Thursday, April 5, 2012

Playing Cards & Cards Playing

Last night was a recreational tour de force for me.

Not only was I playing duplicate bridge for the first time in four months at my local club in Kriskville, it was simultaneously the opening night* of Major League Baseball, featuring the defending World Champion St Louis Cardinals christening the new baseball stadium in Miami with game against the Marlins.

While I was driving into town (during which I caught the first inning on radio—more about that below), it occurred to me that not only was I getting the chance to enjoy two of my favorite pastimes for the first time in many months, I also had a glorious opportunity to refer to the occasion with an obvious play on words (featured in the title of this blog)—which is a third major pastime for me. How good can it get?

In reality last night's contest in the Sunshine State was only the season opener in the US. For some reason the Oakland A's and the Seattle Mariners played two official games in Tokyo last week—broadcasts of which were available live, starting at 3:09 am Pacific time. Ufda. That inauspicious timing evoked for me the famous quip by impresario Sam Goldwyn, probably used to characterize an MGM production flop, "They stayed away in droves."

Playing By Ear
Given that my principally information channel is aural, there is something primal about listening to baseball on radio. It is, for instance, the absolute easiest way for me to stay awake on long-distance drives. I've been tracking games on radio for more than 50 years, and it's an ideal backdrop for handwork on the farm—whether canning tomatoes, carving wood, cleaning the kitchen floor, or making tempeh.

At this point I can generally tell whose winning—and by how wide a margin—simply by the tone used by the announcers and whether or not their comments are describing strategy on the field (in which case the game is probably close) or memories of their former playing days (it's likely a laugher).

Sometimes all I need to know is who's pitching. If the home team's starter is still toiling, while the visitors are employing a relief hurler, that's a huge hint that home team is likely enjoying a lead. If the announcers are raving about a spectacular defensive play, it tells you nothing about the score; if
however they're highlighting an offensive performance, that translates into runs, and you can count on much more being made of the key contributions to the team that's in the lead.

Like life (and unlike football), baseball has a rhythm where there are a handful of dramatic moments in each game where you really want to be paying attention. While there is always room for surprise (where a banjo hitter comes through with a bases loaded double down the line, or the Gold Glove shortstop boots a tailor-made double play ball with the score tied that would have gotten them out of a pickle in the late innings), about 3-4 times in a game there will be a key match-up…

—Perhaps it's the middle innings of a tight game with one out, the sacks jammed, and the clean-up hitter (a dead fastball slugger with poor wheels) is digging in to receive the 2-1 offering from the #1 starter who has been struggling to get his bender over for a strike...

—Maybe it's the bottom of the eighth with two out and two on and the visitors are nursing a two-run lead. The guy in #3 hole strolls to the plate, licking his chops. The set-up man is laboring and the batter owns this guy. What's the visiting manager to do? He'd really like to have the clean-up hitter lead off the bottom of the ninth, but what are his options? If he gets too cute with the batter his reward is the guy who's leading the league in ribbies; if he brings in his closer early he may not be able to use again him tomorrow...

—Possibly it's the third inning of a mid-season game and you've got the starter on the ropes. He's notoriously slow to find his rhythm and just gets stronger as the game goes on, so you want to punch something across if at all possible. With one out and ducks on the pond, your #7 guy comes to the plate. He's your back-up backstop who's calls a good game but has no pop in his bat. He's getting two rare starts in a row to give your main man a blow—the regular guy has caught every game for 10 days and his bat's been wilting in the July heat. The guy in the #8 slot is the slick-fielding shortstop who hits below the Mendoza line, so you need something from this batter. You're tempted to pinch hit with your regular receiver, but that means you'll have burned both guys and be down to your emergency catcher before the game is half over...

At moments like these I just stop breathing and wait to see what happens.

And of course (if you couldn't tell by now) I'm in love with baseball because there is no sport richer in arcane and quirky terminology. Everything I wrote above actually makes sense to me—as it would to any baseball nut. (For a number of years in the late 70s, baseball aficionados referred to a fastball as a Linda Ronstadt, with a nod to her hit single, Blue Bayou. As in "blew by you." As a word play guy, there is no journalism better than sports journalism, and baseball writers are the best of the best.)

• • •
What's up next? Today I get another trifecta: a community meeting in the morning (my first since our retreat two months ago), a Bloodmobile in Memphis this afternoon, and the chance to hunt morels in the Sandhill environs following last night's spring rain. Life just keeps getting better.

No comments: