Dear MLB: Your problem is relevancy, not boredom (although, that’s easily fixed, too.)

Dear Major League Baseball,

Much has been written recently about your “boredom problem.” Longer games with less action have resulted in declining attendance and declining television ratings, but the solution to your on-field problem is so simple that a Little Leaguer could tell you what it is, whereas a board room full of consultants obviously cannot:

Deaden the ball.

Don’t change the rules, change the dynamics of the game’s most basic piece of equipment.

You want more defensive plays? Lessen the chance that the ball disappears over the fence. Maybe reduce those exit velocities so that batted balls don’t go screaming past fielders at 108 miles per hour. Perhaps then, teams will rediscover baseball’s most important offensive strategy: Don’t make an out. If a batter is guaranteed to not make an out by playing pepper with the 45 feet of open dirt over there by third base, for example, then play pepper with the dirt. You can’t make pitchers throw the ball with less velocity nor make batters hit the ball with less force, but you can change the ball so it doesn’t resemble the Road Runner when it is finally put in play.

Baseball suffers a much deeper problem, however, than long games with lots of strike outs. It is losing its cultural relevancy.

Commissioner Manfred, you and your merry band of marketing consultants try to sell baseball as spectacle, when it is not. Certainly, there are bursts of the spectacular that take place on the field in almost every game, but those bursts are always within the context of the game itself. Baseball is story. Every season is a story. Every game is a story. Story involves plot and one of baseball’s beauties is that fans never know when the climax of that story will occur. It might take place in the first inning, but we can’t be 100% certain until the story concludes. The climax may be a mad dash from first to home on a double in the gap in the bottom of the 9th, but it might have occurred in the fifth inning when one team loaded the bases with none out, but didn’t score. The best games feature rising action on almost every pitch, but even those 12-0 blowouts allow the fan to appreciate the construction of the game. Watching the third baseman set himself on every pitch, for example, is akin to reading a book whose plot is weak, but is well-written nevertheless.

You powers there at MLB understand none of this. Football is spectacle. In fact, it has become such a spectacle that it is marketed more as “sports entertainment” like World Wrestling Entertainment than as sport. If football was a story, it wouldn’t interrupt itself with endless replays and tedious timeouts. It wouldn’t try to stretch its one hour product into three and a half hours. Football can get away with this, because spectacle can be sustained once a week during the fall and winter. It is impossible to sustain it every night of the spring and summer.

Thankfully, baseball by its very nature will never be that and it should quit trying to be that if it wants to maintain any relevancy. The baseball poets, such as W. P. Kinsella, have composed lyrics about the pastoral nature of the game; that it permits conversation and fellowship; that it permits, indeed, insists, that we slow the pace of our lives, sit back and enjoy the green grass, the summer sunsets, the olfactory awesomeness of a grilled hot dog. This is what baseball provides far better than any other sport, and as Kinsella might say, it is what we need now more than ever. It is what you, Commissioner Manfred, should be selling.

Put another way, baseball has the capacity to make us mentally and spiritually healthier. Baseball marketers do not have to create this need in order to sell their product, this need already exists in us and the need is growing exponentially as the world grows more chaotic.

No, MLB, you don’t need more marketing consultants, you need to bring back your best sales people; you know, the ones you have been tossing aside the past couple of decades in your attempts to spectacularize the game. There are no better salesmen of baseball than dads and moms and grandpas and grandmas. It was my mom who was a huge baseball fan and it was her stories about the minor league Baltimore Orioles of her childhood that fascinated me. At 16, she was in love with Don Heffner—I still have the scrapbook in which she pasted his eventual wedding announcement. My parents took me to Game 3 of the 1966 World Series and, even though he wasn’t pitching, Mom made sure that I took a good look at Sandy Koufax so that I could say that I at least saw him in the flesh.

