This is BoomerCafé executive editor and co-founder Greg Dobbs’s favorite time of the year: the beginning of baseball season. Greg, who has played the game himself, from Little League to a senior men’s recreational league, says it’s about more than just balls and bats.
Yesterday was major league baseball’s Opening Day.
On the same day 40 years ago, a crotchety correspondent baby boomers might remember named Harry Reasoner, then the anchorman at my network, ABC News, ended our evening newscast with a commentary about the national pastime. His final words spoke volumes for the game’s disciples, like me: “Baseball isn’t baseball without a hot dog in front of it.”
In other words, it’s about more than just the game.
Friday afternoon, I’ll be at the home opener in Denver for my team, the Colorado Rockies. And I’ll watch baseball the way Harry had in mind: with a crowd of fanatical fellow fans, a team with a shot at the World Series (every team’s a contender on Opening Day), and a hot dog in front of it.
Of course like so much in boomers’ lives, a lot has changed in those 40 years, including the hot dog. Nowadays it comes with a dozen frou-frou condiments — I tried the frou-frou version once but when I squeezed the bun to take a bite, half of it ended up in my lap. Friday, I’ll just have what Harry had in mind: the dog, the bun, some old-fashioned yellow mustard, period.
So many changes since Harry’s day! For starters, if anyone mentioned the Colorado Rockies back then, they meant the mountains. And even when major league baseball gave Denver its franchise 25 years ago, the team, the game, the nation, were a far cry from what we have today.
We’d never heard of al Qaeda or ISIS. Nor of Monica Lewinsky. Nor the iPhone. Nor much about Donald Trump.
Of course even fans like me also never heard of the players who populated our brand new baseball team in Denver. Expansion clubs like the Rockies had to pick from other clubs’ rejects. But from the moment our second baseman, a reject named Eric Young, became the first Rockie to take the plate in Colorado and swatted a 3-2 pitch into the left-field stands, the 80,227 of us who couldn’t stop screaming at the old Mile High Stadium never forgot “E.Y.”. Nor his only other home run of the season— on closing day. Three hitters later in that first inning ever, fellow reject Andres Galarraga, our first baseman, slugged his pitch into the stands, just feet from where E.Y.’s had come down. The first of his 22 homers that inaugural year. We never forgot Galarraga, a.k.a. “The Big Cat,” either.
Nor, for years to follow, did we forget the Rockies. They broke darned near every attendance record in the book. The only team in history to draw more than three-million fans for nine consecutive years. Almost 4-½ million in 1993. That record stands to this day. Pretty good for a city so isolated in the Great Plains that Major League Baseball was worried about filling the ballpark. They felt much better about the year’s other expansion team, then called the Florida Marlins (now “Miami Marlins”). Great weather, scads of senior citizens with time and money on their hands. The Marlins also broke records. For lowest attendance in the league.
But eventually the Rockies forgot us. Like other teams, they sold or traded the E.Y.s and the Galarragas we’d learned to love. They scrimped and saved and put our ball club in baseball’s basement. In the good old days when we were growing up, fan favorites were family— Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, Sandy Koufax, they played their entire careers for a single team; Hank Aaron and Willie Mays nearly the same. But the rules of the game off the field had changed.
Today, union contracts mandate that even the least gifted player earns over half-a-million bucks, minimum. The most gifted? On my team, Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez this year will pull down $20,000,000 for punching out pitches and pulling down fly balls. By comparison, Mantle and DiMaggio were the first Yankees ever to earn six-figure salaries.
And if some impatient baseball executives have their way, the rules on the field will change. Less time between innings, less time between pitches, less time out of the batter’s box. They call these proposals “pace of game.” You know what they’ll save in a typical nine-inning contest? Five minutes, ten at most. Let’s just call it “baseball” and leave it alone. Don’t make the game something it isn’t.
What we love about baseball is what it is: the only game with virtually no constraints from the clock, a slow game where you can see every ball and follow every player and track every move they make. A game with no substitute on a sunny day or a warm summer night. A game meant to be watched with a humble hot dog in front of it.
Although when there’s no hot dog in sight, even a bowl of borscht will do. Ten years ago, my beloved Rockies made their only World Series appearance, against the Boston Red Sox. I was in Russia at the time, shooting a documentary, and one night in a city about three hours out of Moscow, my only American colleague and I stayed up together til dawn monitoring a game on the website MLB.com, refreshing our then-incredible Blackberries with every pitch. My colleague was from Boston, I was from Colorado, and we probably were the only pair of Americans who carried the rivalry all the way to Russia.
He had the last laugh, but we both had the gratification of our greatest game, one pitch at a time. The borscht almost tasted like a hot dog.