Batter Up! Top of the Second
The Facts of Life/The Stats of Baseball
My early trips to Forbes Field opened me up to the wonders of baseball, revealing a whole new world of awe and beauty in the game. I felt more at home at that ballpark than I did — anywhere else. Baseball was clearly in my blood, and in my soul.
When I was 8, my family moved to a new neighborhood just about 5 blocks away from Midland Street, to Berkshire Avenue. It might just as well have been on the other side of the world. Our new house was huge, and (we would learn) haunted, but the new neighborhood was very different, as well.
For starters, there was a girl from school I’d already started crushing on living right across the street from us now, Clare Tepe. She apparently had a little thing for me as well, but we were both too shy and inexperienced to know what to do about it. I believe she was the third oldest in a family of 7 or 8 kids, while I was the second youngest in my family of 7 kids. Her next younger brother, Jack, was actually closer to me in age, but he was a grade below Clare and I in school. I was always young for my class, since I was born in November.
I spent a lot of time at the Tepe’s house, always asking for Jack when I went over there, while really wanting to see Clare. She made my heart skip a beat, and just being around her made me feel so good. It was the worst kept secret in the Tepe house that Clare and I had a real thing for each other. It would be a few years before we actually openly acknowledged our fondness for each other.
A little further down the street lived the Kribels and the Burgunders. They were all on fire about baseball. It was 1963, just 3 years after the Pirates had gone all the way and won the World Series. The older kids in the neighborhood had caught the baseball fever then, and it was still going strong as the younger kids, my age and younger, were infected with it, as well. There were lots of games of whiffle ball in the backyards and alleys down there. I learned a lot more about the game of baseball in those backyards and alleys. Those kids really knew the game.
The Kribels, especially, were well-versed in all things baseball. Pete was my age, a pretty quiet kid at school, but around the whiffle ball fields, he was a confident, skilled ballplayer. His older brother Jake was always around and even more knowledgeable than Pete. He was old enough to remember the World Series vividly. Those kids taught me all about the inner secrets of the game itself, the thing that made the game tick — the wonderful world of baseball statistics!
They had this game called “Strat-o-Matic Baseball”, that came with cards for each and every player in both leagues, with all of their statistics from the previous season. It was a cards and dice game, where you rolled the dice for each player that came up to bat, the resulting dice roll determining whether the play would be based on the batter’s card and statistics, or on the pitcher’s card and statistics. You played complete 9 inning games like this, which I found terribly exciting, keeping score and everything as the game unfolded.
These guys were so into it, they made those games really come alive. Jake would call the play-by-play just like the Pirates announcer, Bob Prince, and Pete was quite the little strategist. The two of them played off each other brilliantly, and just to be there for that show was quite a thrill for me. We’d take turns being the opposing managers of teams, making the lineups and making the moves throughout the games, pinch-hitting or pinch-running at appropriate times, making calls to the bullpen when a starting pitcher tired and started getting pounded.
This world of statistics was revealed to me right around the same time I learned about the facts of life. The two were deeply interwoven in my psyche as the one was the inner workings of what made baseball so great, while the other was the key to life itself — a strange and mysterious thing, this world of sex and how it all worked.
I was deeply fascinated by both. After first learning how babies were made, and how the sex act worked, I was actually a little shaken and a bit disturbed — granted, we did not have sex education in school in those days, so I learned it from other kids, just a little older than me. I’m sure I didn’t learn it in the most healthy of ways. The descriptions and details were painted in a kind of lurid, crude way that made me shutter.
I found solace in the cleanness and safe world of baseball statistics. Learning how to calculate a player’s batting average and fielding percentage, and a pitcher’s earned run average, suddenly made the math I was learning in school come alive and make sense. It gave it a purpose. Math quickly became my strongest subject, as it would always be. I didn’t come to love words, and reading and writing, until I was much older.
Even more than this was learning the logic behind the makeup of a team’s batting order, which I learned from the Kribels while playing Strat-o-Matic. The team’s fastest player, who could get on base in a variety of ways and then steal a base, was usually your number one, or “lead-off” batter. The guy with the least number of strikeouts, a good contact hitter who was good at moving runners along, even when they didn’t get a hit themselves, was always your best number two hitter. It was also desirable to have a player with some speed in this spot, but not a requirement. The team’s best all around hitter, the guy with a good average and decent power, with some speed, was the ideal number 3 hitter. Number 4, also known as the “Clean-up” hitter, was usually the guy with the most home runs, so he could clean those bases up that were hopefully well-occupied by those three solid hitters before him. Numbers 5 and 6 were generally guys with some pop in their bat, as well, so whenever the clean-up guy didn’t get the job done, they were there to clean-up behind him. Number 7 and 8 were usually your two weakest and/or slowest hitters of the starting 9, although it was always good to have a guy who knew how to get on base batting 8th. The 9th slot was the pitcher’s spot, generally your worst hitters. Some were good at bunting, which would advance the runners when executed well, which is why it was good for the number 8 guy to be one who could find ways to get on base.
Armed with this newfound knowledge, the game of baseball really came alive for me. This would tide me over until I was ready to really explore the game of life, and the mysterious world of sex, which really felt weird and scary to an 8 year-old.