators think they are.
Dig in there, Atlanta, and get a hit. We know you can do it.
And Atlanta said, “Never, Never, Never — well, OK, we’d like the cash.”
When you can’t persuade people with moral or ethical reasoning, you persuade them by threatening the fatness of their wallets. It’s not “cancel culture,” it’s just culture — in a capitalist society.
It’s what baseball and America are both all about.
We’re all in it for ourselves, sure, but we’re also in it for the team.