87. Me and Julio Down by the Ball Yard

The author reflects on his lifelong passion for the sport of baseball, largely unknown in Southeast Asia, as his favorite team finally has a winning season.

Vietnamese football fans in downtown Hanoi celebrate their national team’s victory in a celebration known as đi bão. JGA photo from YouTube feed.

There isn’t much baseball played in Southeast Asia. It’s true, I swung a bat in slow-pitch softball games when I was living in Singapore in the mid-‘80s, but baseball? No way, José.

In Vietnam, the sports of choice are football or soccer (bóng đá), as in much of the world, and badminton. Basketball is far from unknown, and both tennis and volleyball are growing in popularity. In parks, in early mornings and evenings, you may also see young men testing their skills in sepak takraw, the Malaysian national sport, a highbrow version of hacky sack played with a ball made of rattan.

Vietnamese take their soccer seriously — the national team is a perennial championship contender in the ASEAN Football Federation — but fans fortunately do not go as nuts as in some other Third World countries. In case you missed it, just three days ago, on the ridiculously overpopulated Indonesian island of Java, a stadium riot following a tense soccer match took 131 lives. I had thought that sort of thing only happened in South America.

My favorite spectator sport, however, remains baseball. And my favorite team, the Seattle Mariners, have just made the end-of-season Major League playoffs for the first time since 2001, when my son was a high-school senior. They have a chance to play in the World Series for the first time in their 45-year history. Even from my faraway perch here in Vietnam, modern technology enables me to stay in touch. Thanks to live audio and YouTube videos, I have been able to applaud — indeed, to closely monitor — their success.

A lifelong baseball fan, the author sits front and center in the press room at Safeco Field (now T-Mobile Park). Photo courtesy Seattle Mariners.

Addicted to the game

My obsession with baseball is hardly new. Sometimes, I think it’s how I measure time. This love affair goes back to my primary school years in the late 1950s, when I sat with my dad in front of our tiny black-and-white TV to cheer for “his” team, the Milwaukee Braves of Hank Aaron and Warren Spahn, in consecutive World Series against the reviled New York Yankees of Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra.

I was never much of an athlete, and my little-league career was destined for failure. But I learned to keep a detailed scorecard at professional games, where I got to know some of the players and was delighted when they sent me to the concession stand to buy hot dogs for them. In tedious moments, I made up card and dice games — Six of Clubs was a groundout to shortstop, Queen of Hearts was a double to center field — and kept careful score. I went to sleep with my transistor radio tucked under my pillow, as I listened to San Francisco Giant games.

At the University of Oregon, I pursued a degree in journalism with an eye on becoming a sportswriter. I attended nearly every Oregon baseball game for four years, home and away, acting as official scorer and covering for The Register-Guard. By my 20th year, I was writing baseball as a summer intern for The Honolulu Advertiser, sitting in the press box with broadcaster Al Michaels, interviewing icons of the sport like Tommy Lasorda. The manager of the Hawaii Islanders, Chuck Tanner, who had been an outfielder on the Milwaukee Braves clubs of my early childhood, took me under his wing and tutored me, one-on-one, in how best to interview young players. He had sons of his own, about my age.

“Baseball is the most perfect of games, solid, true, pure and precious as diamonds.” W.P. Kinsella, author of Shoeless Joe, upon which the movie Field of Dreams was based, wrote that. Three strikes, you’re out. Three outs makes an inning and your team is out. Three times three (nine) players are in the field. Three times three times three outs (27, if you’re counting), the game is over. But the game is never over until the last batter is out. The Kabbalah has nothing on baseball. As Annie Savoy said in Bull Durham, “the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in and day out, is the church of baseball.” 

The author, right, and his son Erik attend a Seattle Mariners’ baseball game in May 2015. JGA photo

One foot in the toy store

My future as a baseball writer was all but assured. Then, somewhere between Kalakaua Avenue and Copenhagen, I took a left turn. Instead of accepting a post-graduation offer of a sportswriting career, I chose to spend six months traveling in Europe.

By the time I returned to North America, I had decided that my future would be international. I didn’t want to spend my life in “the toy store,” as one of my colleagues described the sports desk. I went back to Honolulu as a general assignment reporter. I worked for newspapers in Auckland and Sydney, Seattle and Los Angeles, and for publishers in Paris and Munich and Singapore. I made the leap into travel writing and editing. But I never lost my love for baseball.

