Wissot: Baseball is dated and so am I
I only remember the emerald green grass and the vanilla ice cream cone my dad bought me.
Years later my father reminded me that he had taken me to Yankee Stadium to see the Bronx Bombers play. It was 1950. I was 5 at the time. He also told me that Phil Rizzuto at shortstop and Joe DiMaggio in centerfield were playing for the Yankees. I was too busy licking my ice cream to notice.
I matured. By 10, I had become an avid baseball fan. I wasn’t a Yankees fan. I was a fan of the Giants who played across the Harlem River from Yankee Stadium at the Polo Grounds. I got to see the Giants play until 1958 when they left the city along with the Brooklyn Dodgers for the greener (as in money) pastures of California, settling in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
The Giants left me but I never left them. Now 77, I still look for the outcome of their games first on my ESPN app. There’s something about baseball that breeds loyalty in a person of my generation. Maybe that’s because when I became a sports fan in the 1950s, baseball was truly America’s pastime, the only professional sport that was widely available for Americans to watch and listen to on television and radio.
The NFL and the NBA were in their relative infancies compared to pro baseball, which got its start right after the Civil War. The NHL was still a Canadian sport played by Canadians for the enjoyment of Canadians. We had NHL teams in Boston, Detroit, Chicago and New York, but the fan base in those cities did not treat hockey like the national religion it was in Montreal and Toronto.
The sports landscape changed in the second half of the 20th century. In the late 1970s, the growing popularity of the Super Bowl vaulted football into limelight once reserved exclusively for the World Series. The 1980s was the decade of the Magic Johnson-led Los Angeles Lakers battling the Larry Bird-led Boston Celtics for supremacy in the NBA. The basketball playoffs in June were must-see TV. By the time the Colorado Avalanche came to Denver in 1995 and promptly won the Stanley Cup, hockey had arrived as a major spectator sport and an increasingly popular youth sport.
Football, basketball, and hockey are all thriving now because they mesh perfectly with our Facebooking, TikToking, Snapchatting, Instagramming, HipHopping, selfie-crazed century. Baseball is a pastoral, 19th-century, American game; an agonizingly slow-moving sport out of step with the rhythm of our times. It faces a fate in the 21st century similar to the one that confronted the horse and buggy in the early 20th when automobiles replaced them as the major means of transportation.
I don’t want to leave the impression that I dislike the other three major professional sports. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am a sports fanatic, an admirer of athletic greatness in all its forms. Colorado is a superb mecca for sports.
Some of my fondest sports memories since moving to Colorado 45 years ago took place watching the Denver Bears and the Broncos in the old Mile High Stadium; the Nuggets in McNichols Arena before it was demolished; both basketball and hockey at the Pepsi Center before it was renamed Ball Arena; and the Rockies at Coors Field where I had season tickets for 10 years.
Players like John Elway, Terrell Davis, Peyton Manning, Vinny Castilla, Dante Bichette, Todd Helton, Alex English, Dikembe Mutombo, Nikola Jokić, Patrick Roy, Joe Sakic, and Nathan MacKinnon have made me proud to be part of Colorado’s rich sports heritage.
Baseball holds a hallowed place in my heart because it was the sport that I began following in childhood and has accompanied me into adulthood. It’s the sport I enjoyed with my father first and my youngest daughter later; the sport that reminds me on Opening Day each spring to have faith in eternal renewal; the sport that caused me to ask for an excessive number of bathroom passes in sixth grade so I could sneak into a stall in the boys’ bathroom and listen on my transistor radio for the score in the Yankees-Dodgers World Series games.
When you are old like me, the memories that are the most valued are the earliest ones. I think it is because my future is short and my past long. I prefer to reflect on what once was rather than on what will soon be.
I can’t tell you what restaurant I went to two weeks ago or what movie I saw last week, but I can give you a perfectly accurate and detailed picture of a single play that took place at the Polo Grounds in 1957. I went there to see two of baseball’s future legendary greats: Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente. If you don’t know who they were, no worries. Mays and Clemente were to baseball what Pablo Picasso was to painting: masters of their craft.
In the seventh inning. Mays, a terror on the base paths, tried to race from first to third on a single. Clemente in right field, who as the great Vin Scully once remarked “could field a ball in New York and throw out the runner in Pennsylvania,” unleashed a rocket and nipped Mays, who had lost his hat rounding second sliding head first into third.
I never noticed the emerald green grass that day, nor did I have a vanilla ice cream cone in my hand.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.