In Baseball, the object is to go home, and to be safe. I hope I’ll be safe at home.
Baseball has two main elements that grip the fan. Like many other sports, it has great subtlety and it has individual heroism. Philip Roth
And baseball, well, it’s still just a game and beautiful and subtle. Maybe I’m just getting old…
Subtlety, a state I’d rarely be accused of occupying. Perhaps that’s why hockey frequently nudged out baseball for my childhood affection. Hockey appears about as unsubtle as you can get. It’s fast, fierce and blunt. Baseball is a patient game, one of strategy and contemplation. Hockey is not without it’s cerebral players, but fans tend to misread their contemplative efforts as lazy, slow and apathetic – even though they were in fact taking control of the game’s pace in order to map out the ice like a chess match.
Still, baseball requires patience, something I had no interest in possessing. Hockey was about on-the-fly gut instinct.
Yet, from the late 70s through much of the 1980s, I was more enamoured with baseball than with hockey. As the post-Dynasty Montreal Canadiens stumbled through one disappointing NHL season after another, the Montreal Expos were rising to the top of Major League Baseball.
At 14, I had an opportunity to see the Expos at their peak when I won a weekend trip to Montreal- through my job as a newspaper carrier for the Ottawa Citizen - to see two games against the Cubs at the Big O (Olympic stadium). That was also the weekend that introduced me to underage drinking and trashed hotel rooms.
The Expos were an exciting team with an assortment of oddball characters: Ellis Valentine (a potential superstar hampered by drug problems), Spaceman Bill Lee (who famously left a game in a huff and went to a bar in full uniform before returning late in the game), Tim Raines, ex-con Ron Leflore, Gary “The Kid” Carter, Andre Dawson, Steve Rogers, Dick Williams (who had a personality to suit his name), Rodney Scott etc.. This was a fun team that also happened to be the best in baseball.
I spent a good chunk of my summers as a teen wearing my Tim Raines jerseys and playing baseball with any neighbourhood kid I could find. During the evenings and weekends, I absorbed almost every Expos radio or TV broadcast. I collected cards. I tallied team and player stats in a notebook.
As the Expos continued to fall short of the playoffs every year (except 1981, when we had our hearts broken by that prick, Rick Monday), baseball (and hockey to a degree) drifted away from my life by the end of the eighties as girls, music and booze became more thrilling options.
I reluctantly followed the Blue Jays during their back-to-back championships, but my heart was more with the Expos whom I semi-casually followed t until their demise in 2004.
Hockey returned to the forefront for most of the 1990s and throughout the 2000s, but by 2010 or so I got tired of the sport and its business (strikes and lockouts seemed to be regular occurrences), boring players, and stifling playing systems. Hockey stopped being fun.
Baseball then came along and lit a spark again. This time it was courtesy of the San Francisco Giants. I’d been watching the playoffs with semi-regular devotion for years but something about these Giants lured me right back into the game. It probably started with Brian Wilson and his outlandish beard or maybe it was Tim Lincecum, the long-haired pot-smoking strikeout machine deemed “The Freak” or Aubrey Hoff, the thong wearing journeyman. The Giants reminded me a bit of the old Expos. Here was a roster of freaks, misfits, rejects and bearded buffoons playing “torture” baseball (as it was deemed by a radio broadcaster because of their tendency to escape with victories only in the last inning or at-bat.).
The Giants were a team of second chances.
Mostly though, the Giants were fun.
I missed fun.
A year earlier, my best friend unexpectedly had his last at bat. He loved baseball and often went to see Ottawa’s semi-pro teams’ play. He loved being outdoors and savoured the calming solitude that often accompanied a baseball game. The relaxed pace of the game afforded him space to clear his mind and just be.
His death was the start of a few losing seasons of curveballs, knucklers, nasty breaking balls and wild pitches that finally forced me out of the batter’s box.
Unlike my friend, I got a second chance.
When I stepped back into the box, the game had changed. Fewer wild swings looking for a game winning home run at every at-bat. There were other ways to round the bases now: bunts, sacrifices, singles, bloopers, doubles, triples, stolen bases and lots of errors. My game didn’t improve instantly. It doesn’t work like that. Change is slow, subtle, painful and reluctant. It’s frustrating and sometimes it’s even wrong. It takes many seasons and a lot of strikeouts and errors before you maybe realize that there are different ways to get home.
Given that literature has frequently celebrated the cerebral wonder of summer’s favourite game, I was inspired to dive into the annals of animation see what baseball wonders I might uncover. Animation and baseball are, as you will see, an odd couple. Animation – least the cartoon side of it – will rarely be confused with patience and subtlety. Almost every animation film I found depicts baseball as this wild and crazy kinetic sport. Not one of them touches on the serene side of the sport. That said, there are some gems to be found: Frog Baseball stands out for its honest – and loving? - depiction of brutal, cruel youth, Homer at the Bat for its gentle poke at baseball’s long intimacy with cheating, and Dock Ellis, well, that’s life.
The starting lineup
Felix Saves the Day (1922)
Oira no yakyu (Our Baseball Match) (1931)
The Ball Game (1932)
Porky’s Baseball Broadcast (1940)
How to Play Baseball (1942)
The Screwball (1943)
Batty Baseball (1944)
Casey at the Bat (1946)
Baseball Bugs (1946)
Casey Bats Again (1954)
Roger Ramjet – Baseball (1965)
Homer at the Bat (1992)
Frog Baseball (1992)
Dock Ellis and the LSD No-No (2009)