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A baseball season's long-ago memories, not soon forgotten [Column]

How do you like your baseball stories?

How about on-field tension of the big game:

The first batter stroked a clean single up the middle, and a bad hopped grounder hit the second baseman in the shoulder, putting the first two runners on. The next guy struck out on three high hard ones.

He picked up a couple of bats and swung them, absentmindedly, as the next hitter stood at the plate and watched three straight balls and then a fourth. "Come on," he heard somebody say behind him, not too convincingly. "Here's your big chance."

Ugh. Bases loaded, two runs down, overmatched in three previous attempts to hit this nasty looking, hard-throwing righty. Somebody had to be kidding.

The cowardly way would be to go up looking for a walk, a cheap run (and an RBI) that would draw his team closer. Swing away and risk a double play and that would be probably be the game. Or, worse, strike out, which he'd already done, once.

He went up looking for a curveball. The one in his first at bat was like nothing he'd ever seen. He strode into the pitch confidently, but the ball didn't break and popped him right under the adam's apple. After that, he felt a little less inclined to get too close to the plate.

So, he dug in cautiously and waited and there it was, the curve. This time it broke sharply, but too far outside. Ball one. Then came a fastball for a called strike, followed by another that was too high.

"He can't hit. He's scared," the third baseman yelled. "Throw it hard. He won't swing!"

Another pitch came, high, and he laid off, a ball for sure, but the next was close, inside he hoped, and he didn't move the bat. "Strike," the ump said, with no hesitation.

He stepped back a foot or two. Swung the bat a couple of times. Pulled on his cap. "Get in and hit," the catcher said quietly. The ump nodded. He leveled his bat over the plate. "No choice this time," he thought. "Be ready to swing when it leaves his hand."

The pitcher looked over the runners and then glared in for the sign, but he was really glaring at the batter since it was pretty clear it would be a fastball right down the slot. Hit it if you can, but I doubt it.

The batter moved the balls of his feet around in the dirt and cocked the bat. The pitcher went into the windup and the ball came flying out of his hand straight, blurred and right at the batter, who swung the bat forward as hard as he'd ever done...

Or, do you fancy a story about the workday world of the ballplayer:

The venerable cab driver who drove me to Crosley Field made more noise than the taximeter, and less sense.

"Some of these hackies you'd think they'd played baseball all their lives the way they talk. Just cause our Reds are on top, that's all ya hear, baseball! Why I never been to more than two games in my life - 26 years I been hackin' - and believe me, mister, I know more about baseball than any of 'em!"

"Must be an easy game to learn," I said.

"Your first game," he asked? "You're gonna be early."

If I didn't look like a ballplayer at the time, I soon felt like one. The clouds that had covered Cincinnati for days pressed moist air over everything that wasn't refrigerated. A damp jockstrap is almost doubtfully utilitarian. I debated taking a chance - forget it. And the condition of my lucky shoes made them unwearable. I dressed, felling clammy, signed a dozen baseballs, left passes for 10 people, tore up all the fan mail in my locker and trudged out to the field. It looked like a bad day.

The MLB Hall of Famer Ernie Banks often said it was a "great day to play two at beautiful Wrigley Field," but when I think of my lifelong attraction to the game of baseball, the passion was stoked by a book I read in the summer of 1960 written by a mediocre journeyman big league pitcher named Jim Brosnan, who spent many pleasurable afternoons in Wrigley's bullpen ruminating on the ballplayer's life.

To an 11-year-old, Brosnan's aptly titled "The Long Season" was a fascinating look at the game from the inside, one I don't think has been matched.

I've read my share of baseball books in the intervening years and met my share of big league ballplayers - the great and not so great - and had opportunities to see them in action as close as non-players get. I still think Brosnan captured the everyday rhythms of the game better than anyone because he not only played it, but also because he wrote about it in a forthright and literate style. In other words, he was a good storyteller.

Both "The Long Season" and the sequel published two years later "Pennant Race," Brosnan's first person account of the Reds' 1961 National League championship season, are still in print and available from the major booksellers, as well as through the statewide Marina Books interlibrary system in which the Harford County Public Library is a member.

There are parts in both books that will seem dated. African-Americans are referred to as "Negroes," women as "broads," and Brosnan wasn't sure what he thought about Latin ballplayers who had just started making an impact in the big leagues. The game also has changed, obviously. The relief pitcher has become a valuable commodity, not just an aging pitcher incapable of starting and pitching nine or more innings with each start. Big money in the game was discussed in tens of thousands of dollars then, tens of millions now. Pitchers, who still hit only in the National League today, fancied themselves hitters - that was a big deal then - and some could actually hit.

But all and all, both books have held up well in the ensuing 50-plus years, a tribute to the groundbreaking perception of their writer, who died at age 84 on June 28.

Brosnan wrote the second passage in this column, which is taken from "Pennant Race." The first passage? It was inspired by a rereading of "The Long Season" a couple of years ago.

It's a true story, from the same year I first read "The Long Season," about a sandlot game among a bunch of 13- and 14-year-olds, with a couple of 11-year-olds filling in on each team.

I'm not going to give away the end of the story, except to say the batter believes the lucky Mickey Mantle Model Louisville Slugger he used may be still safely stored away in his attic.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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