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Back to the future: The joy of vintage baseball

Clefo has previously written about vintage baseball here, from the players' point of view. But how does it hold up as a spectator sport?

Considering Clefo had to make the two-hour drive up from Tucson to El Oso Park for yesterday's double header against Phoenix and Glendale, it would have been churlish of me not to drive the approximately eight minutes from SnakePit Towers to the venue, and experience vintage baseball from outside the fence. There was, it appeared, some confusion over the start time, among both spectators and players, with one team not realizing they had a game at 10am, and soco also thinking that was when Clefo would be playing. But Tucson still starter their opener on time at noon, a few minutes after I got there.

A few things immediate stood out. The pitcher throws underhand, and isn't particularly attempting to get anyone out: there isn't really much effort to count balls and strikes, with the hitter able to take, within reason, as many pitches as they want until he (or she - both Phoenix and Glendale had a lady player among the gentlemen, but for simplicity's sake I'm gonna use "he" for any pronouns the rest of the way!) gets one to their liking. The other obvious difference in equipment is that only the catcher and first-baseman have a mitt, and it's far from the large, heavily padded protection you see today; it's more like a driving glove.

You'd think this gentle approach to pitching and defense would make for high-scoring slugfests, but it's countered by a major help to the defense, especially given the limited equipment: if you catch the ball off the bat on one bounce, it's still an out (even on a foul tip to the catcher). That makes it significantly easier, though by no means a given, especially on the infield, where the ball often had some vicious spin, with the resulting wicked change in direction off the bounce having to be taken into account by the fielder. Misjudge that, and it was very easy - as I saw at least once - for the infielder to be left sprawling in the dirt, looking embarrassed.

There was still an advantage to catching the ball on the fly: if it bounced, any baserunners could advance when they wanted, but if caught on the fly, "modern" sac fly rules applied, e.g. tagging up. That proved decisive in the last inning of the second game: Glendale had the tying run on first with one out, and a fly ball was sent to the outfield. The runner expected the outfielder to take the ball on the bounce, so was nearer second when the fielder instead caught it on the fly, and was able to throw over to first for a game-ending double-play. It certainly adds a whole different dynamic and set of tactics to the sport.

Base-running is different in another way as well, with no concept of "running through" first, as we have nowadays. Instead, it's the same as every other base, in that if you over-run it, the fielder can slap a tag on you and you'll be called out. I can see why they don't play that in the modern game, as it means the runner has to start to decelerate well before reaching the bag, and the potential for injury is certainly higher. There's no sliding or stolen bases here, and I didn't see anyone advancing on a wild pitch or passed ball either.

vintage baseball

Offense is also kept in check by the slow pitch velocity, and the ball feels a little "spongier" too: there were no home-runs and few extra-base hits in the two games I saw [there was one triple, which was quite exciting]. The same ball is used for the entire game as well, though it seemed to survive the extended play well.  As shown above, the official scorer occupied a rather precarious position, sitting at their desk about where the on-deck circle would be on the third-base side. There's an old-school bell [literally; it looks like something from a Victorian schoolhouse!] on the desk, and players must ring it after crossing home-plate for their run to count.

One thing which was particularly appreciated was the brisk pace of play. Games last only seven innings, rather than the usual nine, and there's no hanging around: there's no 20+ seconds between pitches, and neither is there 2-3 minutes delay between innings. One team jogs off, the other jogs on and we keep rolling. As a result, the two games were completed in a combined time of not much past two and a half hours. And both games were close contests, that went into the last inning all square. Phoenix walked off winners in the first, but Tucson scored the go-ahead run in the top of the seventh to edge Glendale in the second.

I know you all want to hear about Clefo: he had a mixed day. The first game saw him go 0-for-4 batting leadoff, mostly on the "one bounce" rule, though he wasn't helped at first-base by having forgotten his glove and having to use one on the wrong hand! But the second game saw him pick up three hits after a switch to left field. There was also a brief moment where I wondered if I was going to be called in to play, after one of the Tucson players went down with an injury. But he was able to continue, dashing to ribbons my dreams of an improbably run through the Vintage Baseball League to become a [redacted]-year-old rookie in the majors next year. Damn it...

That said, it is clearly a game where the taking part is more important than the winning - after the injury, Phoenix sent someone over to ask if Tucson needed to borrow a replacement player. And at the end of the game, the teams line up to cheer for their opponents (below), and the subsequent handshake line is between opposing players. Wouldn't mind seeing that adopted in the majors, rather than the current self-congratulatory validation for the winners alone. [As an aside, amused to see one of my in-game Tweets being retweeted, apparently from the dugout, by Clefo. That's not exactly very "vintage", is it?! Kirk Gibson scowls disapprovingly...]

I used to play cricket in a recreational league back in Britain, and enjoyed running around, even if it was with much more enthusiasm than skill. That didn't appear to be any more of a bar here than it was there, and simply finding the time would be the main concern. For all told, this was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon, and it is something I might have to consider doing for a future season. There are certainly far worse ways to spend a Saturday.

vintage baseball