Some of my greatest memories are the times I spent with my son at Seattle Mariners games. Erik was 5 years old when Ken Griffey, Jr. (“The Kid”) first stepped onto a Major League field in the Emerald City at age 19. For the next 22 years, as my son grew from a child to a fine young man, we closely followed Griffey’s career, defined not only by his immense talent but also by his infectious smile and passion for the game. In so many ways, he embodied what baseball meant to us.

In July 2016, after “The Kid” was inevitably and overwhelmingly voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Mariners planned a weekend-long celebration to honor the greatest player in team history. I was pleased to tell Erik that I had tickets. My son glumly told me that he hoped he’d still be alive. He didn’t make it that far. Stricken with a rare cancer, he passed on Father’s Day in June. Erik watched his beloved Mariners play for the final time, an 8-4 win over the Boston Red Sox, from his hospice bed.

Mariner icons Ken Griffey, Jr., right, and Edgar Martinez, center, congratulate outfielder Ichiro Suzuki as he ends his career in September 2019. JGA photo

Past and future stars

For all the great players who have graced the Seattle roster through the years — Griffey, Edgar Martínez, Randy “Big Unit” Johnson, Ichiro Suzuki — the Mariners had made the playoffs only four times in their 45-year history, and not at all since 2001. To say these were down years would be an understatement. Twice in that span, they lost more than 100 games in a season. Finally, new management began to reverse the team’s fortunes. A year ago, they fell just short of the playoff round. This year the team started slow, but a mid-season winning streak elevated them to lofty heights: a real possibility that the playoffs were within reach.

No team can ever be carried by just one or two players. Sometimes it takes a catalyst. On the 2022 Seattle Mariners, the man who brought it all together is a joyous 21-year-old from the small Dominican Republic town of Loma de Cabrera.

Julio Rodríguez, already known to his legion of fans as “J Rod,” is like a second coming of Griffey. Playing with passion and flair, he took little time to establish himself as the team’s best player. Chosen to play in baseball’s annual All Star Game in July, he introduced himself to a national audience by slugging more home runs in an exhibition Home Run Derby than anyone had done before.

Julio was out of the lineup last week, recovering from a back strain, when the Mariners clinched their playoff berth. In J Rod’s stead, a walk-off home run from slugging catcher Cal Raleigh, himself all of 25, lifted the team over the line. Now, with one of baseball’s best pitching staffs, a solid defense and an offense capable of rising to the occasion, Seattle hopes to extend its season well into October, perhaps even November.

Cal Raleigh homers in the bottom of the ninth inning on September 30 to clinch Seattle’s first playoff berth in 21 years. JGA photo from YouTube feed.

Fighting for a championship

One dozen teams — six each from the American and National Leagues — begin the playoffs on October 7. Over the next three weeks, 12 teams become eight; eight become four. League winners survive best-of-seven series and play for the championship of baseball in the World Series beginning October 28. No Seattle club has ever made it that far. Is this the year?

On June 26, the Mariners’ record was 10 games below .500, at 29-39, when an errant pitch ignited an infield brawl in a game against the Los Angeles Angels in California. When the dust finally cleared, a dozen players from both teams had been ejected. Unlike Java, no one died. No one suffered serious injury.

Something changed in the Seattle psyche on that Sunday. Since then, the team has had a 58-32 record. The Mariners aren’t patsies. They’re fighters. When Seattle opens the playoffs on Friday — in Canada against the Toronto Blue Jays, with J Rod patrolling center field — they will be there not merely to participate, but to try to win a world championship.

And although the Seattle baseball stadium accommodates 48,000 fans, I am secure in the knowledge that a soccer-style riot is highly unlikely.

Mariners and Angels players brawl on June 26 in Los Angeles. JGA photo from YouTube channel.
Julio Rodríguez, a.k.a. “J Rod,” is already a baseball icon in Seattle at the age of 21. JGA photo from YouTube channel.

Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

6 thoughts on “87. Me and Julio Down by the Ball Yard

    1. What a team they had back then! Mike Schmidt 3b, Larry Bowa ss, Greg Luzinski 1b, Bob Boone c … if I remember correctly …

      Like

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