I was only nine years old in 1966, but baseball was an entry into adulthood. Perhaps, not authoritatively, but on this one topic at least, I could speak as an adult. Adults also spoke to me, and almost every city had that one avuncular voice that would come through the radio, welcoming me to Memorial Stadium or Tiger Stadium or Wrigley Field. Here was an adult—in my case, Chuck Thompson in Baltimore—talking to me, telling me the story of the game. Neither he, nor any of the other marvelous voices of major league baseball, bored me with statistics that I’d need a calculator and a master’s degree to interpret. They were human beings having a human conversation, and not verbal translators of the Statcast machines. Someone once looked at Phil Rizzuto’s scorecard and became puzzled by the notation, “w.w.” When asked, Phil replied that it stood for “wasn’t watching.” Today’s radio broadcast booth is often packed with so many analogous voices all spouting statistics in their, I’m an insider smarminess, that I can’t tell one from another. Give me the guy who wasn’t watching and who tells me a story (maybe fictional, but who cares?) about that guy from Jersey City who just caught a foul ball behind the Yankees’ dugout. Mr. Manfred, one story-telling uncle, whether in the booth or sitting beside you, will sell your product better than a dugout full of statisticians.

The biggest problem for baseball the game is Major League Baseball the corporation. The latter does not understand the former’s most important selling points and that is why the game is losing its relevancy.

I hope this note reaches the right board room or luxury suite, and I hope it stings. I hope it hurts. I hope some baseball executive somewhere sits up and takes notice of someone who is writing on behalf of a bunch of someones, all of whom really care about our game. Frankly, Major League Baseball, you’re a mess, but in the end, this is a love letter.

~~Austin Gisriel is the author of Fathers, Sons, & Holy Ghosts: Baseball as a Spiritual Experience.

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Building lairs and hideouts for master criminals

While watching an episode of the 1943 serial, The Batman (the first time the Caped Crusader was ever presented on celluloid, by the way), I was intrigued by the evil Dr. Daka’s elaborate underground headquarters. That got me to wondering about the construction firms that build dens for demonic denizens and villain villas and the like. Somebody’s got to do it, right? I mean, you can’t just look up Acme Construction in the phone book and ask for a nice split-level lair complete with a secret room behind a revolving bookcase. Well, I guess you could, but I’d want to hire an outfit that had experience and expertise in such construction.

How would such a company make itself known to its potential customer base? You can’t just rely on word-of-mouth until your reputation is firmly established, and even then such a business is subject to the same rules of marketing as any other business, which means that it is imperative to keep its name in front of the public.

After doing some research in the Ne’er Do Well Architectural Digest, the leading periodical for the criminal hauteur, I came across the following ad:

Looking to build yourself a nifty hideout or renovate and old one?

LAIRS FOR LESS CONSTRUCTION COMPANY

Is in the business of building you a bright, modern headquarters, complete with all the amenities anyone wanting to take over the world would want. This week we’re running a trap door special: Install three trap doors or more and we’ll include your choice of spiked floor, moving walls, or an alligator pool! (Alligators not included.) Whether you want to rid yourself of pesky policemen or nosey super heroes, or you just can’t stand your mother-in-law, a trap door is a traditional, yet elegant manner of disposal.

NO JOB IS TOO SMALL!

Whether you want to install a retractable roof that will allow your laser to bring down satellites or you want to install an attractive and modern kitchenette in your laboratory, LAIRS FOR LESS CONSTRUCTION COMPANY is the company you should choose.

“Our bizness is stayin’ out of your bizness.”

Free estimates.

Licensed and bonded.

That reminds me: Doesn’t the phone company know that Bruce Wayne is Batman since they installed the Batphone?

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The war ends for Fibber McGee and Molly

In March of this year, I wrote about the Fibber McGee and Molly episode that was broadcast on December 9, 1941—when fires still burned at Pearl Harbor. It’s taken six months, but I have listened to every episode from that broadcast through the broadcast of October 2, 1945, which was exactly one month after the Japanese signed the formal surrender on the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri. There is no better way to appreciate life on the home front than to listen to these broadcasts which are available at archive.org.

During the intermittent time, fifteen different episodes focused specifically on war-time conditions. Episodes from 1942, for example, are entitled, “Scrap Drive,” “Sugar Substitute,” “Spy,” and “Gasoline Rationing.” Episodes from the spring of 1943 include topics such as finding skilled workers, collecting for the Red Cross, and the perils of black market meat. When Fibber McGee and Molly returned from their summer hiatus that fall, one of the first shows was entitled “Renting the Spare Room,” in which a new character, Alice Darling, was introduced. Alice was a young, single woman who worked at the local airplane factory turning out warbirds for American forces.

