The Padres are Winning––and I’m afraid of the Ball
by Ed Collins • June, 1997 (edited, May, 2013)
In the first inning we sent all 9 batters to the plate, scoring 4 runs on 6 hits. Now, in the bottom of the second, we’re ahead 8 to 1.
Maybe the Padres will win today.
Speaking of baseball, in the paper this morning I read about the impending sale of the Dodgers. After decades of ownership, the O’Malley family is selling the team to Rupert Murdoch, the international media tycoon. The writer suggested that before changes are made, anyone who enjoys baseball in its purest form should venture north to catch a game.
I agree. In San Diego, and most everywhere else, it’s said, they’re messing around with baseball. It’s possible that it’s just my age speaking, but I think it’s a mistake.
Inside the typical ballpark these days, they’re tinkering with the aesthetics of the game. In competition with the eye-pleasing symmetry of the field, along with its velvet-smooth green grass, red-clay dirt and stark white lines, is now are now enormous electronic billboards advertising distracting me with meaningless player stats, while others are selling me car insurance, soft drinks, tacos and gasoline.
In my youth, professional baseball was yours to savor, a spell created by the sights, sounds and smells of the game, field and stadium. There were no ear-piercing rock-and-roll anthems (there was, however, an organist, who provided a few accents and interludes). There were no slingshot-wielding cheerleaders, no electronic or real fireworks, no jumbotron exhorting fans to “Get loud,” or showing exhibitionistic fans dancing in the stands, or that stupid hide-the-ball–under-the-hat game to the tune of the Chicken Dance.
Instead, you kept your eyes on the field as you listened to the sounds of the game: The pitcher’s fastball hissing through the air; the ball popping into the catcher’s glove; the crack of the bat; the buzz of the crowd; the collective breath-holding when men are on base, two are out and the count is full; the anticipatory cheer when the hometown slugger sends a fly ball over an outfielder’s head; the guy hawking peanuts and Crackerjacks; the desperate pleas of encouragement for the pitcher who can’t find the plate; the unfiltered criticisms of the umpire, and all the distinctive whistles, yelps, hoots and hollers.
Things have changed, I realize: Starting with freeways, drive-thru restaurants, self-serve gas stations and microwave ovens, followed by VCRs and leaf-blowers, then mobile phones and laptops, now text messaging and photo sharing––it’s all made us a little antsy. Life’s tempo has sped up to the point that it’s difficult to sit still and watch the subtleties, the nuance, the color, the physical poetry of men throwing and catching, boldly and violently swinging (or confusedly and awkwardly missing), sprinting and sliding, or pounding a fist into a leather glove, or pushing dirt around with cleated shoes––all not as compelling, I guess, as the sight of an acrobatic bigger-than-life team mascot dancing comically to the Beatles’ Roll Over Beethoven. Maybe what’s happened is that electronic pastimes have molded us into passivists––where we once were satisfied to entertain ourselves, now we need to be entertained.
Baseball has always been a favorite pastime, both as a junior player and an adult fan. It may be a surprise for you to know that a short half-century ago, when I was a kid, baseball was king, an institution, a half-the-year soundtrack to daily life, a subject of common interest, greater than politics, more like the weather. It was sport, recreation, even academic, so to speak––when you consider that most of us Little Leaguers could name dang near every player on every Major League team, their position and, for the sharper students among us, their batting averages.
In the ’50s there were no other organized youth sports, at least where I lived. We’d play seasonal football and basketball in the streets, driveways and backyards, but it was by playing age-group baseball that a young athlete gained community respect.
As a kid my passion for baseball created my identity, but it also got me in trouble with my parents. First of all, my dad dismissed participation in sports––he thought that baseball was just an excuse to get out of doing house chores or mowing neighbor’s lawns. And every late afternoon, it seemed, I’d get my mother’s knickers in a twist when I didn’t immediately respond to her bellowing call for dinner. She was only five-feet tall, but her announcement that dinner was ready (“Eddie! … Dinner!!!”) could be heard throughout the neighborhood. And at night, during the Padres season, I routinely lied about finishing my homework, then, after turning off my bedroom light, I’d pretend to go to sleep, only to lay in bed, listening to the Padre game on my very own desk-top RCA radio, the sound turned down to just above a whisper. This worked for a while, but my mother started snooping around outside my bedroom door, listening for voices other than my own. I recall staring at the lighted crack under the door, looking for shadows of her feet, with one hand on the volume knob. Eventually, I lost the privilege of having a radio in my room. A year or two later, tiny transistor radios became popular, which made it harder for her to hear through my bedroom door, and the pillow I held against my head.
During those years the Padres were part of the Pacific Coast League, a level of play just below the Majors. The games were played at Lane Field, which was located downtown, at the foot of Broadway Street, across from the train station. (An aerial photo of the park hangs from a wall in my house; autographs of Floyd Robinson and Rocky Colavito are someplace I haven’t seen in decades.)
The Padres radio announcer was a guy by the name of Al Schuss. I don’t know now if I knew then, but he produced the out-of-town broadcast from a downtown radio station. And on away-games he would call the play-by-play by reading the results from a piece of paper that came over the wire (The earliest form of digital electronic communication, where abbreviated information came on a strip of paper that ran through telegraph lines into a machine called a stock ticker). He produced sound effects of ball, bat and glove by rapping a stick against a bat or a seat cushion. Recorded crowd cheers followed strikeouts and base hits. When he said “The pitcher toes the mound, peers in for the catcher’s signal, pitches out of the stretch, and fires a strike over the outside corner,” I could see it all. And his signature home-run call, still my favorite, was a singsong “And there it goes!”
