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Come on (yawn), throw the ball

My late grandfather was John Ed Pearce, a longtime columnist and editorial writer for The Courier-Journal, who helped the paper win a Pulitzer Prize in 1967. I've heard myself compared to him from the age I gained a personality (three-days-old) up until now, but I've always thought the differences between us were a bit more prevalent. He was a far better writer on his worst day than I'll ever be on my best, he supported the University of Kentucky Wildcats, and I've always been much more attractive and better at video games.

Like a strong contingent of you who make your voices heard around this time every year, my grandfather didn't particularly care for baseball. Naturally, it's a sport I've loved since about the time I could walk. So in honor of Opening Day and the fairly large group of you who feel neglected and mistreated during the spring and early months of summer, I'd like to share the following, which he wrote before I was born.

For lo, the time of the swinging of bats is come, and the bawl of the umpire is heard in the land. It's here again, folks, that horsehide heralds once more the season of baseball, revered by every red-blooded male as the Great American Pastime. There are those who point out that football draws more spectators and who sneer that baseball is called the Great American Pastime because so much time passes between the rare moments of action. But they are not red-blooded, and probably bear watching in times of national crisis.

It is true, of course, that there is frequently a yawning gap between the time the pitcher receives the ball and the time he releases it to or toward the catcher. Latin American governments have toppled and African nations have emerged in less time than it takes an average pitcher to decide whether, how and to whom to throw the ball. For only the novice simply takes the ball and throws it. The veteran is aware of the drama that is baseball. More to the point, he is aware of the TV exposure and its commercial possibilities, and thus knows that the pre-pitch ritual is more important than the pitch itself. 

It is an act as intricate and symbolic as the mating dance of the Australian koora-koora bird, though not necessarily as rewarding. First, the pitcher catches the ball from the catcher. It is deemed poor form to look at the ball while catching it; he simply sticks out his glove in a bored way and the ball plops into it. There are times, mercifully rare, when the ball does not plop in. Then unexpected action erupts, the fans shout X-rated comments and the manager considers alternative professions.

But usually the ball plops home and the pitcher goes into his Dance of Decisions, which has more movements than a high-school girl on her way to the water fountain. He examines the ball, throws it into his glove, removes his cap, wipes his forehead, replaces the cap, tugs at the brim, wipes his hand on his shirt, wipes his face, spits, rearranges his trousers, scratches, kicks the dirt and flaps his arms. He then observes first base, spits, checks the infield, checks the outfield, checks the sun, stares at the catcher, shakes his head, bends over and peers again in the direction of the catcher, shakes his head again, straightens up, nods, glances at first base, kicks the dirt, spits, shrugs his shoulders, grips the ball and finally, if astrological conditions appear to be propitious, goes into his wind-up.

The ritual can take strange turns. Like the koora-koora bird that sometimes gets so engrossed in his mating dance that he fails to notice that his girl friend has gotten bored and left with another bird, the pitcher forgets that he is supposed to pitch and, as the shadows lengthen, keeps spitting, shrugging his shoulders and checking the infield. In which case, the manager strides from the dugout. He does not walk. Tradition and sportswriting cliche demand that he stride to the mound, as TV cameras zoom in on his mysterious colloquy with the bemused pitcher.

"The ball, Reyferd," he says. "Throw the ball. You're the pitcher; there's the catcher. You throw it and he'll catch it. OK?"

Collecting his wits, if any, the pitcher then consults the catcher, and their negotiations are only slightly less delicate than those involved in nuclear disarmament talks. Often the catcher will advise a pitch high on the inside, only to find the pitcher intrigued with the possibilities of one low and away. In this case, there ensues much shaking of the head and kicking of dirt. If no agreement is reached, the catcher then goes out to the mound, and talks to the pitcher.

"Rayferd, you @$!?#@$! Just throw the $#@$! ball, will ya?"

This can offend Reyferd's tender sensibilities.

"Ain't no #$@!$#% gonna tell me how to throw no ball," he bawls.

If this phase two fails to produce a consensus, the manager signals from the dugout to arbitrate the relative merits of a high, hard one and one low and away. Usually, his views prevail. He retreats to bench, the catcher retreats to the plate and the pitcher is left in solitary splendor to prepare for the final movements of his pre-pitch ballet.

Meanwhile, out in the outfield, the fielders have been picking blades of grass, responding to the jollities of the bleacher fans and making mental notes for the book they are writing on what really happens in baseball locker rooms. The fans are out buying beer, going to the restrooms or hurling insults at the handiest outfielder.

But now they rush back to their seats and a hush falls over the stands in expectation of the pitch. The sudden quiet arouses the batter, who was out the night before with a stewardess and is now leaning on his bat for a brief nap. The TV announcer stops quoting statistics from the record books and turns his attention back to the mound, as the pitcher prepares for the crucial moment. He examines the ball. He glowers at the batter. He goes into his stretch, Up comes the leg. Back goes the arm. Down it swings, and the ball is on its way. The catcher has called for a high, hard one. It comes in low and away. The batter, jolted from his reverie of stewardesses in their underwear, digs his feet into the earth and swings.

It goes foul. The catcher retrieves it and throws it back to the pitcher. The fans bawl for beer or head for the restrooms. The bleacher fans hurl insults at the outfielders, who return to their sentiments. The TV announcer goes back to the record book or reads telegrams from good old boys down in Arkansas who have asked him to come down for a fish fry.

Multiply this by 100 and you have a baseball game. Multiply that by 300 and you have a season. The season lasts until late in the fall when, with a bleary sigh, the fans welcome the return of football. And with good reason.