By Bill Coady
If “time begins on opening day,” as Thomas Boswell once wrote, then time has begun here in Wausau once again, but unfortunately it looks like it might be a long summer. But whether the Woodchucks win or lose on the field, going out Athletic Park is always an interesting experience.
Going to see a Woodchucks game is a bit like going back in a time machine. At first it may seem that the hokey, “this inning brought to you by” sponsorship of everything is a recent innovation, but has been around since Alexander Cartwright (not Abner Doubleday — as Casey Stengel said, “you can look it up”) invented baseball. The outfield wall covered in advertising seems more Norman Rockwell and 1950’s than anything else. And then there is the National Anthem. I don’t remember the name of the woman who sang it last night (I will look that up before the end of the day) but I have to admire her voice and gumption. She took a microphone down on the field and sang the Star Spangled Banner acappella. And she did a great job. You want to try that? Not me.
And then the game began. And the time machine dial was set to 1968. At least in my memory. In the major leagues, 1968 was the year of the pitcher. It was the year Carl Yastrzemski won the batting title with a .301 average, the lowest ever. It was the year Bob Gibson posted a 1.12 ERA. After 1968 the powers that be lowered the pitching mound 5 inches. But it is always 1968 at Athletic Park.
I think it is mostly the fact that the college players are coping with wooden bats for maybe the first time. College baseball uses aluminum bats where the sweet spot is huge and even a ball hit off the handle can be a solid line drive. Wooden bats require perfect timing and placement. We forget this because our usual experience is watching major leaguers, and trust me those guys are superhuman. Not very many balls were hit out of the infield by either team last night.
Which leads to 1968 tactics. Here is something you won’t see in a major league game these days. The Chucks were losing in the bottom of the eighth inning 2-0. Two men were on base, thanks to two walks, with a strike out in between. Two on, one out, with the second place hitter at the plate. Perfect spot for a game winning rally. Jim Gantner called for a sacrifice bunt. No major league manager would do that today. But then again you won’t see a lot of major league games where the only balls hit out of the infield are routine fly balls. You also don’t see a lot of major league games where ALL the runs are unearned, and 6 errors are committed by one team.
Yes, six errors by the Chucks, and a couple of wild pitches thrown in for good measure. A 3-0 Opening Day loss. Not an auspicious start for Gantner, but he will get plenty of more chances this summer. And I am sure I will be taking the “way back” machine trip out at Athletic Park many more times this summer. Starting again tonight, first pitch at 6:35. Maybe it will take a few years off of me, rather than adding one on.
See you at the park!