These last few winters, the story has been pretty much the same. The Baltimore Orioles need an outfielder. Preferably two, but at the very least one.
And, every January, Orioles management scoops up a still-available outfielder at a bargain price. The Orioles get the guy for a year, he has a great season – greater than anyone could have imagined – and then “poof” he’s gone the next season, to a far richer, more generous team.
This brings me, in the most meandering way, to the brief career and life of Len Sowders.
Sowders played just one season in the majors — 1886. He was a Baltimore Oriole.
He was an outfielder (who moonlighted some at first). A so-so fielder. A left-handed batter with a .263 average from his handful of at-bats in Baltimore. Not a lot of power, but still, .263 isn’t the worst you can do.
That puts him right around current O’s centerfielder Adam Jones’s .265 last season and Mark Trumbo’s .256, the Orioles’s one-season outfielder whose 47 home runs led all of baseball last year and who is now a free agent looking for much more money than the Orioles will offer.
Back in 1886, Sowders was picked up by Baltimore late in the season from a minor league club in Nashville. Before Nashville, he’d played in Evansville, where he was also known for running a local fish business and for making loans with interest (fitting, I guess, that a man in the fish business was also a loan shark). He was, one newspaper assured readers, a good player and a strict church-goer.
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid. ~ Robert Frost
Baseball is a team sport oddly suited for solitude and introverts. To watch, immersed, the pitcher and the batter, standing alone in their places, like those people crowded on the morning subway, absorbed in their alone-ness while standing hip close in a can filled with people.
Like those people who sit alone at the end of the bar staring into ice.
Like those people in church who come early and kneel and hold their rosary more tightly than it needs and you think, “Boy, there must be some stories in those sins.”
The pitcher and the batter, interrupted only by the occasional sign from the catcher or the intrusion of the umpire.
The lonely outfielders, way out in their grass, staring into the game, just like I do off in the bleachers.
Because to immerse yourself in the game as a fan, day after night after day, is an introversion, too.
So, when you step out of baseball, when there are no more games, when the players disappear into the fog of that last out to go where sleepy players go when they’re not there on the grass, when you only have the memory of those one or two great plays from the thousands that you have seen, you’re a little like a bear, I think, crawling out of winter torpor or waking up after a night’s storm.
You step out into the sunlight, squint, and look around and see what the world has been doing while you’ve been baseballing.
And, you think, “Shit.”
Because the world seems mean and angry and evil. And, nothing and everything has changed from when you left, when you slipped inside that first game of the spring.
Some of my friends wonder how I can love baseball.
How can I not?
When I saw my first game, I was older, in my 20s. And, our seats were up high in Baltimore’s old Memorial Stadium. And, we wound our way up through those concrete halls and stepped out into the night, where the lights were bright though the sky was not yet dark, and the grass on that wide field was greener than any other grass in the world, and the diamond so carefully cut in straight and even lines, and there were people playing and tossing a ball, and I have only one memory of that first game, looking at all of that before me and thinking, “I’m home.”
How can I not love baseball?
Because this world seems a scary, ugly place. And, is it wrong to want to look away sometimes?
Not to feed the dark impulse to close one’s eyes completely. But, just to seek a second of solitude. So as not to be guided by fear or the misdirection or broad brush of anger.
The game is a rest station. Something like a star.
“The world’s series turned over and gave its last gasp yesterday. …This morning will see all the players except home-breds on their way back home or headed for the great open spaces where the streams abound with fish and woods are full of game.” The New York Times, October 18, 1923
I wonder what Mike Trout is doing right now?
How strange to have your free days all bundled together into a handful of weeks in the chill of fall and winter. I spend my free time following baseball. Mike Trout doesn’t.
It’s been one week without baseball.
It’s estimated that 800,000 people turned out in Kansas City on Tuesday to greet the World Series champion Royals along the parade route – that’s nearly half the city’s population. Businesses and schools closed, while bars along the parade route opened at 8:30 a.m.
