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Dozens of South Dakota towns field teams for the summer's baseball season.
Dozens of South Dakota towns field teams for the summer's baseball season.

Of Birds and Baseball

May 12, 2015

In the spring a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of ... baseball! So said my school friend Steve in an oration about green grass and sunshine, about hope in the heart of every fan and the glories of the greatest game of all.

Of all the mysteries of the universe, none is more opaque to me than the workings of my own mind. I can’t remember phone numbers, addresses or names, but I do recall that line from 40 years ago. Why is that?

Perhaps it was the trauma associated with that day. I was in my freshman speech class at St. Mary High School. We were giving our first speeches of the term, which for me was the first speech of my life. Most of my mental effort was assigned to the task of bladder control, yet somehow, through the fog, I heard Steve speak. He used gestures. He didn’t read from his note cards. He spoke naturally. He paused for effect. His voice went up and down.

Sister Patricia rained praise down upon him — she may have called his speech the greatest oration since the Gettysburg Address — then it was my turn. My delivery was robotic, but it was Oscar-worthy compared to the content: five droning minutes on the geography of North Dakota. Where did I get such a ridiculous idea? By the end there were doubtless classmates praying for the sweet release of death. I slunk back to my chair.

Sometime later I happened to come across an old Sports Illustrated, where I found Steve’s speech word for word.

What a coincidence! I presented him with this startling information and he replied, “So what? That’s where I get all my speeches.” Sister Patricia wasn’t a regular reader of Sports Illustrated, apparently, and I was no snitch, so his secret remained a secret. Until now, at least.

I remember the words of Steve’s bit of plagiarism, but the message was utterly lost on me. I don’t get baseball. Never have and probably never will. Baseball has all the drama and excitement of watching one of those long irrigation setups snake across a cornfield: at the end of the day there’s evidence of movement, but most of the time it appears stationary. If it weren’t for the rule that requires players to spit at least 15 times per inning there would be no action at all.

There was a moment in time when I connected with baseball. It was the summer after we moved into our house, and I was digging out the basement by hand. I felt like one of the peasants who built the Great Wall of China. Fill two five-gallon buckets with dirt. Haul them up the stairs. Dump. Return. Repeat four billion times. I’d work for hours every evening, yet the task never seemed any closer to completion. There was always more dirt to move.

For some electromagnetic reason my little portable radio only got one station, which happened to broadcast Minnesota Twins games. I soon discovered a connection between baseball and my work: time seemingly stood still in both.

“Shicklegruber checks the runner at first. Here’s the pitch. Fastball. Fouled off. Count remains 3 and 2. Snottsdork has been hitting .287 in the last 17 games, after hitting .286 in the previous 23. In his career he’s .291 against right-handers and .283 against southpaws.”

“He likes those right-handers.”

“Sure does. He’s had two home runs in those 17 games. Shicklegruber tosses it to first. Finklestein gets back. Snottsdork hit only one homer after the All-Star break last year so he’s ahead of his pace. Both of them, oddly enough, came during games delayed by rain. Against the Sox and Brewers.”

“He likes those rain delays.”

“You bet. Maybe we should pray for rain.”

“Maybe we should.”

“Finklestein takes a step. Shicklegruber winds up. Here’s the pitch. Foul over the visitor’s dugout. Count remains 3 and 2.”

That kind of blather went on through innumerable trips up the steps and down into the depths of statistical hell, yet the count always remained 3 and 2. Nothing could be worse than this, I thought. Then I went to an actual game. There’s nothing like watching nine men spit and scratch themselves for hours on end to make you miss discourses on batting averages for rain-delayed games. Along about the fifth inning or so it occurred to me that baseball might in fact be an elaborate plot to sell beer: if you drink enough the game can be quite interesting.

You may well wonder why I’m bothering to write about baseball when I am so obviously not a fan. Every May, the Sioux Falls Canaries come to Yankton and play an exhibition against the Sioux City Explorers. The two teams played at a cold and blustery Riverside Park on Monday night, with the Explorers winning by the bloated score of 21-11.

Several years ago, the Canaries decided to change their name to the Fighting Pheasants. Don’t get me wrong. I like pheasants. They’re South Dakota’s official state bird, as you may have heard, and we could do a whole lot worse. Take Minnesota, whose citizens inexplicably chose to honor the Common Loon, a creature so goofy looking it proves God has a sense of humor.

Canaries and Cardinals, Orioles and Pheasants, are all fine choices as a team mascot. It was the “fighting” part that seemed a little odd. Certain words just don’t sound right together. To wit: Fleet Footed Sloths, or Battling Bunny Rabbits. This name did not strike fear into opponents’ hearts.

Nor cause a young man’s fancy....

Editor’s Note: This column is revised from the May/June 2010 issue of South Dakota Magazine. The Fighting Pheasants once again became the Sioux Falls Canaries prior to the 2013 season, and they remain the Canaries today.


01:32 pm - Wed, June 10 2015
Marlys Nelson said:
You've channelled my thoughts on baseball ex-act-ly!! Being a non-athletic girl I was always chosen last for Phy. Ed. teams and played (?) right field, which wasn't so bad since that adjoined the music room and I could sometimes converse through an open window with non-musical boy-types instead of following the *action* on the field.

But i made the mistake of marrying an ex-baseball fanatic who can still remember the errant throw he made to third base in an important Legion game in 1953...and dozens of other such exciting moments. Sigh.
10:54 am - Sat, October 24 2015
Chris Aesoph said:
I love this article Roger, even though I am a misguided baseball fan. Your writing is fun to read, just as it was when we met at Mount Marty many years past. Keep up the good work, and thanks!

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