TOM COYNE: Back in Circulation — Baseball Can Be Worth The Wait

The major league baseball playoffs are in full swing and if this year’s early games are any indication, we could be in for a memorable fall.  There have already been masterful pitching performances, monstrous home runs, odd plays and plenty of drama.  Toss in the fact that the four teams still alive haven’t won a World Series in at least 22 years and the recipe is both fresh and captivating.  But then, I’ve been caught up in these Fall Classics for a lot longer than that.

tom4I guess it started in the early 1960s.  My grandfather, Bill Johnson, was always a hard-working man.  Even after retirement, Grandpa needed something to do.  The Minnesota Twins were looking for parking attendants at the then brand new Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington.  Bill jumped at the chance to steer Twins’ fans straight, as they attempted to negotiate the vast spaces around the park, conveniently identified by sections named after major league teams.

Barely into double digits, I was curious why Grandpa always seemed to avoid parking his car in the New York Yankees lot.  I was too young then to understand the hatred for the Bronx Bombers.  But I did enjoy those drives up Cedar Avenue in his gold Bel Air Chevrolet, because it meant I was going to a ballgame.

One of my favorite perks was getting to the Met early.  Most of the afternoon games back in those days started around one.  But for Grandpa to do his job, he needed to be on the grounds by 11 AM.  Since the gates to the stadium opened at the same time, it meant I had free rein around the mostly vacant stadium.  So when batting practice began, foul balls would rattle through the rafters with regularity and I had little competition in hunting them down.

tom3As I grew older, my love for sports certainly wasn’t limited to baseball.  In high school, I played football and basketball, and ran track in the spring.  I played years of softball, took up sportscasting as a career and still enjoy golfing with old friends.  Yet there was something about “The Grand Old Game” that kept luring me back.

Like a slow brewed cup of coffee or a fine wine aged gracefully, baseball builds its drama carefully.  Don’t get me wrong.  Other sports  can certainly have exciting moments, too.  Football offers the game-changing catch or electrifying long touchdown run.  Hockey and soccer games can end unpredictably with a magical goal in overtime.  But that kind of spontaneity is there and then it’s gone quickly.  What makes baseball special is its pace.

For years, baseball has been struggling to maintain its popularity with the younger audience.  When kids have grown up with smart phones, social media and action-packed videos, they can get bored in a hurry.  Yet my contention has always been that what makes a mid-season, blowout, four hour baseball game nearly unwatchable in the summer, can often work in reverse in the fall, if the circumstances are right.

I’m not saying baseball doesn’t have issues.  They’ve attempted to address these with time limits between innings and pushes to get hitters back in the batter’s box more quickly.  And those endless conversations at the mound between managers and pitchers can send teenagers to the exits or at least to their cellphones for relief, in a heartbeat.

But give me a game with something big on the line and a sellout crowd.  Now those moments between pitches and those hours between playoff games allow fans to slowly soak up the drama and ponder their teams’ fates.  Consider what Chicago Cubs’ supporters are experiencing these days, knowing their team hasn’t won a World Series since 1908.  Waiting impatiently to discuss who should pitch when or what strategies to employ against the New York Mets, must be building to a fever pitch.  And in the Big Apple, Mets’ fans are savoring the rare chance to watch their team go for it all, instead of their Yankee counterparts.

When the Toronto Blue Jays rallied to beat the Texas Rangers the other day, winning the series in the fifth and deciding game, it reminded me why I love baseball.  Watching nearly 50,000 screaming folks decked out in blue and white, stand in unison as Jose Bautista launched a game-changing home run into the Rogers Centre sky, it brought back wonderful memories for this Minnesota kid.  The Kent Hrbek grand slam, the Homer Hankies, the incredible noise inside the Metrodome as our Twins captured their first championship 28 years ago…and I had been lucky enough to cover it all as a sports reporter.

Bautista’s 7th inning blast was the big news this week.  Yet if you watched that game Wednesday afternoon, you also know that the entire inning lasted nearly an hour.  Not exactly a great endorsement for baseball’s attempt to “speed things up.”  But try telling that to Toronto and Texas supporters and millions more watching at home, who saw an incredible mix of controversy, gamesmanship and edge-of-your seat drama that had a little bit of everything.

When Grandpa Johnson and I went to Metropolitan Stadium 50 years ago, I was probably more interested in snatching foul balls and eating hot dogs on a lazy summer afternoon than whether or not my team won the ballgame.  But I remember wishing those days would never end.  I’m guessing that fans in Chicago, New York, Toronto and Kansas City have similar thoughts these days.

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