That’s righteous support, Royals fans! You have made baseball feel magical and important again. Take that, Super Bowl.
So, how to spend these winter-ish days? They are, to the casual observer, baseball-less, but, to those who know better, they are filled with games in Arizona and the Caribbean and Australia.
There’s the intrigue of the “hot stove” where owners toss money and players around like Secret Santa gifts, and where I, as is tradition, wonder how I ended up loving cheapskates like the Orioles. There’s a candy cane stuck in my stocking, while everyone else gets coffee gift cards, imported chocolates, and Zack Greinke.
For most players the off-season is already a month old, and these first weeks are spent hunting and fishing, getting married, and having surgeries to knit up season-old injuries.
Public Domain via Library of Congress
In 1904, Cy Young advised: “Take things comparatively easy during the off season. … Light farm work in the off season has helped me. It is healthier than life in the big city.”
I’m all for taking things comparatively easy, but, any farmer will tell you, “light” farm work is always more strenuous, complicated, and exhausting than you planned on. And, I’m pretty sure that “light farm work” in 1904 meant 14 hours of labor, a hunk of bread for lunch, and trying not to lose your hand in the thresher.
In 1909, the “Old Fox” Clark Griffith, managing the Cincinnati Reds at the time, stopped his players from playing baseball in the off-season. “Playing ball in the winter ruins a man for his best work in the good old summer time,” he told The Washington Post. “Baseball is a sport which taxes the nerves as well as the muscles, and a man is sure to go stale unless he has plenty of time to recuperate.”
Public Domain via Library of Congress
Clark Griffith Reminds You To Take It Easy … Get Some Rest.
This didn’t stop other players from making a buck by joining barnstorming teams that traveled the country or headed to Cuba or played in indoor leagues.
During the 1980s, the Royals’ wall-climbing outfielder Bo Jackson would spend his off-season as a running-back with the LA Raiders. He called football his “hobby.”
Bo Knows …
Cy Young pitched for 21 seasons; won 511 games, the most in baseball history; and threw three no-hitters, including one perfect game.
So, maybe he’s right. About the taking it easy part, not the light farm work.
Maybe fans need time to recuperate, too.
The only light farm work I will be doing is taking the garden gnomes in for the winter.
But, there are books to read, cats that need feeding, and rooms that need dusting. I’m sure there is other stuff as well. And, if you give me a couple days, I will surely come up with something.
To Do: Hang The Toilet Paper Back On The Roller.
And, I saved a couple games on the DVR, too … … … because I lied about dusting.
“Pretty soon the ball player will not have rest enough between seasons to get acquainted with his folks.” ~ The Sporting News, November 7, 1912
In response to The Daily Post’s weekly photo challenge:“Off-Season.”
They call it “The Grind.” That long baseball season. That life ballplayers choose.
For the pros, it begins in February at spring training and, if you’re lucky, it will extend to the far reaches of October.
College ball starts in February and stretches through four months, then summer league teams, and a “bonus” fall season tucked in before the snow falls.
Whatever’s left, that’s your “off-season.”
I thought “off-season” was a baseball term that had worked its way into the rest of the language. But, “off-season” is a business term that was first used in the 1840s.
The Sporting News, November 7, 1912
In 1912, The Sporting News complained that Charles Comiskey, President and Owner of the Chicago White Sox, was running his players ragged by shortening the off-season and putting his team on a train to California in the middle of February to begin spring training, forcing his players into exhibition games along the way, stopping at any place where a pick-up game might put extra “coin” into the owner’s pocket.
We don’t lay fallow much. There’s not much off-season for anybody these days. Apparently, there never was.
