I’m holding a shellacked baseball in my hand. The leather is cracked and the blue ink is fading but the red stitching is strong and tight, like a family connection in the old neighborhood. After 60 years, the ball still holds up. So does the powerful sentiment behind it.
My namesake, Steve O’Neill gave me the ball on my first birthday. He was a major league catcher who played with the Yankees among other great teams and managed the Detroit Tigers to a World Series victory in 1945. O’Neill and his three major league brothers are buried right down the road from where “our” new baseball stadium is being constructed near Montage, just a few blocks from the O’Neill family home in the Minooka section of Scranton, where I live.
On the fireplace mantle in my house sits a framed black and white photograph of O’Neill and his dear buddy, Babe Ruth, who loved drinking frothy mugs of cold beer in Minooka and surprising the kids the way he did my father when Steve brought his “Bambino” buddy to the Minooka school house. In the picture, both men are dressed in fine riding clothing and perched in saddles on fine thoroughbred horses. The picture captures them in all their glory, in the early 20s, when baseball was baseball.
When baseball was baseball, fans concerned themselves with the game. Players, balls and strikes and earned run averages meant everything. Home run hitters earned hero status. Children stared stunned at bigger than life role models who by and large practiced what they preached.
Owners smoked cigars and lived lives that most fans could never imagine. But they knew the game and respected its essence. And that’s what they delivered – a line drive loaded with essence to the lunch pail gang who screamed in their seats or gathered around the radio for their thrills. When television arrived, the neon lights of bright beer signs cast a magic hue over summer nights in neighborhood saloons packed with men who bet, bantered, lived and died together.
Women loved the game, too. My friend Norman’s grandmother made meat loaf sandwiches and never missed a Pirates game on the radio. My wife’s great aunt might very well have died on the couch while listening to the Phillies game on the radio with her little dog listening by her side.
Now I worry that high-powered baseball executives have forgotten those days. Worse, I worry that they never knew about them to begin with. I worry that today’s baseball executives have relegated the game to secondary status. If that’s the case, those executives might want to start looking for work. They are contributing to the downfall of a sacred pastime that can only be saved in the little towns and cities like Wilkes-Barre and Scranton that have always produced real fans.
Pander to crass cartoon commercialism and fire-breathing tricks at your own risk.
This means, you, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders.
Bring back the game, the real game, and prosper. Turn us into a commodity, with customers rather than fans and foul out. And, to the spirits of countless famous players who haunt America’s dugouts, that’s as foul as it gets.
This means you, New York Yankees General Manager Brad Cashman, whose last name itself, for God’s sake – Cash Man – sounds alarm bells of profit rather than gifts of endearment in the hearts and minds of some of the America’s toughest baseball fans. Instead of jumping in the limo and taking the short two-hour ride to Dickson City from New York City to join us in celebrating yesterday’s announcement of the new team name and logo for the Yankees farm team that is housed in our neighborhood, Cashman appeared in a video address broadcast at a banquet center that has been the site of weddings and other catered affairs for many years.
Had Cashman showed up in person, he would have shown class and baseball smarts. Instead, acting more like a Wall Streeter hedge fund chiseler than a bountiful baseball baron in love with the roar of the crowd, he fired fastball-like video insults at everybody in attendance, except, of course, for the political and corporate cheerleaders who do Cashman’s bidding and would have appeared naked in an ice sculpture had he decreed their freeze frame for the event.
Cashman probably doesn’t realize he insulted anybody and will likely defensively deny the charge if someone is brave enough to bring this column to his attention. But take a listen to his video and you tell me.
Regarding baseball’s new day in hard coal country, Cashman said, “I look forward to the top of the charts on merchandise sales, with people saying it loud and saying it proud. It’s an awesome new stadium coming on line, a new uniform and rebranding it. And the association with the Yankees is as strong as ever.”
Top of the charts? Merchandise sales? On line? Rebranding? Association?
Keep talking corporate drivel, Cashman, and we’ll ride you out of town on a rail - atop a porcupine. The new logo and prickly mascot is all well and good. So is the new $43 million stadium that Cashman should thank taxpayers for since we’re coughing up more than half the cash, man, in the midst of a recession that’s striking out people in Northeastern Pennsylvania far more often than Cashman’s circle of friends gets their taxes raised.
You want to succeed, have a little respect. Just a little. We’re really not that hard to please. Maybe jump in the limo. Read a book about the Babe. Stop by the O’Neill brothers’ graves. Then bow your head and give thanks. Because it if it wasn’t for guys like them we wouldn’t need guys like you.
Then maybe hit a Minooka saloon or two. Buy a round of beers for some of America’s real baseball fans. Keep treating us like a corporate spread sheet, though, and see how soon the fastball slows and the RailRiders get a shellacking severe enough to knock the horsehide off the ball.
See how long it takes for the mighty Cashman to strike out.