For many years, legend had it that the game of baseball was invented in a cow pasture in Cooperstown by a young man named Abner Doubleday. The legend has since been dispelled _ to most people's satisfaction _ but the region's connection to our national pastime lives on through the National Baseball Hall of Fame and through the many baseball fans who call this area home.
In the coming weeks, baseball's best will be battling for the chance to compete in the World Series, a storied contest that has captivated fans young and old for more than 100 years. Last year, more than 20 million viewers tuned in each night to watch the Boston Red Sox take the series from the Colorado Rockies, scoring 29 runs to Colorado's 10 over four games. While this year's playoff landscape is still hazy, there's no doubt that the eyes of the nation will be on baseball as the division series begin on Wednesday.
Over Labor Day weekend, playoffs may have been far from most people's minds, but there was still no shortage of fans at Damaschke Field, as the Oneonta Tigers squared off against the Vermont Lake Monsters during their final home stand of the season. Noisemakers resonated with each strikeout dealt by Tigers starting pitcher Daniel DeLucia, and groans and sighs rose from the bleachers with each Vermont hit.
Among the fans cheering the Tigers on were Ned Butts of Franklin and
AnnMarie Lindley of Oneonta. The season-ticket holders were sporting Tigers regalia and clearly enjoying their evening at the ball park.
Going to a ball game is "an experience," Lindley said, and part of the fabric of the local area. "We're a half-hour from the Hall of Fame; there's the Dreams Park, and they play up at (the State University College at Oneonta) _ there's a lot going on."
Although that night's game may not have been one to remember _ Vermont beat the Tigers, 7-3 _ Butts had plenty of good memories from his numerous visits to Damaschke. He and Lindley were at the ball park last July, when Tigers pitcher Guillermo Moscosa threw a perfect game. Moscosa struck out seven batters en route to his nine-inning victory, the first New York-Penn League pitcher to do so since 1958.
"By the eighth inning, you definitely knew what was going on," Butts said. "He was still pitching great, striking them out."
Moments like this are what keep fans coming back to baseball. While all sports and competitions have an element of the unpredictable, the format of a baseball game affords particular opportunities for the unexpected. Football, baseball and hockey are driven by kinetic momentum; as players race against the clock, large scoring deficits become more and more difficult to overcome.
On the baseball diamond, things are different. "You're not playing against a clock, you're just competing against your opponent," Butts said. Time becomes almost meaningless; the only hurdle a team faces when down by several runs is a psychological one.
Author and historian Bruce Markusen has been a baseball fan "for as long as I can remember," he said, and looks forward to the playoffs as an opportunity to see baseball being played at its highest level.
"Playoff baseball is different than regular season baseball," Markusen said. "The game is played at a much higher intensity level; the games tend to be lower scoring, they tend to be closer as a result; and the game can really shift on one or two plays. When it's played right, playoff baseball is the best baseball you're going to see."
Part of the reason for that, Markusen said, is practical. "During the regular season, players have to pace themselves. But in the post-season, players know that one loss can end your season. The effort tends to be there, the intensity tends to be a lot higher," making for more spectacular performances all around.
At its heart, baseball is, of course, entertainment: if no one were there to watch these games, there would be no professional baseball in America. But as any fan will tell you, it's so much more than that. Markusen attributes his lifelong love of the game to his father, a "huge baseball fan."
"We grew up in Westchester County; (my father) was a Mets fan, so naturally I had to become a Yankees fan so that we could have a little rivalry. There's no doubt that because of my father, I became such a huge fan early in life. Some of my earliest childhood memories are from baseball," Markusen said.
It's clear that the baseball-loving kid who parlayed his passion into a stint with the Hall of Fame, numerous book deals and several other writing opportunities still has a deep and abiding love of the game. Markusen fondly recollected a playoff series from his youth, back when day games were still the scourge of baseball-loving youths everywhere.
It was 1978, Markusen recalled, and the Yankees were playing the Red Sox in what would become a famous one-game tiebreaker to determine which American League team would advance to the World Series.
"I was in school and I had to stay late after school to play soccer intramurals," Markusen recalled. "I remember rushing home to try to catch the tail end of the game," which had started at about 3 p.m.
"Normally I would take a bus home, but after intramurals, there was no bus, and my parents worked in the city, so I had to take a taxi home. I remember listening to the game in the back seat of the cab, and when I got dropped off at the house, I raced up the driveway and ran upstairs to our television."
Although Markusen had missed what quickly became the celebrated play of that game _ Yankees shortstop Bucky Dent's towering three-run homer off the Green Monster of Fenway Park in the seventh inning that put the Yankees ahead 3-2 _ he did get to see a little bit of baseball history.
"I ended up turning it on just a few minutes before Carl Yastrzemski popped up to Graig Nettles (to end the game). I got to see the last out of one of the most historic games in baseball history," Markusen recalled.
For the casual baseball spectator, it may be harder to pick up on the subtleties that keep die-hard fans on the edge of their seats. The key, Markusen says, is to give yourself something to cheer for.
"One of the things that makes the game more exciting is when you go have a rooting interest. Sometimes that comes naturally. If you're a casual fan tuning in, maybe you want to pick one team or another, for whatever reason. Pick the underdog, or pick the team whose uniforms you like better," Markusen said..
"When you have a rooting interest, there's more suspense, there's more excitement. I know as a Yankee fan, there's nothing more nerve-wracking than watching a playoff game. Every play is critical," he said.
While it doesn't take much baseball savvy to appreciate a home run, Markusen suggests that the casual fan also pay attention to the pitcher's performance.
"Watch the matchups between the pitcher and the hitter. Try to see how the pitcher is setting up the hitter, trying to work the ball in or out, up or down, changing speeds _ that can be very interesting to watch," Markusen said.
Another great thing about the high skill level during the playoffs, Markusen said, are the sparkling defensive plays you'll see.
"That's one of the things I think about baseball today that's better than 30 or 40 years ago. The defensive plays are better and the players are more athletic. You'll see two to three great defensive plays in any playoff game. One of the most aesthetically pleasing parts of baseball is the defense, and the ability of highly skilled athlete to field his position," Markusen said.
One of the beautiful things about baseball is the possibility that any game could become legendary, historic. As Lindley said while watching the Tigers, "You never know _ it is professional baseball. You could be watching a player who will be in the Hall of Fame one day."
Whether it's a shortstop flashing the leather, a pitcher throwing fiery fastballs or a slugger knocking them out of the park that you're looking for, the road to the World Series is sure to offer something for everyone.