You know how you’ll get a jones for French fries, you just have to have French fries, so you stop at the nearest fast food place, because you have to have fries, and this’ll be quick, yet somehow you pick the slow line, and every person ahead of you is actually ordering for four people, four people with obscure allergies and special requests, and you know and everyone else in line knows this is going to take a lot longer than it should, and then finally … finally … your turn comes and all you want are fries and as they take your order, you glance over and you see it, as if in slow motion you see the scooper guy scooping out the last of the fries and handing them to … some … one … else, giving them YOUR French fries, and now the fry tray is empty, so Fry Guy is pulled off of his break to drag an enormous unmarked bag of ice-cold fries out of the freezer in the back and he’s not happy about the break thing, so he’s in no hurry to sort the fries into the fry baskets, and it seems like he’s sorting them one at a time, by size or color or something, and you realize this is going to take for … freaking … ever … and you just want the fries, and you’re waiting and waiting, and it’s taking forever, and all you wanted were some lousy French fries and, hey, where’s the “fast” in fast food anyway, you didn’t realize that French fries take 20 minutes, or maybe it’s just three, but it seems like 45, and you should have taken your phone out of the cup holder in the car and in with you because what if someone calls, and you might pass out from hunger, and then you hear the fryer “beep” but no one behind the counter seems to, so you smile a little, and nod over at the fryer, but that doesn’t work, so you try to get their attention, you cough politely, you stare at the fryer, and nothing, so you start waving at Fry Guy to get his attention, but he’s still annoyed about his break, and you point to the fryer because if they don’t get those fries out now, they’re going to burn and then they’re going to have start all over …
That’s me waiting for baseball.
Here is the University of Virginia’s Nate Irving sitting in the UVa dugout.
He is waiting for: a) French fries, b) the UVa-Boston College game to get underway a few weekends ago, or c) the obligatory reference to the Tom Petty song.
The correct answer is b.
So, when five inches of snow falls on my final days of waiting, it’s a bit annoying.
If I wanted it to snow in the springtime, I could have stayed in North Dakota.
This is a Snow-Me.
(Yes, it’s true. I’m incredibly tall. I’m much taller than my blog would have you believe.)
And, now the weather forecasts say it will rain in Virginia this weekend.
It’s going to rain on the very last spring training game. The one we have tickets for. The Baltimore Orioles are supposed to play their AAA farm club the Tides in Norfolk, and we have tickets, and it’s a three-hour drive, and what’s the point of driving if it’s going to rain out the game?
The Orioles are supposed to fly from Sarasota, Florida to Norfolk on Saturday morning, play the game, and then fly to Baltimore immediately afterward. And, you know what’s going to happen. They’re going to get to Norfolk, see the clouds, toss the remaining guys on the roster who are about to be sent down to Norfolk anyway off of the plane, and then they’re going to “wheels up” as fast as they can, and Chris Davis, and JJ Hardy, and Nick Markakis and all of them are going to be halfway to Baltimore while I’m still on I-64 on the way to the game.
I’m so tired of waiting for baseball.
And, for those of you waiting patiently for Tom Petty …
“There are only two seasons – winter and baseball.” ~ Bill Veeck (1914-1986, Renowned Baseball Owner, Promoter, & All-Around Interesting Guy)
And, winter’s only three days old.
There may be no box scores to pore over, but baseball seems far more resilient than my basil plants that quickly kicked their buckets when the nights turned cold many weeks ago.
The only cat outside here on an icy night is this terracotta one.
The Baltimore Orioles are still trying to climb out of the PR mess they created when they backed out of their “pending physical” agreement with “Failed Physical” Free Agent Pitcher Grant Balfour last week.
(Spoiler Alert: There is still nothing and no one under my Orioles Christmas tree.)
Watching baseball writers gleefully tear apart this Orioles-Balfour story during an otherwise quiet holiday week is like watching my cats tussle over a handful of turkey treats. Lots of pushing, shoving, pawing, and the occasional shrieking. (That shrieking would be Stevie.)
Stevie. Post Treats.
But, it’s never winter for long.
And, the Orioles aren’t the only game in town.
