#11: The Old Ball Game

May 23rd, 2012

The Salmon swim against the current.

Even if you dislike the pun, you can’t deny the men in their zipperless Amish pants, homemade jerseys and flat-topped caps fight against the now. You can’t argue that Never Wrong the umpire with the foot-long feather sticking off his stovepipe hat avoids the present. Lightning, the 18-year-old baseman swatting runs with a cudgel that comes up to my rib cage, walks off from the modern.

The men and women of the Chicago Salmon Vintage Base Ball Club in their 1850s finery swim against today, forever going upstream against time.

And you can watch.

The Salmon aren’t a baseball team; they’re a base ball team. Two words, 1858 rules. They gather in Lincoln Park in the grassy spot between the statue of the father of modern dentistry and a “Hidden Truths” plaque talking about the graveyard that used to be there.

Hits caught after the first bounce are still out. You can’t lead off. And the person directing the pitcher isn’t the catcher or coach – it’s the batter.

“It’s a gentleman’s game,” Never Wrong explained before launching into some gentle ribbing of teams with a too-harsh “softball mentality.”

“You don’t have to have talent,” Never Wrong said. “You just have to have the spirit to play ball.”

I know Never Wrong’s real name, of course. The man in the top hat, long coat and railsplitter hatchet pin showing his support for that up-and-coming Lincoln fellow now follows me on Twitter. But it seems wrong to call him anything but Never Wrong, just like it would be wrong to call Scooter, Doc, Lightning, Leadfoot, Jumbo Shrimp, Boss Lady or Zeus anything other than that. Whoever they are when it’s not a game day no longer matters the moment they take the field.

“If people use their real name, everyone says, ‘Ah, that’s not a real name,’” Doc later tells me.

It was a gray, wet Saturday I pulled up on my bike to watch the game. Scooter, an outgoing, nervous man Never Wrong later told me once hit .428 at Sox fantasy camp, jumped up to introduce himself, as he would with several later passers-by. I almost got a chance to join the team for some six-on-six when their opponents, the Ganymedes of Oregon, Ill., were late.

The Ganymedes showed up as I was walking to the outfield.

“You were on the team for a minute,” Scooter consoled.

The only clues these teams came from the 21st century were their Adidas or Nike athletic shoes (or in the case of the barefoot Leadfoot, a knee brace). Then they started to play the game as it was before there was a Major League. Hell, these were the rules from before there was a Confederacy.

Even shoeless, Leadfoot was fast, although the equally fleet Jumbo Shrimp (Never Wrong’s son) slipped in the mud for a crucial error in the top of the first. Scooter was one hell of a pitcher. A half-successful stab at a double play left the Salmon with a first and third situation the Ganymedes soon capitalized on.

Soon, I realized I wasn’t watching re-enactors or a quirky weirdo thing that would be oh so twee to write about. I was watching a baseball game played by men and women who love the sport and are damn good at it.

OK, a base ball game.

The Salmon aren’t called the Salmon because of their upstream path against time. When Boss Lady came up with the idea 17 years ago, her husband joked that he couldn’t join because he only does things that relate to fly fishing. But I like the image. I like these Salmon and their eternal, backward swim.

Written in May 2012

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