Let us play pretend for a moment. It is October 3, 1951, and Bobby Thomson just hit The Shot Heard ‘Round the World. You go to bed that night with the kind of glow that only a baseball game like that can give you, but strange things happen overnight. Rip Van Winkle and you awake nearly 60 years later.
You notice immediately that much has changed, from the TV you watch the game on to the automobile in which you ride. Oh, you can still get a Coke, sailors still get tattoos, but you quickly notice that so, too, do college coeds in places you didn’t know they had places when you went to bed.
At least, you assure yourself as you head to the ballpark, that you can count on baseball, the game that never changes, to remind you of your roots.
Aren’t you in for a surprise, for baseball has changed like everything else.
To begin with, even before the game is played, you notice differences. You come early for batting and infield practice, but there is no infield practice. Coaches no longer consecutive grounders to the third baseman, second baseman and first baseman, then rolling a “bunt” out for the catcher to field.
No more, “OK, let’s get two”, as the coach repeats the process, except this time the fielders are expected to turn a double play instead of throwing to first base. And no more infield up drill, just to get loose, just to get the feel of game.
Damn, I miss infield practice.
At least you can watch the players having some fun playing pepper, a simple little game where they stand three or four in a line and there’s a batter about 15 feet away and he hits the ball back at them and they catch it, sometimes doing all this fancy stuff like the Harlem Globetrotters that helped make the Gashouse Gang famous.
But alas, there are no more pepper games. In its place are signs saying “No pepper games!”
You look around you and are surprised at the ballpark. No more cigarette signs. Why way back then, when you went to sleep, there was that huge pack of Chesterfields out in left field at the Polo Grounds and announcer Russ Hodges was sending thousands of cigarettes to our troops in Korea when home runs were hit. If the North Koreans weren’t going to kill them, Giants home runs would.
You look at the players and something is different. It’s the socks, if you can see them at all.
Most of the players always showed a lot of sock when you last saw the game, and they had these things call “stirrups.” Try finding stirrups on today’s player. David Wright of the Mets wears them on day games, but that is a superstition, not a style statement.
If it’s a cold day you look for those turtlenecks that became popular under the uniform but can’t find a one, any more than you can find a player on the coldest day displaying his bare guns the way Ted Kluszewski used to do, showing off the biggest arms of the pre-steroid era.
If it’s a sunny day you know your player won’t be losing the ball because of his flip-down sunglasses, only you can’t seem to find anyone with them, save maybe for the Diamondbacks‘ Bobby Crosby. Ever since Jose Canseco showed up wearing Oakleys, everyone wears wraparounds. But do you really want Canseco to be your guide to catching fly balls when he once let one bounce off his head and over the wall?
During batting practice, you notice, that the batting helmets all have earflaps. Baseball didn’t even have batting helmets back when you fell asleep, but just about that time Pirates general manager Branch Rickey and his traveling secretary, Charlie Muse, invented the first one. Because players didn’t want to look afraid, it was more a replica of the cap.
As you sit at the game, you ask the guy sitting next to you when the next scheduled doubleheader is, and he looks at you kind of strangely. Doubleheader? They haven’t scheduled one in years.
A shame. You used to like those two-for-the-price-of-one days instead of what you get now, one for the price of two.
OK you say, you’ll go to the Old-Timers’ game and you’re told they don’t have that anymore, either.
A least, you say, they still have grass on the field and the guy tells you that is something “new,” too, for back in the late 1960s they had to invent this thing called AstroTurf because they couldn’t grow grass in the Astrodome, whatever that was, and the artificial turf spread across baseball like an epidemic of leg injuries, which it caused.
But now they’re back to grass with modern drainage systems that almost assure a game will be played.
So now it’s time to play the game and it doesn’t take long after the bottom of the first inning to notice that the players all bring their gloves into the dugout. Why? Back when you went to sleep, they would just flip their glove on the ground out at their position and pick it up when they returned to play defense.
Honest, that’s what they did until 1953, risking tripping over that pesky piece of leather so that they didn’t have to carry it all the way into the dugout. Some changes were for the good.
The game is played and a player is tagged out sliding into second base and you wonder why he didn’t hook slide, only to find out they don’t do that anymore. It may have been good enough for Ty Cobb and Phil Rizzuto, but today the hook slide has gone the way of infield practice.
It gets to the seventh inning and the pitcher that is losing, 1-0, is removed from the game and you can’t understand that, but that’s what baseball has become. At least you don’t have to watch them ride a reliever in on a golf cart, like they did in the ’70s. I guess that jog of 100 yards or so was too much. The golf cart became extinct in 1995 in Milwaukee.
Oh, there are other differences that you can’t even see, too. The players don’t have roommates on the road any more, doing away with such complaints as Roberto Clemente used to have about roommate Roman Mejias keeping him awake with his snoring.
Besides, where would their wives sleep, since they now accompany their husbands on many of the road trips?
With it all, it’s still a great game, just not the one you went to sleep to a half century or so ago.