The show was broadcast on Tuesday nights, which meant that it was broadcast on Tuesday, June 6, 1944. That night opened with a statement that began, “A three-dimensional war machine has swept out of the continent of Europe. With NBC, invasion news takes precedence over all scheduled programs.” Then Jim and Marion Jordan, the titular stars of the show, announced that they were awaiting bulletins just as was everyone else; they then turn the show over to the Billy Mills Orchestra, the show’s regular orchestra and nothing but music can be heard for the next half hour.

Ad for Fibber McGee and Molly

May 8, 1945 was also a Tuesday, a date to which we now refer as “VE Day.” That night’s show opened with regular announcer, Harlow Wilcox stating,

The curtain has fallen on the first act of the greatest drama the world has ever seen. The second and we hope the last world war. Act Two is going on in the Pacific Theater. In expressing our tremendous admiration and gratitude to our fighting forces, we feel that the best support of their efforts until complete and final victory, is by carrying on with our own jobs as best we can. In this case our job is to bring a few smiles to the home front and do our small bit toward easing the tension and anxiety in the homes of the men who are not here to laugh with us. So tonight, we present the regular Johnson’s Wax Program, as our stars go on the air in a spirit of tribute to the stars in your windows.

A more eloquent paragraph on any topic I have not read—credit to Don Quinn the show’s writer. The last line is perfect.

VE Day was not the end of the war, of course, a fact strongly reinforced two weeks later in an episode entitled, “Seventh War Bond Drive.” Americans were tired, very tired of the sacrifice and casualties, and they were rightfully fearful of the coming year and the cost of invading Japan. As the show’s summer hiatus drew near, no one then knew that the war would be over before the cast would reassemble in the fall.

But end, it did, and the first episode of the new season was “Welcoming LaTrivia Home From the War.” LaTrivia had been the mayor of Wistful Vista, the show’s fictitious setting, before joining the Coast Guard and an episode celebrating his return was symbolic of returning servicemen all over the country. Don Quinn didn’t have to use his imagination for this plot line: Gale Gordon, who played the part of LaTrivia left the show to join the Coast Guard and was now returned.

Alice Darling still lived with the McGees, but we find out in the October 2nd episode that she has been laid off from the aircraft plant, which is being converted into a baby carriage factory. Everyone was eager to convert to a life free from the war, but as the nation grew and radio converted to television and the baby boom boomed, the war continued to echo in the hearts of those who lived it. No one—not even the creator of Flash Gordon—could have dreamed then that one day, one of those baby boomers would tune in, not on a crackling Philco, but on something called a “smart phone,” which in this case, has become a time machine. The spirit of the home front during World War II, as well as a lot of laughs are out there. Just listen. It is a tonic to today’s troubled times.

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A Lottery Adventure

I see that it’s been a while since I posted here. That was not by design; blame the fact that time–especially summer-time—seems to speed by faster and faster as each year passes. Several Labor Days ago, my buddy Al ventured out to his garage to change the calendar only to discover that it still read July. “I missed the entire month of August!” he laughed. Actually, there’s a reason that time seems to speed up once you reach a certain age, and it has to do with the fact that at a certain age, YOU start to slow down. You can read about that here, but I am digressing, as this post is actually about an attempt to buy a Powerball ticket, as the title suggests. My Lindy Hop partner, Vonnie, and I often stop on the way home from our lesson to purchase either a Mega Million or a Powerball ticket, depending on which pot is larger. Naturally, we never buy a ticket if the amount is not nine figures. I mean, what can you do with eight-figure chicken feed? We got plans!

Anyway, one day last month—or maybe two months ago (there’s that time thing)—we stopped to buy a Power Ball ticket only to discover that at this particular outlet, the lottery tickets were dispensed from a machine. Heretofore, we had purchased a ticket from the ubiquitous “girl behind the counter.”

Vonnie put the first bill into the slot, or tried to. We expected the machine to suck it right in, maybe even light up like a pinball machine, but it stood there disdaining our dollar. In fact, it seemed weird that this thing was not only mute, but dark. Vonnie smoothed the dollar with great care, and tried again, but again, the machine showed no interest. So, I took the dollar and tried because you know, maybe Vonnie wasn’t doing it right.