I must have gone to at least a handful of Padres games at Lane Field, but I actually only remember one. One summer day I tagged along with an older neighborhood kid, and we took the bus. We were living in East County, in Spring Valley, and a trip to what felt like the big city, without a freeway system, was an all-day adventure. This was in 1956 or ‘57; I must have been 10 or 11 years old.
I remember that we arrived at the ballpark early enough to watch batting practice. Our hope against hope was to take home a ball, and my friend was convinced that our chances were best if we positioned ourselves in the outfield bleachers; unfortunately, the bleachers had been condemned because the wooden stands had been weakened by an army of hungry termites. At some point during the game my friend got a harebrained idea that got him in trouble.
His plan involved climbing a fence, sprinting through the bleachers, gathering as many balls as he could, then tossing them over the fence and into the hands of an accomplice (that would be me), then climbing over another fence, then high-tail it down Broadway. Not wanting to spoil his plan, besides being fearful of recourse, I did what he told me. In the middle of the 8th inning I left the stadium, then waited on the street adjacent to the bleachers (must’ve been right in front of the train tracks).
Anyway, I recall peering through a hole in the fence, watching him running and stooping and filling his hands and arms with balls. It seemed to be going as planned until I spotted two security guards sprinting to catch up with him. I can almost remember the look on his face as he ran, and how hard I mentally tried to slow down his pursuers. It was in right field, a dozen steps or so from the fence, that he stopped running, turned, and calmly started handing the balls to the men. To that point in my young life, it was the most exciting thing I’d ever witnessed.
From 1958 through 1967 the Padres played their home games in Mission Valley’s Westgate Park. I remember that the ballpark smelled like beer, hot peanuts and cigar smoke. I remember that someone used to play an organ there. I can almost remember his name. If I’m not mistaken, the same organist performed his timely tunes when the Padres moved into San Diego Stadium (later named Jack Murphy San Diego Stadium, now Qualcomm Stadium).
Last week I read in the paper that the Padres are installing TV sets in the stands. Now, I admit that it’s cool to watch a slow-motion replay of an acrobatic double play, or a successful pick-off play (that results in a pickle), but, personally, I like going someplace where there isn’t a TV. I mean, there’s enough to see on the field. Even between innings I like to watch the players. I get a kick out of watching the first baseman toss grounders to the infielders. To me it’s pleasing to the eye to watch professionals toss and catch balls. I know it’s fun to do it and I can see the players enjoying it too.
I think I have a pretty good feel for the game. As a kid I probably spent more time playing street, empty lot and backyard ball than I did studying. And I was a reasonably good player too, although I think I peaked in Little League. I played Pony League, Colt League and high school, but the only time I really stood out was when I was 11 and 12. I was a steady contact hitter (some call it a Punch-and-Judy hitter) a proficient fielder and one of the league’s leading base-stealers (this, despite the rule that you can’t lead off in Little League).
A lot of things have faded from memory, but I still recall some of the details of being struck in the face by the fastest pitcher in the league. He was bigger than the rest of us, and his roundish shape made him look like a pre-teen Fernando Valenzuela. I remember that the ball didn’t just glance off my cheekbone, it fell right at my feet––a direct hit. I remember sitting on the floor in the concession stand, holding an ice pack to the side of my face, waiting for my mother to pick me up. After the game my teammates came by to check on me. When I showed the damage, I watched their faces contort in response. Evidently, the whole side of my face was swollen, my eye a sliver. Even my mother winced when she saw me.
After the beaning I became even more skittish at the plate. Before, I couldn’t catch up to a fastball, and afterwards, a curveball scared the bejesus out of me. My trademark hit, when I got one, was a little Texas Leaguer over the second baseman’s head; sometimes I’d beat out an infield single, and I developed a reliable bunt.
My career highlight, I’m finally not ashamed to admit, took place when I was 12-years-old, in my last year of Little League. I played for the Valley de Oro Rams. Our color was purple. We went undefeated for the season, a perfect 18-and-0 (I know this because it’s written on the back of the team photo). Anyway, the Rams had a couple very good pitchers, and one––I think his name was Mike Allen––was pitching a no-hitter one Saturday afternoon, when, in the bottom of the seventh, and last, inning, with two out, an opposing player hit a dinky little pop fly just over the shortstop’s head. Well, I came racing in from center field, dove, snared the ball in the webbing of my Wilson 2000 glove, and then rolled head-over-heals (At least that’s the story as I’ve told it––I may have taken a more un-athletic spill). Anyway, when I came to my feet I had to look to see if the ball was still in my glove. It was. The game was over and the whole team, led by Mike Allen, carried me off the field. After the game Mike’s dad treated me to a snow cone. That I remember for sure.
I made the All Star team that year, and we won our first game. For the second game our regular third-baseman couldn’t play because his family went on vacation. So the manager put me at third, which, because my arm was as weak as my bat, didn’t seem like a good idea to me, at least. In the very first inning I was put to the test. I fielded a ground ball cleanly, then, summoning all the energy my 85-pound body could muster, I threw it way over the first baseman’s head, the ball landing in the third row of the bleachers.
You may have to be a fan of baseball to appreciate how amusing a wildly erratic throw is, I don’t know, but I’d give anything to see that replayed on the jumbotron at Qualcomm Stadium.
 Should mention our garage door, which must’ve absorbed a million tennis ball hits. The after-dinner fielding exercise was tolerated by my mother some days, halted others, depending, I guess, on her tolerance to hearing the continual thud, thud, thud. And it was the garage door practice that led to tennis, when a neighbor one day introduced me to a tennis racquet that would eventually produce a thwack and a thud, which really must’ve got on my mother’s nerves.