World Series baseball brings me back

By Adam Kotlarczyk

Baseball has had a rough year. With Jose Canseco’s book, hearings in the Senate and Rafael Palmeiro’s suspension for steroids, baseball’s image is as dinged up as Roger Clemens’ body.

It has lost a lot of fans. In fact, preliminary ratings data suggests this year’s World Series may be the least-watched ever, according to an ESPN online column.

But after watching the first three games of the World Series this year, I found myself reminded of an old black-and-white photograph that I remembered seeing in a baseball book as a boy.

It shows New York Giants legend Willie Mays on his way to the Polo Grounds in the 1950s, playing stickball in a Harlem street with some kids from the neighborhood. Mays awaits a pitch in his classic stance, except that his uniform is replaced by pleated slacks and a polo shirt, his cleats by loafers and his bat by a thin, battered broomstick.

This World Series has reminded me of that photograph because no matter how many artificially inflated muscles, $20 million contracts, fundamentally clueless players or abrasive John Rocker-types professional baseball throws at us, two teams like the White Sox and Astros remind us that baseball can still be good, simple and fun.

Granted, I’m a Chicago fan, so I’m biased this year. As of my deadline, the Sox led the Series three games to none, although by the time you read this, they may have won it all. And, as if to throw a bone to long-suffering Cubs fans, this year the baseball gods admitted one of the best, most complete, most professional players of his generation, Ryne Sandberg, into the Hall of Fame.

But the Sox and ‘Stros exemplify everything that can be right with baseball, like hard work.

Take Scott Podsednik, the light-hitting left fielder for the Sox who had no home runs all season but thumped out the walk-off homer to win game two. Podsednik struggled in the minors for more than eight years – eight – before he got his shot in the majors.

Then there’s a hero from game three, backup catcher Chris Widger. Widger drew a walk to add an insurance run in the 14th inning of game three. A year ago, he wasn’t even in baseball, playing instead in a slow-pitch softball league, where games were kept short “so we could go have a couple of beers.”

Even Sox first baseman Paul Konerko isn’t your typical superstar. He’s a quiet leader, with a look more akin to a seventh-year college senior than a sports megastar.

The Astros have their share of heroes, too. Of course there’s Roger Clemens. But Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell, two classy stars in the twilights of their careers, have played together for 15 seasons – the longest of any tandem currently in the majors. Yet they’re appearing in their first World Series. Against anyone but a Chicago team, I’d be pulling for them.

Seeing players like them in this series connects us again with mythical Octobers passed, so that we can’t help but be reminded of Mickey Mantle launching another ball into the seats, or Bob Gibson flinging fireballs, or Pete Rose sprinting to first base after being walked, or Carlton Fisk drifting in slow motion down the first base line, his eyes locked on that deep fly ball to left, waving at it with every ounce of his being.

Baseball has changed a lot. Gone are the days of your favorite player stopping to play stickball with you after a game, and that’s sad. But as this World Series has reminded us, it isn’t all steroids and spoiled stars.

They may not get the camera time, but there are still guys who play the game hard, smart and right, the way so many of us remember playing it – and seeing it played – as kids.

Columns reflect the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of the Northern Star staff.