In prep football, there’s the pop of pads, crack of helmets and of course, the thunder of bass drums and the rat-a-tat-tat of machine gun snares a la the marching band.
At basketball arenas and hockey barns worldwide, it’s swish of a net, the ungainly clang of a puck being fired off a post, and so many whistles and horns.
Then there’s baseball…a slow, patient, deliberate, almost laid-back kind of game that truly allows its spectators to kick back, relax, and really take in the eclectic soundtrack.
In my formative years as a little guy playing tee ball, pee wee, little league, and Pony League baseball at then-Quarry Front Stadium in Genoa, there was the constant crunch of tires on gravel as vehicles pulled into the parking lot all summer, every summer.
About six innings later, if our team was lucky enough to win, you’d hear that same telltale crunch back 100 yards or so to the old dairy queen on Washington Street as a small army of cleats hurried over for the customary ice cream treat.
Before the game, is there anything sweeter than cowhide slapping against leather, as two teams warm up before a ballgame by playing catch in the spring sun?
That intermittent “whap, whap, whap” takes me back up to Quarry Front circa the late 1970s-early ‘80s, and warming up for teams like Rick Nowak’s pee wee Indians, and Dr. Keith Norwalk’s and Tom Wojciechowski’s little league Giants and Phillies.
It reminded me of a string of firecrackers going off on the Fourth of July. Back-and-forth we’d fire that baseball, harder and harder…as we tried to sting our partner’s hand, and make dust leap from his glove like smoke. It just felt like power.
Eventually there’s got to be a bat. And really, is there one, single sound more emblematic of America’s favorite pastime than a bat connecting with a baseball right on that “sweet spot?”
That sound can cause us to cringe, mumble expletives, and even bow our heads in shock, when going into the top of the ninth an opposing batter laces a sharp double into the gap between left and center, plating two runs to put our team down by one, with no outs.
Half an inning later, it can almost divinely raise our heads back up, fill us first with hope, and then utter rapture as a baseball carries a little more until it finally deposits itself just over the fence. Off our No. 8 hitter’s bat, for a walk-off two-run shot. That’s when the heavens open back up and the sun comes back out.
Then there’s also baseball’s very own unique vernacular.
Football has its “Xs and Os,” and its own calls and audibles at the line of scrimmage. Quite often, when a basketball play is called in from the bench by a pacing coach, it generally makes little sense to a spectator’s ears at all, unless said spectator for some reason is privy to the calls.
But, in baseball, the words we hear spoken by coaches and especially players generally do make sense. They just more often than not seem to take on a curious dialect all their own.
Case in point…as a young pee wee center fielder for Coach Nowak’s Indians, I can remember how when we used to play Lee Nissen’s always-strong Twins teams, Coach Nissen would sit in the opposing dugout and encourage his pitchers by chanting, “Come on, babe, come on, babe. Good fire, good fire.” But, it always came out sounding like, “Mon, babe, ‘mon, babe! Good fi’, good fi’.”
To this day, Nissen remains a friend and a great baseball man in Genoa. He’s been involved with Genoa Little League for 33 years, and is president to this day, and whenever I see him, I can’t help but think of those sounds of summer and smile.
Vernacular and code words
And ballplayers have their own code words. So much so that it’s kind of become a whole new diamond language. Like, “Wear it,” which simply means “Don’t bail out of the batter’s box. Take that high-and-tight pitch like a man.” Or, for “Take one for the team. We need a base runner!”
Or, “Get dirty.” It’s a gamier way of saying “Get down. Slide. Get back to the bag.” Or, “Choke up on that bat, and get us a hit, ‘kee-iiid.’”
In addition, a majority of the time, players are more often “numbers,” and not names. As in, “Nice scoop, 4.” And, “Lead us off ‘ones’ (for No. 11). Little poke, kee-iiid.” And, “Wear it, ‘two-three’ (23).” I mean, even the crowd gets in on it.
Wherever youth ball is played, there is the timeless “Hey batter, batter” chant. I swear, sometimes when that thing gets going, and the night’s about 72 degrees with a cool breeze, I’m kicked back in my lawn chair and it almost lulls me to sleep. It’s that rhythmic.
There’s the “strike” call of the umpire, which depending upon the guy behind the mask, can sound like anything ranging from intelligible, well-enunciated English, to a guttural war cry, to some poor sap suffering the initial throes of heaving back up too many wolfed-down ballpark hot dogs.
Between little league games, we were eating, sleeping, living baseball, too, even if it meant “pool baseball,” which was played with a tennis ball and our hands. Or, endless games of “rundown” in the front yard on West Street; buying packs of baseball cards and an orange pop with pocket change at Genoa Super-Val, and Major League games on television or radio that took us into the night as we camped out in the backyard.
It’s the very voice, or the warrior’s roar, of some of baseball’s mightiest men. It is larger-than-life Detroit Tigers Kirk Gibson, Lance Parrish, and Chet Lemon smashing balls off the upper-deck poles when my mom and dad first started taking me to games at old Tiger Stadium.
It’s Toledo Mud Hens’ slugger Craig Monroe drilling a pitch off the side of the SeaGate Centre when Fifth Third Field first opened.
In Genoa, it was guys like Matt Schmidlan, and Bryan “Smoke” Smolinski ripping home run after home run over the faded, yellow advertising – and sometimes even the cottonwood trees that lined them — at Quarry Front Stadium.
Across town, at Waterworks Park, at the old Pony League diamond, it was Genoa Comets hitter Eric Wolfe crushing shots or over the old stone road and into the cornfield.
From the pop of a plastic bat on a plastic ball during those seemingly-endless Wiffle ball games down at friend Jason Parker’s house when we were all kids, to Mike Thomas’ voice crackling from the Quarry Front Stadium press box as he called our little league games, those sounds tell the real story for me.
They set the table for all the other senses, or lead off if you will.