What it means to be old school

At a Hot Stove Baseball Luncheon in downtown New Haven last week, former Boston Red Sox star Jim Rice spoke of baseball as it was when he competed in the 1970s and 80s compared to today. He offered an anecdote about Boston ace Pedro Martinez as an example.

Rice was in the Boston dugout after an opposing pitcher beaned Nomar Garciaparra. Pedro was pitching for the Red Sox, and, as is customary, asked Nomar if he thought the pitcher hit him on purpose. Nomar replied in the negative, saying he thought it simply got away from him.

As Rice tells the story, Pedro replied with something to the effect of, “Oh, well, I’ll let them know just in case” and sure enough the Red Sox ace drilled an opposing batter. The point of Rice’s story was that back when he played, the majority of pitchers were like Pedro; today, Martinez is one of the few exceptions.

Though the country could be headed for war within the next month, major league pitchers and catchers have already reported to spring training, and the rest of their teammates are soon to follow suit if they have not done so already. If we go to war, it will most likely not affect professional baseball any more than it will the rest of the country. However, this was not always the case. After reciting the Martinez anecdote, Rice said Martinez’s actions on the field represented the actions of a player from the past — a player who wasn’t afraid to stand up for his teammates. In Rice’s eyes, Martinez was a throwback player.

But instead of firing retaliatory strikes at opposing batters, many “old-time” baseball players had to take on much more serious enemies.

The Civil War helped to spread the game because soldiers from all over the country participated, and baseball, in its primitive stages, served as one of their leisure activities when they were not engaged in combat. In fact, 1865 marked Yale’s first recorded baseball game, a 39-13 victory over Wesleyan (and people say pitching is watered down now?). We’ve all heard the stories of some of the game’s greatest stars (Ted Williams, to name one) losing some of their prime baseball years while enlisted in the service. However, players such as Yogi Berra competed in West Haven in the mid-1940s, in what was a boom era for baseball in this area because of players stationed on nearby sub bases.

The term “throwback player” is often used loosely for someone such as Pedro Martinez. There is no doubting that his on-field actions are very much in accordance with the old-time baseball style. But next time you hear that someone is a “throwback” and think of Ted Williams, Yogi Berra, or a host of other stars of the past, remember to confine it only to the field.

How different are things today?

George Steinbrenner complains that Derek Jeter spends too much time partying. Could you imagine if Jeter had to enlist in the military? I don’t care to get into the merits of the Steinbrenner-Jeter case. But the next time you hear someone is a “throwback” player, remember what that entailed for those who comprised America’s pastime over 50 years ago.

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