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Painting a fresh red apple with paintbrushThere it is again. A post-game interview in which a Big League ball player describes his emotional state during a key point in the game as having been “definitely surreal.”

I’ve noticed a lot athletes, particularly members of the San Francisco Giants, because I watch their games more than others, are using “surreal” these days as a go-to adjective to describe what older players may have called “amazing,” “fantastic,” or “unreal.”

Those words are all acceptable synonyms for the non-art-world meaning of surreal, though they give no hint of the other-worldly, hallucinatory sense at the core of things properly called surreal.

While it’s no reason to send a player back to the minors for more practice on interview phrases, I wish ball players would excise surreal from their bat rack of handy cliches. It makes them sound as if they had spent the previous four hours at a Phish concert rather than on a baseball diamond.

Just the other day, grinning Giants rookie Kelby Tomlinson said the experience of hitting a grand slam as his first home run in the Major Leagues was, you got it, surreal.

I’m the first to give the kid a break since he’s probably heard plenty of other ball players this season describing other key hits, outstanding plays, dugout pranks or standing ovations as surreal. But an intervention is needed.

It’s become so widespread a usage that even players who speak through translators are using surreal in their native tongue like so many dazed Phish heads or art history minors. I fear by next season, players will be describing their emotional highs as “definitely post-impressionistic” or “downright Dadaesque.”

To clear the air, I offer a few baseball scenarios that would truly warrant being described as surreal:

— If Hunter Pence, the free-spirited Giants outfielder, walks his pet lobster on a leash — Salvador Dali-style — to the batting cage in advance of taking his pre-game rips.

— If hundreds of black-suited umpires wearing bowler hats descend slowly through the stadium air with rolled up umbrellas, jewel-studded chest protectors and featureless faces.

— If Los Angeles Dodgers players run forever toward first base with heavy bags of money encumbering their legs, but never reach base, while packs of vicious gulls befoul their tidy white uniforms with gallons of guano. (This is a hallucinatory dream enjoyed, perhaps, by many Giants fans.)

— If Giants manager Bruce Bochy speaks ancient Etruscan during his post game press conference and all the media people understand perfectly as he explains how shortstop Brandon Crawford “ground out a good at-bat” despite how his long hair was transformed into a tangle of hissing serpents.

Sea. Creative.Don’t get me wrong. Many unusual things can happen during a baseball game. It’s true one can go to the park or tune in a game on any given day and stand a very good chance of witnessing something never seen before.

Still, nothing truly surreal happens, unless you mistakenly count the August 1951 game when the St. Louis Browns used 3-foot-7-inch Eddie Gaedel as a first-inning pinch hitter. Gaedel, who wore the number 1/8, drew a four-pitch walk.

There was nothing surreal about this episode, which was cooked up by Bill Veeck, the Browns’ shameless publicity hound of an owner. Veeck reportedly threatened to shoot Gaedel if the wee man dared swing at a pitch.

Now had Gaedel blasted the first pitch over the center-field wall, causing all the time pieces in the stadium to slowly melt while the fielders’ mitts overflowed with milk and radishes, there would have been only one way to accurately call the play: definitely surreal.


Baseball’s back, and all is right with the world


Old Baseball and Glove on Faded WoodWatched some baseball on TV last night and woke up feeling rested and optimistic. Switching channels to the NCAA finale also was good for the mood, but the big credit goes to baseball. If you’re watching baseball, you’re either retired or you worked your day out just right.

Watching baseball is like reading a good book. It takes patience to get to the really good parts, and the good parts make you forget about the waiting. Watching baseball is like weeding the garden. It’s incremental and rewarding in a subtle way. At the end of the furrow, nothing has been created but something has been accomplished.

Baseball is an old movie, black and white even when it isn’t. You may have seen the pre-season TV commercials for the Giants, showing the end of last year’s World Series mostly in black and white. Good commercials.

Because I like baseball, I suppose I should like soccer. Like baseball, soccer is a process. What happens in the third inning, or the tenth minute, sets the stage for what happens in the seven inning or the final minute. But they’re always moving in soccer and there aren’t enough pauses, fresh starts. And if you didn’t run around soccer fields when you were a kid, the game doesn’t have the nostalgic appeal of baseball.

I was, of course, one of the worst baseball players ever. My little league was on an Air Force base. There were four teams each year, the Flyers, Jets, Rockets and Pilots. Hats were blue, red, green and yellow, in that order. No one wanted to be a Pilot because of the yellow. My best friend was the best player and he had enough pull with the coaches to save me from the yellow.

I like basketball, too, but football not so much. Football fans are too loud. And football players are almost anonymous with all that hardware welded onto their helmets. In baseball, you can see faces. Hunter Pence should be seen. You recognize your favorites by the way they stand at the plate.

