An OKC Field of Dreams and ghosts of baseball past

fieldofdreams
A group of OKC adults turned the Northeast High School baseball field into their own ‘Field of Dreams’ for an afternoon

Moneyball is one of my favorite movies. It shows the impact that using computer statistics to drive player development had on Major League baseball and the Oakland Athletics in the early 2000s.

The movie features a host of memorable scenes, including one where Oakland outfielder David Justice asks new first baseman Scott Hatteberg what he feared most at the position.

Hatteberg had been a catcher all of his professional career, and to that point had never played even an inning at first base.

“A baseball hit in my general direction,” was Hatteberg’s honest reply to Justice’s question.

That’s exactly how I felt Sunday afternoon as I stood in right field at the Northeast High School baseball field.

I was there at the invitation of my friend, Russ Florence, who invited a group of fellow adults to “have a catch” with him.  A lifelong baseball fan, Russ began his informal monthly “catch” several months ago.

It was sort of a Field of Dreams-come-to-real-life opportunity for those of us who once played the game or have followed it all of our lives.

The baseball dreamers who came out Sunday included several guys my age or older, a few younger and a couple of women who showed more agility than most of their male counterparts.

I dug my old baseball glove out of the closet and joined about a dozen others at the Northeast field.

Unfortunately, the experience revealed exactly how the passage of time has robbed me of athletic ability, real or imagined.

Once upon a time, I thought of myself as a pretty good baseball player. Now that was in Little League in College Station, Texas, followed by Pony League as a 13- and 14-year-old.

Here’s how it went five decades later on a warm November afternoon beneath a bright blue sky.

First, we warmed up by playing catch with a partner about 40 feet away. I put most of my throws into the ground in front of him or several feet to his left.

My shoulder ached after about 15 minutes. My glove hand screamed with pain from catching baseballs in the heart of the mitt.

Then came the real embarrassment. I stood in right field as Russ hit flies and grounders to players stationed at infield and outfield positions.

He hit one in my general direction.

My feet felt like they were in quicksand as I “ran” toward it. I could not bend over far enough to even make a stabbing attempt at a catch.

I hung my head in shame. No one seemed to notice.

Russ hit about three other balls in my direction. I managed to catch one on the bounce barehanded, but caught none before they hit the ground. I decided if a ball wasn’t hit within three feet of where I was standing, I had no chance.

But the day wasn’t a total loss. I had the opportunity to visit with some old — and new — friends. The weather was pleasant watching from the dugout, where I spent much of my time.

“It really scratches an itch for a lot of people,” Russ told me afterward. “None of us is as good as as we once were — or as good as we THINK we once were. I’m glad you were there.”

Thank you, Russ, for inviting this ‘ghost’ of a former player to experience your OKC version of the Field of Dreams.

Even if it brought home a sobering reality of aging.

In softball, there is always joy in Mudville

OU Women
OU softball players lead fans in a cheer during a break in the action at the Women’s College World Series

As I was watching the Women’s College World Series game between OU and James Madison the other night, I was fascinated by how much enthusiasm and joy the players bring to the game.

They cheer and chant in unison in the dugout, they celebrate big hits, runs and good fielding plays. The OU players even came out of the dugout a couple times to lead fans in a cheer.

I fired off a text to a friend who was also watching the game on ESPN. “Softball needs some unwritten rules that suck all the joy out of the game just like baseball,” the text said.

I was kidding.

But it made me realize how much of a contrast there is between baseball and women’s softball. In baseball, it’s all about “respecting the game” or “respecting the opponent.”

No emotion allowed.

Translated, that means you never, ever act like you are enjoying the moment after a home run, a strikeout or a big fielding play.

OU HR
OU player celebrates a home run as she rounds the bases

Baseball has been losing fans by the millions in recent years, and I’m convinced that the ridiculous unwritten rules have played a role in that. Today’s fans — especially young fans — want to see games played with enthusiasm and emotion.

If you’re curious as to what the unwritten rules are that baseball lives by, here’s a pretty good description I found on the major league baseball website. 

There is evidence of late that some of the unwritten rules are being rewritten. I’m talking about the way that big hitters like Fernando Tatis Jr. flip their bats and pause to watch their home runs go out of the park before celebrating as they round the bases.

