A few years ago an otherwise forgettable newspaper sports columnist wrote that baseball was going the way of boxing and horse racing in our culture. Both were once major attractions but faded from popular interest. The same seemed to be happening with baseball. To paraphrase a remark often used in other contexts, the obituary page of the local newspaper could be renamed the list of former baseball fans. The baseball-boxing-horse racing comment resonated with me, although it’s near sacrilege for someone from Lowell to admit to being uninterested in boxing.
Baseball was also a big deal in Lowell. My father, born in 1932, spent every summer day of his youth at Highland Park (called Callery Park since 1967) playing pick-up games. All the practice paid off; he received a full scholarship to play baseball at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and excelled there. Throughout high school (Keith Academy) and college, he also played in Lowell-based summer leagues like the CYO or Twi-League in games that drew thousands of fans to the South Common or other venues on summer nights.
My dad attributed the popularity of local baseball, in part, to the lack of other entertainment options. In the pre-TV age, almost everyone had a radio but that was about it. Once the weather warmed, everyone was ready to flock to the local park after dinner to see a competitive ballgame. Maybe the abundance of entertainment options we have now has contributed to fading interest in baseball.
For me growing up, everyone was expected to learn to play baseball in the same way you were expected to learn to walk. I enjoyed the mechanics of the game: throwing, catching, batting, running, sliding; and became just good enough to not embarrass myself but not good enough to play beyond little league and senior league. But in high school, college, and beyond, I was always up for a pickup game although softball supplanted baseball in later-in-life leisure activities.
Following the Red Sox was a big part of my life from an early age. For the magical 1967 worst-to-first season, I was nine, old enough to follow the game but not old enough to have other interests that competed for my attention. Most nights that summer I fell asleep listening to a Sox game on my AM clock radio that had a timer that would turn off the radio after a half hour, hopefully once you had fallen asleep.
Today, my most vivid memory of that season was of a mid-August night when I turned on the radio mid-game and quickly wondered why Jose Tartabull was in right field, not Tony Conigliaro (earlier that night Conigliaro had been hit in the face by a pitch which effectively ended his career). Even today, I can still name the entire Red Sox starting lineup from 1967 as well as the lineup of the St. Louis Cardinals who defeated the Sox in seven games in that year’s World Series. When baseball Hall of Famer Tim McCarver died last month, my first thought was that he was the starting catcher for the Cardinals that year.
The landscape of my life is sprinkled with other Red Sox memories: Watching the sixth game of the 1975 World Series with my dad and both of us leaping out of our chairs when Bernie Carbo hit a 3-run pinch hit homer to tie the game. Carbo’s homer was overshadowed by Carlton Fisk’s walk-off solo shot in extra innings, but without Carbo, there would have been no Fisk heroics. In September 1978, in my Providence College dorm room I watched the Red Sox, who had blown an 8-game August lead, lose a one-game play-off to the Yankees on a Bucky Dent home run. Because the PC student body was evenly divided between Red Sox fans from Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and Yankee fans from Connecticut and New York, there were some tense moments as everyone wandered to the school’s sole dining hall for that evening’s meal right after the game had ended. Nearly a decade later came another heart-breaking loss, this one to the New York Mets in game 6 of the 1986 World Series. Calvin Schiraldi couldn’t hold the lead and Bill Buckner couldn’t field a routine ground ball and the Sox lost that Series in seven games.
The 1996 arrival of the Spinners in Lowell boosted local interest in baseball. Bringing all the fun of the minor league baseball wave then sweeping the country, the Spinners set records for consecutive sellouts and provided local families with fun, affordable entertainment. A bonus came several years later when the Red Sox with a roster sprinkled with former Spinners, won the World Series for the first time since the First World War.
But after a long run, the minor league baseball phenomenon faded nationwide and Major League Baseball “contracted” its minor leagues, bringing an end to the marvelous run by the Spinners and leaving the city of Lowell with an empty ballpark. (For more on that, see my 2021 article, “Lowell Called Out, But Look for Extra Innings”). In fact, it also will leave the city without a professional-caliber ball field since the city is scheduled to sell LeLachuer Park to the University of Massachusetts Building Authority next week.
Things feel different this year. Perhaps baseball’s obituary was premature. The new “pitch clock” could revive interest. Here’s some of what Boston Globe sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy wrote at the start of spring training this year:
The game we grew up with became unrecognizable as MLB asked fans to endure interminable stretches of non-action and abject indifference. We had pitchers who would not throw the ball and hitters who would not step into the batter’s box. None of the players seemed aware that they’d brought a once-great game to a standstill.
Now everything has changed. We have a pitch clock, mandating action. To avoid being assessed an automatic ball, pitchers have 20 seconds to throw a pitch (15 if the bases are empty). To avoid an automatic strike, batters need to be in the box, ready to swing, with eight seconds left on the clock. Spring games are being played an average of 26 minutes faster. With more action.
In the opinion of this fan, a pitch timer to assure a reasonable pace of play ranks as one of the three most important baseball changes of the last 100 years, trailing only Jackie Robinson integrating the game in 1947 and Camden Yards (1992) changing the way ballparks are built.
I’m not sure if the pitch clock ranks up there with integrating baseball, but I do know that when the Red Sox “won” their first exhibition game of the season when the opposing batter was assessed a strike for taking too long to get ready for the next pitch, it got my attention in a way that nothing about baseball has in many years. So I’ll continue watching, for now, at least. Besides the pitch clock, there are limits on the number of pickoff attempts that can be made which should lead to more stolen bases, and the infield shift (where three infielders position themselves on the same side of second base when a “pull” hitter is at bat) has been banned which should lead to more hits, so overall the pace and excitement of the game should quicken and increase.
(I put “won” in quotes in the above paragraph because the game ended in a tie. The teams had agreed in advance not to go into extra innings if needed, something you can do in spring training, I guess. The play I cite occurred with 2 out, the bases loaded, and the batter with a 3 balls, 2 strikes count. Under the new rule, the batter must be set in the batter’s box at least 8 second before the pitcher must throw the ball. This batter was late, the umpire called an automatic strike which was the batter’s third so he was out and since that was the third out in the bottom of the ninth inning, the game ended there.)
I confess that after my intiail surge in interest at the start of spring training, I haven’t watched many games, including those in the World Baseball Classic, which got good reviews on newspaper sports pages. However, Opening Day of the 2023 season has arrived today with the Red Sox playing the Orioles at Fenway Park, so the true test of whether these new rules can revive interest in baseball has begun.