Football players have to rest up for a week. Baseball players play all the time. If you miss a game, no worries, there will be another one tomorrow. If you can’t watch, they’re worth listening to on the radio. If only there was a way to have Vin Scully talk us through every game.

It would be better if there were still double-headers. Your day was baseball and nothing else except for getting there and back.

3d rendering of a Baseball on a pitchers mound

Baseball is a warm evening, a sip of whiskey, a poem that makes sense the first time through. It doesn’t have to be pro ball. Knowing that the boys of summer are millionaires washes some of the charm away, so a high school game, an American Legion game if they still have those, even a softball game at the schoolyard down the street is worth a few minutes or a few hours.

Some of my friends love to memorize the numbers of baseball, the batting averages and the obscure statistics like number of times reaching base against a left-handed pitcher from another hemisphere. TRBLPHs, for short. They like to argue about baseball. Roberto Clemente or some other fellow?

I don’t have a head for that stuff. But I can remember in great detail how Mickey Mantle looked catching a deep fly while we watched it on TV and my dad ate pretzels and clam dip and drank Oly beer and forgot just for a while to be upset about this or that. I remember Dizzy Dean singing the Wabash Cannonball during the seventh-inning stretch and my dad waking up and singing along, like we didn’t have a care in the world.


The day baseball left Oral Roberts almost speechless


A baseball card commemorates the day Larry Bird pretty much ruined a funeral

Some baseball fans were tickled by comedian Will Ferrell’s publicity stunt Thursday, which saw him taking the field to play his own form of ball for various teams at spring training. Others were appalled, calling it disrespectful, forgetting first that A. It’s just a game and B. The season hasn’t even started yet.

Just for the record, I know of a baseball-related publicity stunt that turned into something much more disrespectful.

It was the spring of 1979 and I was a reporter for the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette. Back then, the Journal-Gazette made no effort to hide its status as the Democratic paper in a two-newspaper town. The competing News-Sentinel was the grumpy GOP standard bearer, to the point of practically inventing Dan Quayle.

Anyway, Birch Bayh was the popular Democratic senator and he had been that forever. Nearly as popular was his wife, Marvella, who was an active player in public affairs and Democratic causes despite lingering illnesses and injuries stemming from an auto accident and a plane crash that injured Ted Kennedy.

Mrs. Bayh was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1971 and, after recovery, became a spokeswoman for the American Cancer Society. The cancer returned in 1978, and she died on April 24, 1979. She was only 46.

I was assigned to cover her funeral, though it was all the way across the state in Terre Haute. The service was in an old, large brick church on the edge of the Indiana State University campus. The press corps was large that day, at least a couple of dozen, with several TV cameras included. The church was packed. I sat in the balcony.

The eulogy was by Mrs. Bayh’s favorite preacher, Oral Roberts. My recollection was that he was about halfway into it when it happened.

From my perch, I saw that several of the reporters were leaving. One by one, the TV cameras filed out as well, quickly. There was quite a stir down below. Roberts was obviously perplexed.

As a longtime practitioner of pack journalism, I ventured outside to see what was up. One of the local reporters clued me in.

“It’s Larry Bird,” he said, excitedly.

“What about Larry Bird?” I asked.

I knew quite a bit about Larry Bird because he was one of the two biggest stars in college basketball that year. Just a month earlier, he had led the Indiana State Sycamores to a second-place finish in the NCAA championship, losing a close final game to a Michigan State team led by Magic Johnson.

“He’s playing baseball,” the local replied.

“Huh?” I replied, thinking he had said basketball.

“He’s playing baseball right now. You’d better get over there.”

Like the rest of the pack, I made my way a couple of blocks to the baseball field, where the story unfolded.

Bird, all 6-feet-8 of him, was playing first base that day for the Indiana State baseball team. He was a good baseball player, with two hits that day, but he wasn’t part of the team. It was a stunt to help build a crowd and some publicity for the Sycamore baseball squad.

There was no reason for me to stick around. The wire services would provide my paper with more than it needed to know about Bird’s baseball prowess. So I scooted back to the church.

Oral Roberts was just finishing his eulogy and sermon, a performance that surely topped Bird’s on that day. I was one of the first reporters to return to the church, and there were regular funeral-goers who wanted to know what was up. I told them. A couple were amused, at least a little, but most were upset, more upset than anybody got when Will Ferrell took the field Thursday.

Can’t say as I blame them.


I realize I may be far more excited about the World Series, which starts this week, than many Americans. Already there are predictions the series will produce television ratings so low that the whole thing should be banished to the back of a minor-league bus rambling through the hinterlands.

