The Heart of Baseball


The Heart of Baseball

Archie Graham: I heard that all through the
Midwest, they got towns with teams. And some places…well, they’ll even
you find you a day job so you can play ball nights and weekends.”

Ray Kinsella: This is your lucky day kid, we’re going somewhere like that.”

–Field of Dreams

Other then the fact that Gerald Barnes’ new book The Road To The
Big’s

is set in the South rather then the Midwest, this exchange in
Kevin Costner’s 1989 film could serve as the keynote for this look into
the heart of baseball. Barnes has produced a work which goes into the
soul of the national pastime and enables readers to see the game close
up at its grass-roots level. More then simply a book about baseball, it
is, as advertised, “A view of American culture from the diamond, the
dugout and the bullpen.”

The theme of the book follows Barnes’ son Alec, as he pursues his
love of the game and works to climb as high as he possibly can. The
author lays the groundwork for the story by devoting the opening
chapters to showing how baseball came about and what makes it
uniquely a part of America. He recalls his own time growing up as a
young fan and Little League player in the Washington D.C. area during a
period when the nation’s capital lost not one, but two different teams
to relocation (the Minnesota Twins & Texas Rangers). Barnes
subsequently moves to Atlanta where he starts his family. And that’s
where the story kicks into gear.

Alec’s 1991 debut as a boy in T-ball league coincided with the
Atlanta Braves’ rise to national prominence and the author folds the
story of his son’s developing career into stories of the suddenly dominant
National League franchise that consistently brought some of the game’s
best talent to the local fans. Alec was a lefthander and quickly showed
an interest in pitching. He and his father spent time out in the yard
working on his control and his stuff—“Thank God for healthy knees”,
writes the author.

A key theme that emerges in following Alec’s playing career is his
battle to overcome stereotypes and prejudices regarding what a pitcher
should be able to do. He wasn’t a hard thrower, and consequently had a
difficult time winning the confidence of his coaches. What he could do
was throw strikes consistently, and he knew the weaknesses’ of the
opposing batters. As players get older and hitters get better, it
becomes increasingly difficult to simply throw a fastball by them. A
pitcher must be able to truly pitch and hit narrowly defined spots with
precision. The author is rightfully proud of his son’s ability to do
that, and notes that two of the top pitchers from the Braves—Tom
Glavine and Greg Maddux–were not hard throwers.

The aspiring hurler
keeps working at improving his game, and in high school he gets his
break. A baseball-savvy twentysomething coach, Terry Woody, decrees
that
Alec will be his ace. He cashes in the opportunity and pitches well.

But this was the exception, not the rule, in terms of how his
coaches saw him. Throughout his time at Norcross High, while Alec was a
regular part of the team’s staff, he was relegated to relief
work, after the presumably more talented, hard-throwing starters had
gotten into trouble. But though his own team may not have appreciated
his mastery of the subtler aspects of pitching, the hitters who had to
contend with him did. Barnes writes of getting congratulations from
opposing parents, who admired his son’s work.

Alec goes to college at Valdosta State, a school with a nationally ranked
Division II baseball program. Each year tries to make the team, but
the problems of velocity just aren’t going away. The southpaw will not
give up though. He keeps his playing career alive by playing in a competitive local
league, and he attends every major league tryout that comes nearby.
He’s able to win the respect of knowledgeable baseball people—during one year
at VSU he got to practice with the team for a month, before falling
short of making the roster. And his father received a call from a big
league scout telling him that if Alec ever hit 85 mph on the radar gun,
he (Gerald) should give the scout a call and they’d get him into the
minor leagues.

The author skillfully weaves an examination of baseball and its
broader impact on American culture in and out of the narrative of his
son’s playing days. He relates the way the game is played to the rugged
individualism that has set the United States apart from Europe. He
delivers a stinging critique of the rise of fascination with soccer,
and of the self-indulgent parents often found at local games. The Road
To The Big’s views both baseball and America from a conservative and
traditional worldview.

Anyone who has been involved with baseball at any level—be it as a
player, a parent or in some other capacity will surely find something
here to identify with. As I read it, I recalled a friend of mine who did
make the minor leagues—ironically with the Braves—and was well-regarded
by scouts for his defensive skills. He never made the majors. When
I see him in action in quality amateur leagues today and how dominant he is, it makes one realize just
how good even the worst players at the major league level really are.
Barnes’ criticisms of pushy parents with unreasonable expectations also
brought a smile, as I recalled a brief stint working as an umpire at
the junior high level. The author correctly notes that parents who have
their kids playing for reasons other then love of the game and learning
how to function as teammates, do their children no real service.

The story has a happy ending. Alec doesn’t make the major leagues—he
never even latches on at Valdosta State. But he does get to pitch
against major league talent, in a pickup game in which several of the
Brave players participated. It was a stroke of good luck that the
persistent lefthander
finally got his shot, although it was one produced by hard work–Alec
happened to be at the field getting a private workout in, when the
other players began to show and needed someone to pitch. He held his
own against shortstop Rafael Furcal,
a player good enough to have started on numerous playoff teams in the
majors.

But the deeper happy ending is the character-building that chasing
his dream brought. This is ultimately a story with a deep moral theme
behind it. It's about not letting others define your limits for you,
even if
your skills don’t match up to what conventional wisdom would desire.
It's about persistence and hard work being their own rewards. Alec
Barnes’
story is played out across America every summer. Parent and players
alike can find in this book a model of how to kindle a true love for
the game and prepare for victories greater then the ones on the
diamond. 

 
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Gerald
Barnes is a member of Catholic Match and the 4marks network. Excerpts of his book and links to
order can be found at http://www.roadtothebigs.com/ 

 
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