The Way it Was
on May 22, 2009
Last Sunday afternoon, Matt Siee dressed in knee high socks with a wool white top picked up a 42-ounce ash bat and drilled the ball to center field where it careened off a tree and got lost in shrubbery. A stand up double. One run in.
This is what Walt Whitman yelped about.
The Bay Area Vintage Base Ball league is celebrating its fifth season of playing by the rules exactly as they were back in 1886 – even down to the facial hair for the devoted.
It’s a throwback to celebrate actual teams that existed in the Bay Area years ago. While they might not be playing in ATT Park or at the Coliseum, an increasing number of fans are showing up at their fields in Mosswood Park in Oakland or Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.
There are no batting gloves to protect hitters, baseball gloves are as padded as church benches. And helmets? Who needs them. Batters go up to home plate prepared to jump out of the way of a screaming inside fastball. There’s nothing comfortable about 1886 – and the price to play is definitely 2009. Players pay a $75 entry fee and $140 for their uniform.
“We have grown about a team per year,” said Siee, captain of the Oakland Colonels and vice president of the Bay Area Vintage Base Ball League, which has recently added the Alameda Quicksilvers.
New players looking to join the team are given a handbook: 17 pages of history, rules and regulations on how to play base ball (two words.)
The league’s motto is clear: “We play the game the way it was before the $50 million dollar contracts, shoe sponsorships, and 25 man rosters,” the handbook states.
“Sportsmanship is the holy grail.”
“You don’t have to bench 250 pounds and hit the ball a ton,” said Siee. “This is a great forum for people who love the game. We have guys from 19 to 60 years of age. They’re not concerned with getting too competitive out there and kicking butt.”
While he is Matt at home, Siee responds to “Chops,” his nickname on the diamond. And things didn’t go so well the next time Chops went to the plate.
Snake, San Francisco’s pitcher, threw a fastball as Chops entered the batter’s box. “I believe that was a cross,” said the umpire, with slick hair and a mustache with curls so pronounced you can hang a trench coat on it.
The umpire adjusted his wool coat and pumped his fist, “You’re out!”
Siee lowered his head and turned toward the dugout. A strikeout hurts, no matter what era.
In 2009, a player might give the umpire an earful. Maybe even kicked some dirt in his direction. At the very least a player would nod in disapproval and give the umpire the stink eye. But this is 1886.
“I believe that was a ball, sir,” said Siee. There’s more confrontation at a little league game.
Nicknames, however, are part and parcel of the game.
Ghost. Cadaver. Mule. Mouth. “I chose nicknames just based on a personality cork,” said Andrew Nardinelli, a player who describes himself as Mouth because he talks so much.
For Nardinelli, nicknames are just half the fun. Vintage Base Ball for the independent contractor is really a completely different game than its modern version.
“There are rules that make it a less formulaic game,” said Nardinelli, citing no infield fly rule and, for batters, no stepping out of the box.
“You need a higher percentage of heart than skill.”
Nardinelli left his Friday night softball co-ed league for something a little more aggressive.
“I wanted something that was more rough and tumble,” said the Berkeley resident. “The modern game has this monolithic sluggish pace. It takes about five or ten seconds to get through pitches. This game has a much faster pace. Nothing is ever routine.” ”
“In a lot of ways, it’s a simpler game,” said the outfielder.
Lazy summer afternoons were made for base ball (two words.)
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