But It is an intriguing matchup between Middle America and the Left Coast, as represented by the Kansas City Royals and the San Francisco Giants.

The Royals, whose fans have decked a decidedly red state in a prairie of blue (their uniforms are royal blue and cloud white), have captured the imagination of baseball cognoscenti throughout the land. They haven’t been to the World Series since 1985, and the current team plays defense with the speed, grace and will of Marvel super heroes.

The Giants, an orange-and-black mix of old hands, rookies, recycled pitchers and cool customers, are making a serious bid to become one of the greatest baseball dynasties of all time. They won it all in 2010 and 2012, and, by gosh, this is another even-numbered year, so the good vibes are vibrating for the team by the Bay.

Just the music that will be played around the edges of the game should be magical. Charlie Parker, the prophet of modern jazz, hailed from Kansas City, the destination of a thousand bands who’ve sung joyously of going to Kansas City.

San Francisco had its sound, and still has Tony Bennett singing about cable cars and stars. And yes, two members of the Grateful Dead likely will sing the National Anthem before one game with the Giants’ third-base coach. That’s just the way The City rolls.

And unlike the other two major sports, football and baseball, in which identified stars inevitably decide the outcome of contests for all the marbles, baseball’s World Series has a way of shining halos above the heads of the unlikeliest members on the 25-man rosters.

What other sport has a play as simple and, at the same time, as complex as the sacrifice bunt? It is the 120-year antithesis to the self-adulation that accompanies every sack in football and every alley-oop jam in basketball.

I could go on and on about the many dimensions of complexity just under the surface of a game where, at any moment, the players are either standing around or sitting on a sunken bench. But I won’t. Other writers and filmmakers have done it far better.

And again, the casual baseball fan’s two most common questions arising during the World Series — “Why do they spit and scratch themselves so much?” — will go unanswered.

But this World Series will keep baseballers in Northern California and the rest of the world transfixed over the next several days. And people who choose not to tune in, of course, won’t know what they are missing. Bush-leaguers.

My prediction: Giants in six.


The owner of a minor league baseball team from Bakersfield, appropriately named The Bakersfield Blaze, says the team may move to Salinas for the 2016 season. The nickname, I figure, refers to Bakersfield’s blast-furnace climate and not to one of the hardscrabble city’s pioneer strippers.

The Blaze ownership’s first pitch will be thrown Tuesday to the Salinas City Council, and will include, per initial reports, plans for a 5,000-seat stadium on East Alisal Street financed largely with private money. Watch closely if the council has the old hidden ball of public financing tossed at it. The only sure thing is that Councilman Jose Castaneda likely will be against whatever his colleagues have to say on the subject.

The Class A team, which just lost its affiliation with the Cincinnati Reds, has the oldest stadium in the California League and the league’s lowest attendance. That’s despite having not one but three costumed team mascots — Torch, Heater and Pat D. Panda.

In years past, I attended minor league baseball games when Salinas fielded the prodigious Packers and the zesty Peppers in the old northside yard near the DMV office and rodeo grounds. I always thought a good name for a Salinas team back then would be the Pickle Pepper Packers, the Spry Spurs, The Fog, The Mist or The Foggy Mist.

500_F_60115782_25WUyIBSc35kXN4kVaOrj7BvRdKTufynThe complaint I heard most often about going to the ballpark was that nights in July and August in Salinas were too damn cold and wet. Indeed, there was a city softball field in the shadows of the real ballpark. I worked at the Salinas Californian then and played first base and outfield for several seasons in the Class Z softball league. Imagine that, a small-town newspaper with enough employees to field a softball team. Today, your average newspaper would be hard pressed to field a two-person toboggan team without resorting to freelancers.

Those softball nights were cold and damp. As soon as the sun went down behind the fog bank racing in from Castroville, there was enough dew on the outfield grass to solve the Monterey Peninsula’s water woes. One night in left field, I tried to get a jump on a low fly hit my way. One foot slipped, then the other slipped, and soon I resembled Bugs Bunny trying to dance on a frozen lake. I did something bad to my right knee, left the game and went to a doc-in-the-box clinic. Two friends and I left puddles of ballyard drizzle on the clinic’s floor as we waited for someone to check my knee, swollen by then to the size of an iceberg lettuce head in August.

Thirty years later, I believe climate change may be working in Salinas’ favor when it comes to night baseball games. This summer has been the foggiest-free summer I can remember. Many nights were clear, warm and surprisingly drizzle-free. So it may be a good time for minor league baseball’s return to Salinas.  And the team could sponsor a contest to let the community pick a nickname, say the Salinas Cool But Not Colds.

I have ideas for three new mascots — Crucifer Cruiser, Straw Berry Good, and Mixed Green Marauder. Hey, it’s not the majors.