The college baseball season begins in mid-February, which is just a few snowstorms away.
The University of Virginia, which is 40 minutes down the road (hey, UVa, are you reading this? When are we going to get our season ticket seat assignments?) will begin their season on February 14 ranked #12.
And, here’s a weird thing. College Baseball has issued its list of Pre-Season All-Americans. Really? You can do that? You get to be an All-American without even playing yet?
Well, heck, then maybe I’m an All-American. I haven’t played yet either. But, I think a lot about baseball. (I’m thinking about it right now.) That must be worth something. So, thank you for this honor, National Collegiate Baseball Writers.
But, truly, big congratulations go out to UVa’s Mike Papi (who we call El Oso Sueño for no real reason, except that we like the way he stalks around covering left field) and Brandon Downes (who we call Brandon Downes because that’s his name) for being named Pre-Season All-Americans.
UVa’s Mike Papi out in left field.
UVa’s Brandon Downes cap tipping.
If the temperature at UVA home games falls below 45, there’s free coffee and hot chocolate for fans.
This fall I went to some UVA intra-squad games and the temperature dipped into the 50s. I dressed for a blizzard and below-zero wind chills and I was still cold. (Editor/Husband wants me to clarify that the temperatures dipped into the “high” 50s that night. But, I’m pretty sure it was 10-below.)
So, can February chill keep me away from a baseball game? (Editor/Husband hopes so. But don’t be so sure, honey.)
In the meantime, while I dream of sunshine and the baseball that comes when the weather turns warm against my face, and the outfield grass grows thick and lush and impossibly green, here are some of my photos of the UVa Cavaliers playing baseball in the sweetness of 2013.
(Most of these photos are from UVa games played in September and October.)
They become a commodity. This one gets traded. This one gets bought. This one is left on the shelf like a sad, dusty bottle of Justin Beiber cologne just hoping someone needs a desperation gift on Christmas Eve.
It sort of makes me uncomfortable when humans are treated like products. (I know, that’s the point of business, right? I’m awful at business.)
The off-season is like a soggy wad of hairball trapped in my throat. (Editor/Husband does not believe that I can know what a hairball feels like, but I’ve seen my cats get all buggy-eyed, rear back, and start to vomit. I’m pretty sure I feel the same way right now.)
(And, yes, I’m looking forward to the “I told you so” blog post that I’ll write next season when Jim has a great year in Oakland. And, I hope Oakland will fix its sewage-in-the-dugout thing before Jim gets there. Dear Oakland, he’s used to nicer accommodations.)
The Orioles let their Left Fielder Nate McLouth go to the Washington Nationals.
photo by me, 8/25/13
Yeh, I’m kinda sore about this, too.
But, they got a new left fielder guy. A guy from the Royals. So maybe I’ll write about him next season.
The Orioles then were about to sign a new guy to be their closer.
Yay, it’s Christmas! We have a new closer under our Christmas Tree!
Grant Balfour, oddly enough, was Oakland’s closer last season. We were ready to sign him last week. Then something went wonky during his physical (which often happens when you’re a I-can-see-the-hill-but-I’m-not-quite-over-it 36-year-old pitcher with a shoulder that’s been knitted back together with pins and needles) and the Orioles pulled the deal.
And, then began the kerfuffle.
Let me share the kerfuffle highlights:
Orioles: We are not happy with the results of the physical and we are looking elsewhere.
Balfour: I am healthy.
Orioles: You are not.
Balfour: I am too.
Orioles: Are not.
Balfour: Am too.
This has been going on since Thursday.
I don’t like all the off-season shuffling and wheeling and dealing and trading and moving things around.
When I fell in love with baseball, it was when Cal Ripken was the Orioles’ shortstop. And, every day and every game and every season – year in and year out – he was the Orioles’ shortstop. I like things “just so.” I like my Cal Ripkens to be back every spring.
Now, I have nothing under my baseball Christmas tree.