I received the same reaction. I tried a different slot, but I was pretty sure that this was the slot that spit out the tickets. Must have been, as I got nothing, not even a shrug from our silent nemesis. We looked at each other and began to poke about the machine. Maybe it was a touchscreen and we just hadn’t touched it right. Or in the right spot. Nothing. I’m pretty sure that had you walked into the Handy Mart at the Virginia/West Virginia line, you would have assumed that two lunatics were recreating the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey. That lottery obelisk had us stumped. About this time, we decided to ask the girl behind the counter for help, and it was only then that she informed us that the machine was “down,” adding “so’s the one across the street.” That information would have been helpful as soon as we approached the machine, but apparently, she viewed us as the evening’s entertainment.

We left, ticketless, but on the way out, I gave that machine a dirty look. I’m pretty sure Vonnie gave the girl behind the counter a dirty look. They both deserved it.

Now, of course, we’re expert lottery ticket buyers. As for being expert lottery winners, that’s a different story. Kind of a sad one, too.

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Reminder calls are driving me out of my mind

What began as a convenient courtesy—the doctor’s office reminder call—is quickly turning into a very inconvenient game of appointment roulette.

I was driving along minding my own business a couple of days ago, when the phone rang. (I have Bluetooth in the car, by the way.) It was the hospital at which I’ll be having a routine procedure done some time or another in August, and the caller wanted to know if I could confirm the procedure by telling her the date and the doctor.

Why, no. No, I can’t. Not without looking at my calendar which I won’t do because I’m driving. So, she asked me if I could confirm my birth date. Why, yes. Yes, I can. I don’t have to look that up, but how about starting there? Then, I was asked to confirm my address and best phone number and emergency contact upon which I was told that I was now preregistered for the registration call that will be placed at some point. Naturally, once I arrive for the procedure, they’re going to ask me the same ding-dong questions anyway, but who am I to question medical science?

And all this for a procedure that will take place on August 13. I know that now because I looked it up. I still don’t remember the doctor’s name, but given the procedure, one that everyone over 50 is supposed to have every 3-10 years, I don’t think he’s interested in going out to lunch once he’s finished.

This is the same medical system that routinely has its Robot Reminder call on a Friday or Saturday evening or as I like to refer to them, The Evenings I’m Least Likely to Be In. Of course, the fear is that if I don’t answer, or if I don’t hit #1 or type the letter A to confirm, or if I don’t do the hokey pokey and turn myself around, that the Robot Reminder will cancel my appointment.

“Respond to this reminder, Will Robinson, or I will cancel your appointment!”

My buddy Al recently received a reminder text from his dentist about an upcoming appointment. He texted back that he remembered and would be there, but when he arrived the receptionist told him that his appointment had been given to someone else because he hadn’t responded. He pulled out his phone and showed her his confirmation response at which time he was told that because he didn’t call to confirm, his appointment was canceled.

Al is now searching for a new dentist.

It’s nice that our doctors would like to remind us about appointments, but if we’re going to be terrorized by appointment-canceling robots, I’d like to go back to the old-fashioned paper appointment cards, please.

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Summer

The sun sets on Buck Bowman Park in Clover Hill, Virginia as a member of the Broadway Bruins of the Rockingham County Baseball League warms up in the bullpen. Photo courtesy of Martha Gisriel.

This blog entry falls under the heading of a picture being worth 1,000 words. We attended the Clover Hill v. Broadway game this past Tuesday and after telling Martha that the photo wouldn’t look as good as what we were seeing in person, she took this gem.

This photo captures magic and magic cannot be explained, so you either get it or you don’t. I hope you do.

Oh, and for my baseball lovers out there, you owe it to yourself to attend a game at Buck Bowman Park. You drive southwest of Harrisonburg through ever deepening farmland, when suddenly, you’ve arrived in 1954. That was the year that the park was built and nothing seems to have changed. The quirky wooden fence surrounds and protects a timeless place.

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Swing Time II: Stardust in the Shenandoah now available!

