February 8, 2010

Occasionally it’s fun to write about things only tangential to farming, so this is one of those times. I’ve wanted to compose an essay for awhile on the topic of “How I came to be a SF Giants baseball nut after a lifetime of not giving a whoop about organized sports.” This actually has something to do with farming, so stay tuned.

When I met my farming partner some years back, his house was the place to hang on hot summer afternoons. Fully air-conditioned, relative peace and quiet, and a big screen TV with HD. My farming partner IS a sports nut, which has always been a guaranteed eye-roller for me. Sports in general has always seemed to me to be a topic that aborbs too many, to the unfortunate exclusion of other more important pursuits. I grew up in a house where every sport known to man was on TV, seemingly constant. Football was incomprehensible and basketball wasn’t far behind. Boxing seemed ugly, and golf, NASCAR, tennis and anything else I’m forgetting to mention were like watching paint dry. There was always a little tolerance for baseball on my part, though, because my dad used to take me to A’s games and I liked that. I didn’t understand the game beyond the merest basics, but I strongly liked being at the ballpark. It felt exciting to see things happening in front of me, even though I didn’t know triple play from a ground rule double. My dad tried to explain the game to me somewhat, but at that time in my life it just didn’t seem to compute. But even back then there I had an awareness that baseball was something American, and that just like I was a kid sitting in the stands now, other kids at my age in days long past went to the ballpark too….it connected all of us.

So back to those summer afternoons…..my partner has season tickets to the SF Giants, and the ball games were always on during those hot afternoons at the house. One day I spotted a large book on the shelf, which was the publication version of Ken Burns’ “Baseball” mega-documentary. I started reading at the beginning for something to do, and rapidly found myself completely sucked in. By the time I was a kid in the 70s, I would argue that the game had changed quite a bit, and for the worse. Huge player salaries and all the bureaucracy that accompanies modern professional sports always seemed to be the talk. But in that book, I read about the old time baseball players that were heroes to generations of Americans. Men who didn’t earn big money, but played with heart and captivated the national imagination because their whole purpose was to excel with pride at what they did. No one will get me to believe that Ty Cobb or Christy Mathewson were in it for the money, because back then there just wasn’t that much paid to those guys. And so reading about these players of a bygone time gave me some excitement, some understanding of what the game was and why it had a pedigree worth learning about. Also noteworthy for the amateur historian in me were the parallels between baseball and the evolution of American society, which others have written about so well elsewhere.

So after many months, I finished the “Baseball” book, and was logging more and more hours staring at baseball games. I realized how much I didn’t understand about the rules and what I was seeing, and I asked a million questions. And one day we were invited to go to a game. I had never been to AT&T park, and was rather overwhelmed…the seats weren’t just okay seats, they were 9 rows behind home plate with a perfect view of everything. I had a great time, but it was the beginning of a monster being born. In the course of the next two seasons (which were pretty darn awful, reallly) I found that one day I knew who all the players were. And began to form some knowledge of how well or poorly they played. And while it made some fans happy, the Barry Bonds era didn’t do it for me. He always seemed surly, and his physique just screamed “enhanced body”. Baseball’s sad relationship with performance-enhancing drugs felt like another reason to not get too excited about this sport….who cares about how many home runs or whatever else, when it wasn’t done without a”little extra help”? I sat and thought about how Babe Ruth played his amazing ball in spite of being half-pickled most of the time he was on the mound…I could note with some irony that many of the old-timers played with performance-detracting substances and still managed to set records….that sort of excellence didn’t seem to be anywhere. And if some was out there to be found, the first thing I’d wonder is which steroid the guy was on.

So fast forward to the season before last. Not knowing anything about drafts or college baseball or any of that, I only knew that one day there was this Tim Lincecum kid on the mound. He pitched with a sneer and his cap pulled down so low it was hard to see his eyes. He was slightly built and….where did he come from again? But it didn’t take long to realize that here was finally something to become a little excited about. One look tells me there aren’t steroids in that body…and as the games unfolded, it became obvious that just maybe, here was someone who was a blast from the past and someone to defy the stereotypes all rolled into one. Then last season started, but this time Timmy had the Cy Young in hand. When it was time to get the season tickets, who cared who the opposite team was, just get the games for which Timmy was pitching! As the season ran on with a flagship pitching staff trying to bail out the leaky boat of No Decent Offense, Tim just shined. Sure, Randy and Matt, Barry and Jonathan put in amazing performances all around, but it was Tim that filled the seats more than any other…with those unhittable pitches and the physique that wasn’t supposed to be big enough for the major leagues. I was lucky enough to be there the night they almost ran out of spaces to hang Ks on the outfield wall…..I know why I like to see Tim play. It’s easy…he is displaying the excellence that comes from a young lifetime of hard work, sacrifice and discipline. When other 17 year olds spent their entire weekends moving a joystick around Grand Theft Auto, I’m guessing Tim either never touched the controller or at the very least put it down in short order to go outside and practice. And practice and practice. And frankly, in today’s society, individuals like that stand out because there are fewer and fewer of them around.

The sum of my baseball interests has at least shed some light for me on the value of sports. I now realize that they have a place….but I still think pro sports has been allowed to occupy a hopelessly skewed monetary importance, which likely will never be reversed.

So I haven’t mentioned farming yet, but here it comes. People that excel give us all a little boost. They are the visible reminder that nothing great (or even just good) can ever happen unless you get up, get focused, and get to work. And when things go badly, you take a deep breath, re-focus, get up, and get back to work to try again. Running a farm is not really so different from pitching…if it’s going to work, you have to exert the effort, week in and week out. And I could write another essay on how an excellent pitcher matches an excellent soprano in more ways that one can imagine. The qualities needed to excel remain the same through every endeavor out in the world, and that is something I like to keep in mind. And for now, Timmy still has that unspoilt demeanor, unswayed as of yet by the multimillionaire he is destined to become. He may not stay so wonderful forever. But for now, a day seeing him at the ballpark is still going to be a welcome getaway from 105 degrees in Arbuckle. For my birthday I received the best thing ever…..a number 55 SF Giants official jersey. Opening day is about 2 months away, and this farmer hopes to be there. Go Timmy!