Franke: Spring and Baseball

March 3, 2021

by Mark Franke

I watched my first baseball spring training game last Sunday and was immediately transported back into the mists of memory, that of a young boy at the first sign of spring heading outside with his glove, baseball and pitchback contraption.

First, a word about that pitchback. It was a metal frame with netting strung across it and a strike-zone target. An aspiring pitcher, I would deliver a repertoire of pitches at the target and the netting would rebound the ball back into the pitcher’s glove. That was the theory but it required that the pitch actually find the target and be thrown with enough velocity to generate adequate return energy. I was neither fast nor accurate back then, so theory did not meet reality in my backyard. At least the ball landed somewhere close to my make-believe pitcher’s mound and not in the neighbor’s yard.

I knew it was spring when the local newspaper began reporting the scores of spring training games. That was all I needed to get myself into mental shape for the upcoming summer baseball league hosted at the local junior-high playground just across the sand dune near my house.

It also meant that the new series of baseball cards were now available at the small grocery up the hill. It was only a nickel for a pack of five cards, if memory serves, plus a piece of industrial strength bubble gum that was an existential threat to the structural integrity of my teeth.

That was 66-plus years ago and my pitching arm is even less capable today of both speed and accuracy, let alone the ability to throw more than three pitches before requiring physical therapy. Fortunately, the boyhood love of baseball remains, albeit in spectator-only mode.

My local minor league baseball team, the Fort Wayne TinCaps, just announced their 2021 schedule. This is a clarion call to a banquet of baseball sustenance for a famished fan, terribly undernourished after the cancellation of minor league baseball last year. Covid has a lot to answer for, if I could just figure out whom to blame.

The TinCaps are the High Class A affiliate of the San Diego Padres. I’m not a Padres fan; my prejudice is to ignore any sports franchise that did not exist in 1959. I do respect the Padres organization for its policy of growing internally through talent development within its minor league system. Even though I pretend not to follow the Padres, I do watch for ex-TinCaps on the big-league roster.

How can a baseball fan not follow Fernando Tatis Jr.? He just signed a 14-year contract, locking him into a lifetime commitment to the Padres and an expectation of banking $340 million over that time. That’s more than the annual budget of over 30 countries in the world although less than an hour’s worth of profligate deficit spending in Washington D. C. It’s all a matter of perspective, although certainly not any kind of perspective understood by this retiree.

When my wife told our four-year-old grandson that the TinCaps would be playing soon, his response was, “Will Papa take me to the games?” He loves to go to the ballpark and actually watches an inning or two, wondering why he can’t go down onto the field to play. Eventually the siren call of the concession stand and the kiddie playground entices him. I’ll credit the TinCaps for understanding how to make the ballpark a family outing venue. 

Maybe I am reverting to my childhood or perhaps I never grew up, Peter Pan style. Or could it be that baseball is so integral to American culture that it bridges ages, social classes, educational level and whatever else the cancel culture mob uses as a wedge to destroy our ethos as a united community? Several books have been written about father-son bonding when differences were pulling them apart. (For a humorous take on this, read “Are We Winning?” by Will Leitch.)

Meanwhile, I’m watching the last of the snow melt away and counting down to opening day, both for the majors and for the TinCaps. And, to an extent, reliving my younger years vicariously through today’s professional players such as Tatis Jr.

I just hope I am still going to games in 14 years when Fernando cashes his last paycheck of that $340 million.

Mark Franke, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review, is formerly associate vice chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.


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