So far, it appears that no one has retaliated by hitting Tatis in the head with a 98-hour bean ball. So far.

But baseball always wants to draw a line in the sand, and there seems to be a hard line drawn at emotion.

By contrast, the women’s game is such a breath of fresh air. I’m taking joy in their joy.

Their game is a celebration, and I’m celebrating along with them.

Catching static: Memories of listening to baseball on AM radio

I was driving in eastern Oklahoma way back in the early 1990s when my wife had enough. “Turn off that static!” she demanded.

At the time, I was listening intently to a Texas Rangers baseball game on the AM radio broadcast of Fort Worth, Texas, station WBAP.

To be honest, I had not even noticed the static.

That was life in the olden days, when baseball fans like me would tune into distant AM radio stations like WBAP and KMOX in St. Louis to follow our favorite teams.

As a teenager, I lived on KMOX and the soothing voice of Jack Buck calling the Cardinals games. Later on, it was Mark Holtz and Eric Nadel with the Rangers.

Bonus: Read this terrific New York Times article on the power of KMOX as a reporter tries to outdrive the station’s coverage during a Cardinals’ game broadcast.

After dark, the distant signal from my favorite AM stations boomed across the AM receiver located either in my bedroom or my car.

But static was a price you paid to listen to distant AM radio broadcasts. In the spring and summer, static was almost always present because of thunderstorms somewhere between you and the radio tower.

So, you learned to pick out the play-by-play from the static. I sort of trained myself to tune out the static, which is why I faced the wrath of my wife. 

It wasn’t only the distant sports stations that I tuned into as a teenager. WLS in Chicago was my go-to station to listen to the latest Top 40 hits.

Recently, someone posted a map on LinkedIn that showed the vast coverage of Oklahoma City’s KOMA. Unfortunately, I lived in the wrong part of the country as a kid to become a KOMA fan.

Anyway, the days of straining to hear baseball play-by-play or Top 40 music through a static-riddled broadcast are mostly in the past. I subscribe to MLB.com’s audio broadcasts now, which bring in the Rangers, Cardinals or any Major League team static free and crystal clear.

With bluetooth, I stream the broadcast to the car’s sound system and never miss a pitch.

And I no longer endure the wrath of someone who doesn’t understand the pleasure of ignoring the static to enjoy the game.

Baseball deaths and the passage of time

Colt Stadium in Houston was the locale for my first Major League baseball experience

The death of baseball Hall of Famer Joe Morgan this week took me back to the early 1960s and a rickety old stadium in Houston where I saw my first Major League Baseball game. I was there with my Little League team from Bryan/College Station.

We all wore our uniforms, as did about 5,000 other Little Leaguers that day. The outfield stands were a splash of rainbow colors from so many uniformed youngsters sitting together.

While I don’t remember anything about that game from 1963, I do remember that Joe Morgan was a member of the Houston Colt 45s, who were playing the St. Louis Cardinals. Jimmy Wynn, known as the Toy Cannon, also was a member of that team.

Bonus memory: We could see the Astrodome under construction right next door to Colt Stadium, so the baseball future held a lot of promise for a 10-year-old.

Of course, Morgan eventually was traded from Houston and built his Hall of Fame career as a key player with the 1970s Big Red Machine in Cincinnati. The Houston Chronicle published a story this week about how he was the one that got away. Read it here.

That 1963 Houston Colt 45s experience pretty much ensured I would be a lifelong baseball fan.

Like most kids of the time, I collected baseball cards and memorized the starting lineups of the teams. I even made up my own stats-based game that mimicked the APBA baseball board game but used a spinner instead of dice.

Joe Morgan as a Cincinnati Red

Fast forward more than half a century to the awful year of 2020. Morgan and Wynn both died this year. They are among a host of former Major League players who passed away in 2020, a list that includes all-time greats like Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Tom Seaver, Al Kaline and Whitey Ford.

Baseball Reference publishes a running list of every former player who died this year. You can see the list here.

The deaths of Seaver, Ford, Brock, Gibson and Morgan came in rapid succession. It hurt. As a child of the ‘60s, it’s painful to watch my heroes pass into history. 

Each death hammers home the passage of time, but I’m hanging on to the distant memories. It’s all we have left in the end.