Swing Time II: Stardust in the Shenandoah is now available through Amazon in both paperback and e-versions. As with Swing Time: A Swing Dancing, Time-Warping Story, the e-version contains a YouTube link to all the songs mentioned in the story.

Swing Time II features Chance and Faith, the two main characters from the first novella, who love to Lindy Hop. They are attending a World War II commemoration at the Mimslyn Inn in Luray, Virginia and discover that the hotel’s classic ballroom holds not only memories, but the Past itself. A World War II veteran steps out of the past, seeking their help. The Past is indeed Present, and it is dancing that helps them navigate Time as it warps on itself.

Swing Time II has already received a much cherished and highly reliable recommendation, namely, from my copy editor, critic, and wife of 41 (almost 42) years, Martha. She says it is one of her favorite stories of mine, and that it moved her to (good) tears. Martha is the most loyal person I know, but I would submit that after 42 years, honesty trumps loyalty, so if she says it’s good then you don’t have to take my word for it. Trust me, she doesn’t hesitate to critique, so this recommendation is truly reliable.

At 65 total pages, it is a quick read, one that I believe will reinforce your faith in people and the Universe, all while conjuring some nifty dance music. Or, if you buy the e-version, you don’t have to conjure; just click on the YouTube link and listen.

If you read it and like it, please leave a review with Amazon, as they help propel the book’s ranking every upward.

As always, thanks to my readers for your steadfast support.

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Catching up to Dad

I’m catching up to my father.

Dad was 36 when I was born, which means that when he died in 2003 at age 83, I was 47. Now that I’m 64 instead of being 36 years apart, we are only 19 years apart. I’ve almost halved the gap into which I was born. If Life were a train ride, 83 would still be a ways down the track, but the conductor would be calling out the station.

Early on, of course, Dad witnessed me getting taller and faster. He saw me become a teenager, then turn 21, and finally come in to my man-strength at age 47, thanks to working my own landscape business. I kept growing physically the entire time that he was alive. There were those other growth phases, too. College, marriage, children, coaching one’s children, which is an entire sub-genre of parenting. He wasn’t around for the point at which I started getting slower and weaker nor did he see Martha and me become empty nesters nor observe me as a grandfather.

It would be most interesting to talk to Dad now that we are on a more equal footing. It used to irritate me so much that by the time I was warmed up, Dad was ready to quit when we would play catch. When he got to be in his 60s, he would ask me to put the 80 pound bags of salt in the water softener because they had become too heavy for him. And I can still hear him say, as he often did, “I can’t work like I used to.” He always sounded surprised whenever he said it, too, but I would think to myself, Of course you can’t, you’re old now. But I finally understand that he wasn’t surprised about being old, he was surprised at how fast he got old. Boy, do I get that one. Now.

I’d like to talk to him about all that kind of stuff now. I’d love to throw my arms around him and give him a big smile and say, “I get it now, Dad, and I’m sorry that I didn’t get it then.” And I am, too, even though it was impossible because you can’t “get” an experience if you haven’t experienced whatever the thing is. I know he’d understand.

I don’t want to hear that 64 is the new 44 and all that rot, because it just isn’t true. While there may be much about me that is young, I am not, and that’s not a complaint—just an observation. I’ll live with it, hopefully, all the way to 83 at least, and then Dad and I will be even at last.

Dad had his Doctorate in Education, but he was never self-impressed. This photo definitely captures the man.

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Oh, no! The dance censors were at it again.

I don’t know why the keepers of our social mores and the monitors of our general morality were so offended by dancing 100 years ago, but yet another item in the Winchester Star’s “Out of the Past” column demonstrates that to be true. With a dateline of Richmond, June 1, 1921, a small article notes that “two Baptist preachers of this city” exhorted their respective congregations to avoid the evils of dancing. “Don’t call yourself a Christian,” said the Reverend C. A. Jenkins of Calvary Church, “if you ever dance or attend a dance.” He went on to say that any members of his congregation who did so would be “called before the church for examination and censure.”

