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A roundup of news on sporting events, people and places in Southeast Michigan by columnist Jim Evans.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Play ball!

I’m not sure if kids play Wiffle ball anymore.
Our own kids are too old, and Wiffle ball is not a game that winds up in
the headlines, on SportsCenter or Facebook very often if ever.
Plastic bats, a plastic ball with slits shaped like Hot Tamale candies cut into it, and base paths much more on the honor system than the grass itself.
But what a great game. The ball’s peculiar aerodynamics turn everyone into a Tim Wakefield or one of the Niekros. The bat speed generated means everyone can launch like Prince Fielder, Miguel Cabrera or Babe Ruth on steroids.

But Wiffle ball was only the start of baseball for lots of kids in my era. There was nothing remotely organized about it. Show up in a backyard with a few friends and swing away.
We eventually graduated. We grabbed balls and bats manufactured with a
little more substance. Louisville Sluggers coaxed from white ash. Balls fashioned from cork, twine and leather.
Hard ball was a rite of passage. Everybody took a bad hop or two in the mouth; we all got hit with errant pitches. But there was no turning back. Wiffle ball was a kids’ game. Hard ball had a more flinty edge to it.
It still was not very well organized. There was never a schedule taped to the refrigerator or color-coded pants and shirts. There were no umpires; we just ruled by majority vote.
Not enough players? Right field is out. No home run fence. Either the apple tree at Thibby’s signified a homer or you legged everything out in the school yard.
We all graduated to high school ball, American Legion and some even played in college.
But the bottom line was, everybody played and I think that is part of the eternal attraction of baseball. Everybody, somewhere along the line, has whacked a ball with a bat. They have picked up a ball and thrown it. They have caught a ball, or at least attempted to catch a ball, headed their way.
That is at least partially why we get so pumped up about the Tigers getting ready to begin spring training in Florida. We all can relate, at least on some level. We see Justin Verlander and we see ourselves. Granted, the Cy Young Award winner throws about 40-50 mph faster than most of us. We see Cabrera swat the ball into another zip code, and we see ourselves smacking a home run in gym class or was it little league? We see Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland and Comerica Park, and we see the ball field in the school yard or the one at Thibby’s house, only there is no apple tree as the line of demarcation for a homer in the major leagues.
Spring training in both Florida and Arizona beckons for major league players. February 19 is the voluntary reporting date for pitchers, catchers and injured players; and Feb. 24 is the earliest for full-squad workouts.
Even in a winter as mild as this one has been, that is the one true sign of spring for me. It’s not the daffodils peeking up through the clay or the hummingbirds booking a return flight to Michigan.
It is spring training. It is the Tigers on the radio and the Tigers on television. It is hearing Mario Impemba and Rod Allen doing the televised games. It is Jim Price and Dan Dickerson on the radio.
You can have your chirping birds and your chattering squirrels. I prefer the applause in the background of the broadcast and the home plate umpire who can be heard calling balls and strikes. I like listening to the concessionaires selling hot dogs and the fabled crack of the bat is still a sound that causes me to both pause and smile just a little bit.
At least a couple of decades past my last earnest trip to the batter’s box, there is something about baseball that still tugs at me.
Good luck this year, Tigers. Prince Fielder is making what, $23 million this season? We’d play all day for nothing except a bottle of Montain Dew bought from Caruso’s gas station across the street.
It is all the same thing, really.
Impemba, Allen and me. Not exactly Tinker to Evers to Chance, but plenty good enough.


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