With the arrival of spring comes the sport of baseball. Each year, as the last snows of winter melt away, high school coaches return with their teams to play a truly American game: baseball.
Ball fields that a few months ago were covered by winter's shadow have warmed in the spring sun. Outfields darkened by cold are now covered in new green grass that has been neatly trimmed.
The sandy soil of infields has been dragged smooth once again after its nearly nine month wait for the teams to return.
The pitcher's mounds have been built up with soil and prepared for the long stride of the pitcher delivering his first fast ball. The batter's box has been marked out as the umpires brush dirt off of home plate. White chalk base lines, straight and neat, mark the path between home plate and first and third bases. Popcorn's warm aroma mixes with the smell of fresh cut grass that drifts over the field of play.
It's baseball time in the Ohio Valley once again.
I describe baseball as a truly American game because it has been around since the early 1800's. In the past, there has been disagreement as to it origin and who first invented the game. For many years, it was believed that Abner Doubleday was associated with the beginnings of baseball.
After much debate and research, his involvement in the original game has faded with time.
A baseball club in New York is believed to have put forth the first rules for the game. Those rules were first written down by Shane Ryley Foster.
His rule book has gained him the honor of being called the "Father of Baseball." Since then, baseball has grown and changed, but the original ideas for the sport still survive today.
High school baseball is enjoyable to watch because, in my opinion, it is played like it was originally intended to be played. Professional baseball has become big business. Players often are mired in controversy over money, steroids, and looking at themselves in the mirror. But high school teams are young men who play for the enjoyment of the game.
They play for coaches who dedicate their time to the game and teaching young men the fine points of baseball.
If you are one of those people who believes that baseball is only about hitting and catching, you are missing the best part of the game. The next time you go to a game, spend some time watching the coaches and other players not on the field of play.
Subtle signals from a coach to the runner on first base sets up a second base steal. A pull of the ear or touch of the hat tells the batter to bunt the ball to allow another runner to advance.
The catcher and pitcher play a game of hidden signals that, for the most part, only the pitcher can see. If the catcher holds down two fingers, he may want a curve ball.
Four fingers could be a signal for the pitcher to move the batter away from home plate with a close inside pitch. Sometimes the pitcher likes the call and sometimes he shakes it off. A slight hand gesture from the catcher to the pitcher signals that the runner on second is far off the bag. The unsaid word between the two players is all part of the game.
Did you ever wonder what the catcher says to the pitcher when he calls time and walks to the mound? Maybe he's telling him to relax and throw low outside to the batter. Or perhaps he is telling him he forgot his class notes and wants to borrow the pitcher's to study for the next day's test.
Whatever is said, the batter who is waiting for the next pitch may be thinking to himself, "What's the catcher telling the pitcher?" It may be a psych job on the nervous batter or just a minute to relax the pitcher. In the end, it is all part of a game that is as much mental as it is physical.
Baseball, to me, is unlike most sports because I believe the players and coaches in the dugout are an integral part of the game. As a batter steps into the box, one of his teammates begins to chatter quickly, "batterbatterbatter." Another calls "Hey kid, the pitcher's getting tired."
Chatter from the dugout is important to the game and to the players on the field. If I go to a game and it is quiet, the excitement is missing from the game and the crowd. If the two dugouts are alive with chatter, the players on the field respond with improved play and the people in the stands get into the game. The chatter and encouragement from the dugout to the active players keeps them alert and in the game.
Baseball is a game of chess played with a bat and ball. In chess you may sacrifice a knight to better position your king. In baseball you may sacrifice a bunt to move a runner around a base into a scoring position. Or, perhaps, the coach just wanted to pull the infield a little closer. On the next pitch, he touches two fingers to his forearm, a signal to the batter to swing away.
Have you ever been hit by a baseball thrown from 60 feet? It hurts. In baseball, you will never see a player "rub it" after being hit in the side by a wild ball. Every one of his teammates knows it hurts as they tell him to "Shake it off kid and send it back over his head with your bat." His side still stings, but the batter feels a little better for the encouragement from his dugout.
I will have to admit I miss the sound of a ball hitting the sweet spot of a wooden bat. Today, high school bats are made from composite materials and just don't sound the same. They are safer and more durable, but I somehow wish they could have the sound of a wooden bat connecting with the ball just before it heads for the left field fence.
Today's game of baseball still is played the same way and with the same basic equipment as in those early days. Bat quality has improved and gloves are made better and stronger. Still, a player uses a bat to hit the ball and the fielder uses his glove to catch it, much as the New York Knickerbockers' players did in the 1850's.
Baseballs have not changed much, for the most part, in more than 100 years. In 1872, the standards for a baseball's size and weight were established not long after the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players league was established. After that, balls began to become more uniform in their construction. The equipment and rules have evolved and improved, but Foster's original idea for the game's guidelines are still there. I guess those early players got it right in the beginning when they played for the enjoyment of the game.
For local teams, practice has begun and they are returning to the fields of play once again. This baseball season, take some time to attend a local game and support your school's team.
I would suggest that you not only watch the game, but watch for the coach's indicator signal and figure out what may happen next. Also observe the eyes of a young man leading off second base, watching for a touch of the hat before breaking for third.
If you see the sign and the runner makes it safely to third, call out "Good job number 7." Even if he doesn't make it to third, yell out "Good job number 7," anyway.
Like you, I will be there as I look for the coach's first sign of spring Thru the Lens.