Over the last couple of years, “Out of the Past” has revealed the grave concerns that certain party-pooping patriarchs have raised against specific dances, which I have chronicled in this blog, but this is the first time that I have read about a condemnation of the practice in general. However, in a vein of cosmic irony, there followed in the “Out of the Past” column a notice with the same dateline lauding the “new maple floor in the hall of the Rouss Fire Company completed a day or two ago, and the first dance was held last night.” Clearly, the hoofers here in the Valley were willing to potentially risk their souls in order to enjoy the Shimmy or the Black Bottom.

Two days after that, another notice appeared describing the “delightful dance” held at Rouss and sponsored by the Girl’s Athletic Association. About 50 couples attended, and while I have obviously never met anyone who attended that dance, I feel confident that those young lady athletes behaved quite appropriately even if they did indulge in an Argentine Tango or a Grizzly Grapple.

If you look at the Top 50 songs of 1921, which you may do by clicking here, you just have to wonder what all the hubbub was about. The #1 song for the year, according to this chart at any rate, is a familiar tune by Marion Harris, “I Ain’t Got Nobody.” We remember it because Louis Prima combined it with “Just a Gigolo” to create a unique tune of his own 35 years later in 1956. In any case, none of the lyrics to those top 50 songs appear immoral to me, nor do the rhythms make me want to shimmy, gyrate, or grapple. Apparently, tastes in music and in sin have shifted over the past 100 years.

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College Baseball Remembers What Pro Baseball Forgot

Baseball is a topic that I often wrote about when I first started this blog years ago, but the sport—at least the major league version—has become a decreasing interest. It’s not just the players breaking their contract to entertain in favor of making political statements last year, it’s the major league style of play, and the way the majors are managed that leave me yawning or scratching my head.

Major league play has evolved into what are known as the “three true outcomes,” which is to say a walk, a strikeout, or a home run. This style has eliminated the need for the defensive wizardry of a Mark Belanger or an Ozzie Smith, because if you don’t put the ball in play, then, it obviously doesn’t need to be defended. Heretofore, defense has always been an important part of the game and an exciting part, but baseball’s modern style has diminished the most athletic part of the game.

Then, there is the idiocy that is Major League Baseball’s management. A prime example, perhaps the prime example, is the placement of a runner on second base to begin extra innings, a practice which resulted in the following absurdity: Last Thursday, Norfolk knuckleballer Mickey Jannis threw five perfect innings in relief, but took the loss, because the runner that he did not allow, was sacrificed to third, then scored on a sacrifice fly. Fifteen up and fifteen down, but Jannis takes the L. How in the name of Walter Johnson can that kind of buffoonery be sanctioned?

My passion for the game of baseball has not diminished, however. In fact, it has flourished watching college baseball, particularly the Southeastern Conference (SEC) games. The ballparks in the SEC are jewels, the fans are passionate, the uniforms range from classic (Ole Miss, for example) to bizarre (Vanderbilt’s black with gold pinstripes, for example), and most importantly, the talent is top notch. The broadcasters are also top-notch, and Ben McDonald is a prime example of that. He could make junior varsity tiddly winks sound fun and entertaining.

Defense in college baseball, while not as proficient as at the professional level, is at least still quite relevant to the game. Starting pitchers often last beyond the 5th inning. The commercial breaks are shorter.

If the modern major league game has drained your passion, then I strongly recommend the college game, especially the Southeastern Conference. It just so happens that their conference tournament begins tomorrow at 10:30, with three more games to follow that one. It will conclude on Sunday, May 30th, so you have an opportunity throughout the week to try it out. Here is a link to the SEC’s tournament schedule.

Sixty-four teams from around the country will make the national regional tournament, which begins Friday, June 4th. This is followed by the super regionals, and finally the College World Series, which begins Saturday, June 19th. And when that concludes, there is plenty of college summer baseball that runs through the end of July, probably somewhere close to where you live. I’ll be rooting for the New Market Rebels and the Dubois County Bombers this summer, and I get just as much of a thrill walking into Rebel Park or League Stadium as I do Camden Yards. More so, really, especially since the hot dogs are better and cheaper, “traffic” in and out of the ballparks is non-existent, and I know that whomever I’m sitting with is a real baseball fan.

And I can also be assured that no pitcher will retire all 15 batters he faces, only to lose.

SEC action from April 17, 2021 at the new Florida Ballpark. The Florida Gators swept a doubleheader from the Missouri Tiger.
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