Column: Remembering why I love baseball, and learning to enjoy the little things

While watching a National Geographic special titled "Stress" the other day, I was struck by what a scientist offered up on the busy-busier-busiest lives of modern humans. The scientist in question, a primatologist who's been studying African monkey populations for the last 30 years, said, after explaining why monkeys with less stressful lives tend to live longer, "the whole 'rat race, faster, better, cheaper,' ethos, that's not really what life is about, or it shouldn't be, anyway. Life should be about finding a balance, between the things you enjoy, and things you need to do."

As a journalist, though I do get to sleep later than the average worker, and attend sporting events for free, I far too often find myself losing the balance that scientist was talking about, and when that is lost I start looking at things I once enjoyed with a jaundiced eye. Baseball would be A-number one on that list. I love baseball more than any other sport, always have, but writing about it, on deadline, day in and day out, tends to suck a lot of the fun out of it. Getting to watch professional baseball for free, to actually get paid for being at the stadium, I thank my lucky stars for that gift, but interviewing a manager whose team just got shut out, and having to ask him what "positives" he saw during the game, that's not something I'd put in the "enjoyable" category.

All of this stems largely from a lack of perspective. As I attend four to six games per week on a professional basis, I cease to see things as a fan and former player. Not being able to cheer in the press box, hoping something interesting happens or a certain member of the team does something noteworthy so I can write a more interesting article, these draw my focus away from what a lovely game baseball is, and turn me into the hard, icy-hearted journalist.

Luckily enough, I was reminded earlier this week of why I've always held baseball in such high regard. On Monday and Tuesday afternoon, while staking out Ripken Stadium in the hopes of landing an interview with a certain major league right fielder who was taking batting practice with the IronBirds, I watched about two hours worth of the IronBirds' pre-game routine. Just sitting in the stands, no deadline looming, no leads to be reworked for the article I'm working on in the press booth, no phones ringing, no rote questions for the frustrated manager. Seeing players hit, shag fly balls, scoop up grounders, was such a nice change.

First of all, the crack of a batted ball in an empty stadium is the greatest sound in all of sports, maybe in all the world. There's a sharp report when the bat meets the ball, almost like a small caliber rifle being fired in the woods, then it bounces off the outfield wall, back around the stands and dissipates after three or four echoes. Every three seconds for the entirety of batting practice, you can count on this sound to be heard, and it's nearly hypnotic.

There's a saying that goes, "if you want to see how gifted pro athletes really are, go watch them practice," and I firmly believe that. Watching Lorena Ochoa hit 50-yard wedge shots onto the practice green at Bulle Rock before her second round at the 2009 LPGA Championship was amazing, and I was equally awed witnessing the IronBird infielders run through double-play combinations on successive afternoons earlier this week. I think in 12 years of playing organized baseball, I was a part of 20 successful double play attempts (none if which came in high school, when I moved from the middle infield to catcher), so watching second basemen make the pivot and fire off a perfect, chest-high throw to first, over and over again, always leaves me silent.

That which struck the deepest chord with me though, mostly as someone who spent a good deal of his youth on a baseball field, was seeing the players goofing off, joking around with each other out there during the practice. One of the IronBirds stationed out in right field starting doing a stupid dance when Toto's "Africa" was played over the stadium's loudspeaker. Someone out in center field attempted to do a Willie Mays style, over-the-shoulder basket catch of a long fly, and chuckled when he missed it. These players eat and breathe baseball, and I know they take it deadly seriously, but they're loose enough to have a little fun out there. As that scientist said, it's all about balance.

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