Baseball and Bluegrass

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Today’s guest column from Bert Daniel
Sunday, June 14, 2009

Believe it or not, I’m going through baseball withdrawal syndrome just now. “What’s that?” you say. “How can you miss baseball already? It’s only June. The season has just started.”

My baseball season starts in April and ends in May. I’m a coach for Rookie ball (which comes after Tee Ball and precedes Little League). I’ve been a coach for the past three years because my son likes to play and I have Tuesdays and Thursdays off. It’s come to be the high point of my year. Although it’s a lot of work and is a disruption to our family routine, it’s a huge amount of fun to take a bunch of kids and run them through drills and games every week. Most of them become baseball fans as a result of this process. When I show up at after-school day camp to pick up my son every Tuesday and Thursday, I feel like a rock star. Kids from former and current teams greet me with a hearty “Hi, Coach”. I feel like a somebody.

My first Rookie Ball team was the Athletics and my team last year was the Red Sox, (which happens to be my favorite major league baseball team). I remember every kid from both of those teams. We lost most of our games and I felt like a real heel every time a kid struck out from my bad pitching (lobbing actually; coaches serve the ball up to their own players at this level and you’re not exactly trying to get people out). I tried to make sure every kid had fun but I can tell you, it was a lot of pressure. Well after two years of being pummeled by more talented Rookie Ball teams, this year our team (the Giants) was undefeated. My son Ethan made the only unassisted triple play I have ever seen. His best friend Eddie made the only home plate put-out of the year. One kid made plays all over the field no matter where I tried to position him, and newly promoted Tee Ball players were hitting the cover off the ball by season’s end. It was unbelievable! That’s why I’m going through baseball withdrawal just now. This was the best season ever.

Baseball is of course intimately connected with Bluegrass music. Bill Monroe was one of the first musicians to sponsor a baseball team. Jazz legends Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway had built teams in the 30’s, but Bill Monroe loved baseball and put together some pretty formidable teams himself. Some of his players had even played in the major leagues. The Bluegrass Boys travelled up to 3000 miles a week for concerts out of Nashville, and Bill needed lots of help setting up tents and equipment for each performance. He hired former baseball players for his road crew. Often the tents were set up at the local baseball field. The music started around 7:30 and after the forty five minute concert, Bill’s team would take the field against the local baseball team.

Monroe and other members of the band were part of the team. Some of the musicians on the Bluegrass All-stars were pretty good. Clyde Moody had played minor league ball for two seasons and had a blazing, if erratic, fastball. Shortstop Jackie Phelps was a good contact hitter who hardly ever struck out. Charlie Cline was an excellent third baseman. But, according to Bill himself, Stringbean Akeman was the best player from the band on the team. In later years the Bluegrass Boys got very serious about their baseball. One game was apparently cancelled after Bill had arranged for none other than the great Dizzy Dean to pitch the first three innings. Don Reno went so far as to say that Bill was more interested in baseball than he was in music at that time, (just after Flatt and Scruggs had left the band): “I reckon it was his way of resting his mind from music”.

Baseball and Bluegrass are intimately connected in our house too. My son Ethan gets a bribe every time he practices his fiddle. The bribe is a brand new pack of baseball cards. Very effective and money well spent. When we attend a Bluegrass festival together, my jam time is limited primarily by how many baseball games I get roped into playing. You’ll see us out there soon in Grass Valley if you go. I’d like to invite everybody out there in cyberbluegrassland to bring your glove and play a pick-up game with us. Bring your kids and their gloves too and we’ll all have a great time. Maybe we could start a Father’s Day Festival tradition by having a parents versus kids game or a performers versus concertgoers game.

And while we’re at it, what other things could we do as an organization to strengthen and exploit the connection between baseball and Bluegrass? How about a CBA day at a Giants and or A’s game! This is something that, in my mind, just HAS to happen. If not this summer, maybe next year. Two years from now will mark the 100th Birthday of the Father of Bluegrass. Wouldn’t Bill would be proud to have a tribute to his love of baseball? I can just see it now. The scoreboard screen flashes photos of Bill and his team dressed in their flannel uniforms while a banjoist leads the crowd in “Take Me Out To The Ballgame”.
Seasons come and seasons go. I hope this year is a good baseball season and a good Bluegrass season for all of you. See you in Grass Valley. <

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