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Jun '11 22

Old World Pastime – Speak, Baseball

John Miller, a Belgian-American journalist, and a player/coach for the Brussels Kangaroos, is in his fourth year of writing Old World Pastime, a take on baseball as lived in 21th century Europe.

On the road, I’ve been reading. My favorite has been Kevin Kerrane’s classic account of scouting, Dollar Sign on the Muscle. It was written in 1981, so it’s an account of the profession before the Money Ball-statistics revolution.

After reading the book, I’m not entirely persuaded that that much has changed. There is still no sure way to tell whether an 18-year-old is going to gain the strength, skill and maturity needed to play in Major Leagues. If you, reader, have seen a study comparing first-round draft picks in the 2000s and the 1970s, please do send in. I’m curious.

Memory, you see, can play tricks. We are not necessarily wiser today.

I’ve also been reading Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir “Speak, Memory.” I’m not a fan of his so-called masterpiece “Lolita”, an ironic first-person narrative about a man in love with a kid. I just don’t get the book.

But I adore this memoir. The prose is delectable, like watching Maddux or Pedro in their primes. (How well would those guys do in the era of the skinny-armed hitter?)

He writes about his past, his childhood, but he also writes about the magic of memory.

“A sense of security, of well-being, of summer warmth pervades my memory,” he writes. “That robust reality makes a ghost of the present. The mirror brims with brightness; a bumblebee has entered the room and bumps against the ceiling. Everything is as it should be, nothing will ever change, nobody will ever die.”

This picture brims with brightness. I have written about this day in this space before, but it deserves another swing, and Nabokov helped the recall.

From left to right, that’s Jaime Cevallos (a ballplayer, now a.k.a. The Swing Mechanic. One of his clients is Ben Zobrist), Cal Ripken, Sr., me and Irene Cuyun, another college classmate who (still) loves baseball just as much as Jaime and me. She loves the game with a pure heart.

This was September of 1998. Jaime had worked a summer camp with Cal, Sr. at our college, Mount Saint Mary’s in Maryland. Cal, Sr. invited him to a crab feast and said “bring some friends”, who turned out to be me and Irene. For this, I am still grateful, Jaime. If Jack McKeon ever invites me for Scotch, I will return the favor.

Cal, Sr. is holding a cigarette in his right hand. A week later, ESPN would report that he had lung cancer. A year later, he was gone.

During the afternoon, I walked through the Ripken’s living room to use the bathroom. Cal, Sr. was sitting on the couch watching, on the television, Mark McGwire hit. September of 1998, remember? McGwire hit a homerun, number 66 or 67. We did not have a very enlightened conversation. I said something like “unbelievable” and he just grunted. But still, it was just the two of us, and I have spent enough time on the outside looking in to appreciate the humble truth of the moment.

The Ripken’s living room, by the way, was decorated with a random collection of trophies and plaques that included stuff like the 1974 Aberdeen Little League sportsmanship award, granddaughter soccer trophies, and, I will never forget this, the 1983 American League MVP award.

At some point, I did corner Billy Ripken (he was retired by then, unlike Cal, Jr., who was on the road playing that day) and tell him about baseball in Belgium, and the Brussels Kangaroos. Of course I did.

I’m still too locked into current baseball adventures to explore what they’ve meant to me, but another part of the past, like this picture, is sitting there to enjoy. Baseball has been one constant since I was seven, so it is always there, running straight through seasons and winters, anchoring time. Memory will speak again. This game is good for that.

What are your best baseball memories? Always listening at oldworldpastime@gmail.com

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