The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

March 29, 2013

Remembering when baseball was more than a sport

POINT BLANK: By John Blankenship

— Like millions of Americans, I was caught up in the glory days of baseball in the 1950s.

I was exhilarated by the Reds and Yankees and Dodgers victories, and pained by each and every loss.

I couldn’t wait to get the morning paper and check up on the standings, the pitchers’ wins and losses, and especially Mantle’s mammoth homers.

Individual players became my heroes, as well loved and respected as family and friends.

I shuffled through my baseball card collection until the wee hours.

I talked baseball at the supper table until my elders told me I was forbidden to bring up the topic until after dessert and coffee.

Now, I can’t help wondering just how important it is for children to have such heroes to look up to.

How can we feel such a strong kinship to people we have never met. Are sports figures the best role models?

What lessons can athletes teach us about life?

We live in an age when super-athletes make hundreds of millions of dollars during a single career.

Some ball players allegedly spend more on narcotics and steroids during the off season than a family of five spends in an entire year for housing, transportation, food, education and recreation.

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By studying the game of baseball thoroughly while I was growing up, I learned the importance of telling a story slowly, of allowing the work to evolve at its own pace, of building the performance to a powerful climax.

“It’s not over until it’s over,” Yogi Berra once quipped about the 9th inning drama of the diamond.

By studying the pitching sequence of master hurlers like Sandy Koufax, I learned the beauty of a well-chosen word, like a curve-ball low and away after a fast ball in on the hands.

Practice is invaluable when gaining control of your pitches; the same holds true for the writer who would become a wordsmith, one who is adept at placing the right word in just the right place.

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Idolizing athletes as only a child can, I was fortunate enough to have my childhood coincide with baseball’s most glorious heyday.

I kept my ear tuned to a small, portable radio at night, often fashioning a makeshift antenna out of copper wire and a car radio aerial to help pull in games from ballparks in distant cities.

From my room upstairs I could monitor the sport’s changing role in the American landscape through the second half of the 20th century.

Baseball aficionados now must grapple with a seemingly insoluble conundrum: Does regional team loyalty still mean the same thing in today’s “global village,” or has the technology that has made our country seem smaller altered the notion of the “home team?”

In other words, what does baseball offer that other diversions cannot?

Is it still our true national pastime?

As I look back in time, I can’t help noticing that my careful childhood calculations of pitching percentages and the batting averages charmingly mirror the manner in which I would tally up my students’ grades at the end of a grading period.

My baseball card collection, meanwhile, washed away in a creek that flooded the basement after I had left for college.

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But what I am getting at is this: the baseball of my childhood was more than a sport.

And since the years of the great Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente and Mickey Mantle, the mingled roles of baseball and reality have become ill-defined.

What does one offer that the other does not?

Before the games were televised unceasingly by the revolutionary cable companies, I listened to baseball games on the air waves, relying on my imagination for visual images to accompany the announcer’s play-by-play.

This changed dramatically after TBS began airing nearly 100 games a season of America’s team — the Atlanta Braves — a couple of decades ago.

How did the addition of TV change the face of baseball for me and millions of other Americans?

What did it give us, and what did it take away?

Baseball has become a base game of seemingly insatiable appetites for the gross and the grotesque.

No wonder people of the heartland avoid the major league ballparks, preferring instead the minor league match-ups where the game is still played with a measure of purity — a love for the game — and with the integrity for which it was created in the first place.

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Top of the morning!      

 — Blankenship is a columnist for The Register-Herald.