Every summer a group of my high school friends and I get together on the days where most of us are free from work and play a game or two of baseball at a nearby public baseball park. Most of use have played baseball, organized or not, ever since we were five or six and were strong enough to swing a bat.
The games are a continuation of our livelong love of the sport. Almost every day as a children we’d be outside playing catch. I vividly remember playing pitcher-catcher one day in the pouring rain until the downpour became so dense I couldn’t see the ball. I had a pitch-back in my backyard and invented games where I would throw the ball as violently as I could in hopes of the ball bouncing one way or another in a direction that forced me to make a dive to catch it.
Some of my fondest childhood memories are playing on the baseball diamond with the same group of kids I hung out with at and away from school. I played baseball because I loved it, and the opportunity to play for my town’s All-Star team wasn’t a chance to revel in my success but an opportunity to play more of the sport I loved.
All the fond memories and reasons I played came back to me while I was watching the documentary “The Battered Bastards of Baseball,” a film focused on the short-lived (1973-78), independent baseball team the Portland Mavericks owned by actor, father of Kurt Russell, and baseball lover Bing Russell. The Mavericks were a group of eccentric and passionate players, many of whom were given up on by major league teams.
As baseball became more centralized with the establishment of farm systems and minor teams becoming affiliated with major league teams, the Mavericks stood out, as they were the only independent baseball team of their time. The players weren’t seen as prospects or farm animals that were raised solely for the benefit of the farmer, they played for their owner, for their teammates, and for the love of the game.
Some of the Mavericks included former Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton – who was treated poorly by MLB after the publishing of his memoir “Ball Four,” (Bouton would later team up with teammate Rob Nelson to invent Big League Chew, the gum almost every Little Leaguer chewed), Reggie Thomas, a suspected FBI informant who has been missing since 1984 and Larry Colton, a pitcher who only played one game in the major leagues and earned a Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for his book Counting Coup. Those aren’t exactly the type of people you’d find on any MLB team, but the Mavericks were successful anyway.
I stopped playing baseball after I had finished Little League because the game became too political for my liking. Parents became obsessed with the belief their child would be the next big thing. The town’s All-Star teams became less of a talent pool and more of a team assembled by the criteria of who your parents were and how much power and influence they had in town. If you didn’t make it the Little League World Series, you were a failure.
The drive for success and glory ruined organized baseball for me, so I quit and joined a traveling soccer team and the high school tennis team because hardly anyone outside of parents came to the games. There was no pressure and I was allowed to enjoy the game not because anything was expected of me but because I loved playing and wanted to have fun.
As much as fans love the game and hope the leagues and players have our interests in mind, the realization is that professional sports are a business. The players, hopefully, are there because they love the game, but a lot of the times, their decisions come down to money and not loyalty to the fans or organization that have supported them.
I am not blaming anyone for making money. Making a living out of playing baseball is something a lot of kids – including me – dreamed of. But if it the Portland Mavericks showed us anything, it is that baseball can still be successful when it’s not driven by money but by a passionate love of the game.
You can watch “The Battered Bastards of Baseball” on Netflix and the official trailer is below: