Love of the Game
● By Style
Photos by Shoop’s Photography.
The hurler steps into his box and eyes the behind.
The striker grips his timber and digs in, looking to tally an ace with a good shot past tenders and scouts. But if it’s caught, it’s a hand. Three hands and you’re down. Meanwhile, the cranks are in the stands, just waiting for a chance to razz the sir for a bad call. And if a ballist shows some ginger? Well then, huzzahs all around.
Huh? Welcome to baseball, circa 1880, when fouls didn’t count as strikes, seven balls was a walk, the pitcher could fake his throw, and it wasn’t unusual—or illegal—for a defensive player to hide the ball in his armpit. And here in 2013, you can still see it played that way.
The eight-year-old Gold Country Vintage Base Ball is a league based in Amador County and the brainchild of Mike “Goose” Kerry, a former Amador school superintendent who had a love of both the game and its history. “When he retired it was his idea to bring vintage baseball to the West Coast,” says “Dirty” Dan Duran, a player and one of the league’s biggest advocates. “There were vintage leagues on the East Coast at the time, but none out here.” Kerry’s idea was to start one as a tribute to “Mudville 9,” the famed team from the classic poem “Casey at the Bat,” which some legends say was based on a 19th century team from Stockton. Six clubs, from Jackson, Ione, Rancho Murietta and now a squad in Folsom, with names like the Crushers, Miners and Pioneers, play nearly every spring and summer weekend, including three games at Folsom Lake High School on June 16.
Jackson resident Duran, 36, whose playing name is “Dirty” (“All players had nicknames back in the day,” he notes), has been suiting up since the beginning. He played high school ball in Roseville and joined the league after moving to the Gold Country.
When watching a game, everything is so authentic you half wish it was sepia toned—from the uniforms, which are custom-made by a vintage uniform company and cost upwards of $300, to rules and lingo, which the players actually use. “Aces,” for example, are runs. Players are “ballists,” with infielders known as “tenders,” outfielders, “scouts.” Spectators are “cranks” (still an apt description for some today), outs are “hands,” and top-hat wearing umpires are known as “sirs” because, after all, baseball was a gentleman’s game. Bats are “timber” (and look like it), and if a ballist shows some “ginger,” it means he hustled.
These guys were, and are, tough: “Fielders’ mitts are literally no more padded than a leather gardening glove,” Duran says. Fielding a hard-hit grounder requires not only quick reflexes but ample finesse, too. As for catchers—“behinds” back in the day (good thing they changed that one)—their gloves were slightly more padded but not enough that “hurlers” (pitchers) could throw with the velocity you see now, so they made up for it with an array of trick pitches, which become more effective as the game progresses (the ball becomes misshapen the more it gets hit). That also makes things interesting on defense. “There’s no such thing as a routine play,” Duran sighs, massaging several bruised fingers from the game I watched.
The league consists of young guns in their 20s to men in their 60s, and Duran says they would love to expand. “We want to get into Roseville and Sacramento,” but admits there is some trepidation, not just because of the initial cost of uniforms and gear, but also because those who have never seen the game before “get a little apprehensive about hard balls being pitched from 50 feet away.” Because that’s another piece of authenticity the guys adhere to: The pitcher is 10 feet closer than in the modern game and “strikers” (batters) don’t wear helmets.
Find a game, come out, and let ‘em hear your huzzahs, because no matter what era, cheering is still music to a ballists’ ears.
For more information, visit gcvbb.com.