Baseball, always my valentine   

Updated: February 15, 2007, 6:01 AM ET

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Because this is Feb. 14, I present a valentine to my first, deepest and most lasting love …

Off Base
Baseball, you had me at "Play ball.''

I loved you from that first day my father played catch with me and I held you in my hand for the initial time -- and vice-versa.

Perhaps I rushed into things, for we went to bed at an early age when I would sneak a radio under the blankets to listen through the static to distant Giants broadcasts. I was probably too young and too immature for I did not understand then that you would break my heart. Repeatedly. You allowed me to follow the Giants that entire season, copying boxscores into my notebook, clipping newspaper photos (I still have the picture of Willie Mays homering for the fourth time in as many games to begin the season), collecting their baseball cards. I said their names so often that I still can repeat them as if they are members of my own family: Bonds, Fuentes, Mays, McCovey, Henderson, Dietz, Speier, Gallagher, Marichal … You let my spirits rise and fall and rise again as the Giants battled the Dodgers during the pennant drive, allowing me to feel pure joy when they clinched the division.

And then you abruptly crushed my hopes in a five-game series against Pittsburgh in October. You didn't even let the series go five games! It was my first painful lesson that you are a frustrating lover, a tease. One night you allow me to go all the way and score. The next you leave me stranded at second base. And some nights you won't let me even get to first base.

Did I forgive you then? Of course I did. I always do. I forgive you everything. The 1981 strike. The canceled 1994 World Series. The Expos' move. Luxury suites and corporate naming rights and rising ticket prices. I forgive you for bullpen carts and orange polyester uniforms and the Moose. I forgive you for the Bartman game and Grady Little and the Yankees. I even forgive you for heartlessly snatching the 2002 World Series away when the Giants held a five-run lead with eight outs remaining.

Why? Why do I put up with the pain? Why do I put up with a game where the very best I can hope for is failure seven out of every 10 at-bats (at least since Tony Gwynn retired)?

Ball Four

eBay

If you're a baseball fan who hasn't read "Ball Four," well, then you need help.

That's easy. I do so because I love you wholly and unconditionally.

I love you for the anticipation I feel opening a new waxpack of baseball cards (even though I know I will get another Ryan Franklin instead of an Albert Pujols). I love you for the paperback copy of "Ball Four'' worn and tattered from annual readings. I love you for the home run Roy Hobbs hits into the light towers, the Durham Bulls discussing candlesticks and rooster sacrifice on the mound and the Black Sox walking out of the cornfield. I love you for "Who's on First?'' and Charlie Brown and the chorus of "Centerfield.''

I love you for Babe Ruth calling his shot (or not) and Lou Gehrig saying he was the luckiest man on the face of the Earth. I love you for Bobby Thomson leaping onto home plate with both feet after a 300-foot home run and Willie Mays catching a 450-foot fly ball with his back to the field. Carl Yastrzemski holding his bat high and Rod Carew holding the handle as if playing the flute. Bob Gibson scowling at a batter and Kirby Puckett smiling brightly enough to light up a state. Carlton Fisk waving his home run fair and Jack Morris stomping to the mound for the 10th inning of Game 7. Cal Ripken Jr. running a victory lap at Camden Yards and Mark McGwire hugging the Maris kids. Omar Vizquel backhanding a ball in the hole and Big Papi walking up to the plate.

I love you for the Pine Tar Game and Oscar Gamble's hair and the Tigers' old English D. For Ernie Harwell and Vin Scully and Jon Miller. The Game of the Week and "Baseball Tonight.'' The 1969 Mets and the 1995 Mariners and the 1976 Bad News Bears.

I love you for doubleheaders and extra innings and bat day. I love you for spring training and the Boys of Summer and the Autumn Classic. I love you for peanuts and crackerjack. I love you for long drives with the game on the car radio. I love you for the Green Monster and Wrigley and Cooperstown.

I love you for boxscores.

Of course, you know all this already. I have written you almost daily love letters and poems for my entire adult life.

    "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day at Wrigley Field?
    Thou art more lovely than Derrek Lee's stroke and more temperate than a can of cold Old Style in the bleachers.
    Rough winds do carry Lilly's curveballs onto Waveland Avenue,
    And summer hath all too short a lease on first place.''

But no mere words of mine can resonate as deeply as "The outlook wasn't good for the Mudville Nine that day … " or "Now batting for the Yankees … the shortstop, Derek Jeter, No. 2 … Jeter … " or "Pitchers and catchers report today … "

Pedro Martinez, Grady Little

AP Photo

How can one moment get you fired? When you could have killed the Yankees.

I would give you diamonds but you already have those. I would give you chocolates but the concession stands only sell red vines and ice cream sundaes in mini-helmets. I would give you intimate apparel but I don't know your cap size. So all I can offer you is my love and devotion. I love you baseball, because for all the suffering, you fill my life with endless joy and stubborn, continual hope.

After all, the Giants did sign Barry Zito this winter.

TELL YOUR STATISTICS TO SHUT UP
The Twins plan to hold a 20-year reunion of their first world championship team this season, but they ran into a small problem. Try as they did, they couldn't locate Les Straker, who was 8-10 that season and started two games of the World Series. Enter longtime Twins fans Eric Ruzicka and Nick Schwarz. "Eric e-mailed me saying he couldn't believe how in this day and age a player like Les Straker could go missing,'' Schwarz wrote in an e-mail to Off-Base. "I jokingly e-mailed him back saying, 'I wonder if "FindLesStraker.com'' is available.' From there, the light bulb went off and he and I got busy working on establishing a Web site devoted to finding Les Straker. We just couldn't imagine a reunion without one of the three starting pitchers from the World Series. I mean, shouldn't this guy be receiving a pension check or be on some sort of mailing list from MLB or the Player's Union?'' So the two started FindLesStraker.com, offering a $100 reward if someone could lead the Twins to Straker. Among the many respondents was information that Straker was a pitching coach in Venezuela. The lead paid off and the Twins now know where Straker is, though as of this morning they have yet to hear whether he'll be able to attend. Schwarz, an e-Marketer in Wabasso, Minn., wonders what he should ask for in exchange for helping locate Straker: "Joe Mauer-type money'' or to have the new stadium named after him? Most likely, he'll have to settle for the pleasure of seeing Straker in the Metrodome again. "Les Straker may not be the most memorable Minnesota athlete,'' he wrote. "In fact, he'd probably even struggle to make a good trivia question on Stump the Schwab. But he was certainly a big part of a collection of special ballplayers that made the 1987 season so magical for Twins' fans.'' …

The game lost one of its greatest pitchers last week when Eddie Feigner died at age 81. Feigner was the legendary hurler in the King and his Court, a barnstorming softball team of exactly four players that took on any and all opponents across the map. Throwing 100 mph gas and pitching from second base (and center field), Feigner reportedly struck out more than 140,000 batters in over 10,000 games in a career that lasted half a century. He once struck out Mays, McCovey, Maury Wills, Harmon Killebrew, Roberto Clemente and Brooks Robinson in order. If you never had the chance to see the crew-cut Feigner in action, you missed something special. Rest in peace, King.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is back up at a slightly different address, jimcaple.net, with more installments of 24 College Avenue. His new book with Steve Buckley, "The Best Boston Sports Arguments: The 100 Most Controversial, Debatable Questions for Die-Hard Boston Fans" is on sale now.


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