Joe Lavin

August 29, 2006

Adventures of a Vintage Ballist

Against my better instincts, I am suddenly playing right field for the Lynn Live Oaks, and the ball is coming right at me. All I have to do is catch it, and the inning will be over. There are just two problems. I haven't played baseball since Little League, and I'm not wearing a glove. This is because we are not playing by today's rules. Instead, we are playing a game of vintage base ball with the rules of the 1860's back when the sport was two words and gloves were not yet in vogue.

Needless to say, I don't catch the ball. I still have a chance to get it on one hop. Back then, this was also considered an out, but that doesn't go so well either. After some floundering, I finally manage to get the ball and throw it back in the general direction of the infield. I say general direction, because I suddenly realize that my throwing arm is not nearly as strong as I had imagined. It appears that I will not be stealing Trot Nixon's job anytime soon. For the rest of the inning, just one thought flows through my head: "Please, don't let them hit it to me again." But, of course, they do.

Today, Lynn is playing an exhibition game against the Essex Base Ball Club, a team that plays just north of Boston in Danvers. I was originally planning a relaxing afternoon watching vintage base ball. That was before the Live Oaks realized they were a few men short, and I stupidly volunteered to play.

Before the game, the captain gives me a vintage uniform to wear -- one word, hot -- and a quick run-down of the rules. The essence of vintage base ball is still the same as today's game, but there are several differences.

  • Without gloves, just about any play is an adventure. An old-fashioned ball is closer to a softball than a baseball, but it still stings when you catch it with bare hands. Luckily, in my case, I don't generally catch it. I find that letting the ball roll to a stop tends not to sting quite so much.

  • A batter, or striker, is out if he swings and misses three times, but there are no balls or called strikes. A batter is also out, if on his first swing of the game he flails wildly, manages somehow to gets a small part of the bat on the ball, which is then foul-tipped directly into the catcher's mitt, while he stands there looking very confused.

  • It's the job of the pitcher, or hurler, only to throw a pitch that can be put into play. Let's just say that the opposing pitcher was atrocious at throwing pitches that I could put into play. If you ask me, they should get rid of the bum.

  • Base runners cannot take a lead and can also be called out on foul balls if they are not on the base when the ball is returned to the pitcher -- a rule I manage to learn the hard way.

Despite the terror of the first few innings, I do enjoy myself. Sure, my fielding is awful, but by the end I find myself hoping that a few more balls come my way just so that I can redeem myself. At the plate, I fare a little better, despite the much heavier vintage bat. I don't exactly hit the ball out of the infield, but by the end I have hit some balls solidly and don't embarrass myself too much. Once, I even make it on base. Of course, that's the time I get thrown out, but I prefer to look on the bright side.

Finally, in a moment of true drama, I come to the plate in the ninth inning with runners on second and third. There are two outs, and we are losing 11-9. Not all of those 11 runs scored against us are my fault, though after my adventures in right field it sure feels that way. Could it be time at last for some redemption?

"Come on rookie," someone shouts from the bench. "Just one hit and we're tied."

I think briefly about using my best skill from little league -- getting hit by a pitch --and letting the next guy come up with the bases loaded, but I'm not sure that the vintage rules will reward me first base for that. Instead, I decide to swing away.

Not surprisingly, I ground out to the shortstop to end the game, but I don't feel so bad. If the shortstop had been just a few steps to the left, I might have been a vintage hero. In the words of 1890's outfielder Wee Willie Keeler, I just need to learn to hit 'em where they ain't.

©2006 Joe Lavin

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I have written for The Boston Globe Magazine, The Boston Herald, Salon, McSweeney's, The Boston Phoenix, The Globe and Mail, The Montreal Gazette, California Technology News, ComputorEdge, and many other publications. I also write regularly for Boston Sports Review and am included in May Contain Nuts: A Very Loose Canon of American Humor, the third volume in the Mirth of a Nation series. Thanks for dropping by. I hope you enjoy my Internet column. -- Joe Lavin

Tally Me, Sir!
Over the weekend, I skipped one of the many Red Sox-Yankee games and traveled to Danvers, Mass. for something a little different, vintage base ball. Played by 1861 rules, vintage base ball resembles today's game but with many key differences. In the vintage game, there are no gloves, no base-on-balls, no overhand pitches, no dirt infield, and no sliding. (There are also no steroids, but just beyond you and me, one of the outfielders did look bulked up enough to possibly be on the 1861 version of the juice.) ( More.... )