Columnist William Newman: Play ball! Play ball?

  • In this Oct. 13, 1960, file photo, fans rush onto the field toward Pittsburgh Pirates’ Bill Mazeroski as he comes home on his Game 7-ending home run in the ninth inning to win the World Series against the New York Yankees in Pittsburgh. aP FILE

Published: 7/31/2020 6:20:18 PM

They made me happy. They called the first baseman Moose and the shortstop the Scooter and the cuddly catcher with the oddball aphorisms Yogi. And then there was my hero, Mickey Mantle.

The Yankees won the American League almost every year. Things almost always worked out for them. They were a reliable emotional ballast in my unreliable kid world.

There was the flukey season of 1954, about which arguably I remember nothing because that was the summer I turned four. The Yankees won 103 games in a 154-game season but finished eight games behind the stupendously good Cleveland Indians. The Red Sox finished 34 games behind the Yankees. (Sorry, but I thought you should know that.)

Cleveland then lost the World Series to the New York Giants in four straight games. As a kid I believed that Cleveland got demolished by the Giants in the Series because God had punished them for beating the Yankees in the regular season.

And 1959. Ouch. 1959. The Yankees finished in third place. I counted down the days until spring training would start.

Now would be an appropriate time to share with you what a man named Bill Mazeroski did to me.

In 1960 the Yankees returned to the World Series, and their batters pummeled Pittsburgh Pirates pitching, winning games 16-3, 10-0 and 12-0. But the Yanks also lost three low-scoring games, which brought them to game 7 where, with the Pirates coming to bat in the bottom of the ninth, the score was tied 9-9.

Bill Mazeroski was the Pirates’ fabulous fielding, light hitting second baseman who in his career averaged eight home runs a season. Mazeroski hit Yankees pitcher Ralph Terry’s second pitch over the left field wall for the first and only game 7 walk-off home run in the history of baseball. The Yankees lost 10-9. I would have cried but boys didn’t cry, and anyway I was in too much shock and pain for that.

The next year, 1961, the Yanks won the World Series, defeating the Cincinnati Reds, and in 1962 survived a head-in-hands, I-can’t-bear-to-look-at-this, World Series seventh game bottom of the ninth scare against the San Francisco Giants to win 1-0. The next two years the Yankees again won the American League pennant but lost the Series — in ‘63 to the Dodgers and in ‘64 to St. Louis. The Yankees were getting old, and 1964 marked the end of their dynasty. By the time the Yankees made it to the World Series again, I was practicing law in Northampton.

Fast forward some decades. Last weekend the days were warm; the sky was clear; and the Major League Baseball season had begun. Finally.

There were games to listen to or watch — albeit fanless: the Yankees versus the World Champion Washington Nationals, the Red Sox against the Baltimore Orioles (who had lost an astoundingly awful 223 games the previous two years combined, so what could go wrong?) This weird COVID-19 quarantined world felt semi-normal.

For an eyeblink. On Sunday, July 25, four members of the Miami Marlins tested positive for COVID-19. By Monday the number had swelled to 12, plus two staffers. The Marlins’ next two games were cancelled. By Tuesday the number of infected Marlin players had risen to 15.

The MLB play-during-Covid experiment has more dangers than those in professional basketball or hockey. Those sports are either proceeding directly to their playoffs or having a reduced number of teams while playing in only a couple venues, with the players living essentially in a bubble and not traveling. MLB, in contrast, has scheduled its 30 teams to play a 60-game season, followed by extensive playoffs, in 30 stadiums across the United States.

We all want normalcy. People in America want it so badly that we seem willing to destroy that possibility by refusing to do the simple sensible things that would bring back normal as soon as possible: wear a mask; don’t congregate; listen to Dr. Anthony Fauci; ignore Donald Trump.

Baseball, often thought of as a metaphor for life, is providing a sobering object lesson. As the New York Times report on the Marlins’ COVID-19 outbreak put it, “If baseball, a $10 billion industry operating in a controlled environment and employing frequent testing, cannot prevent infections, then how are schools, restaurants, and other retail businesses going to do so?”

It strikes me that the odds of this baseball season being played without serious interruption are about as good as Bill Mazeroski’s final swing in the 1960 World Series ending up as an out — caught on the warning track — instead of landing as a home run on the other side of the outfield wall. I know — unlikely. Still, I watched the clip of that at-bat probably a half-dozen times in preparation for writing this column, and every time I watched Mazeroski connect and send that ball on its journey, I had hope.

Bill Newman is a Northampton-based lawyer and radio show host who grew up in New York. His column is published the first Saturday of the month.

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