You know what I miss about baseball? The things I was never alive to see. Like barnstorming tours.
Back in the old days, before players were prized investments of millions of dollars, the best players in the game would take advantage of their offseason downtime by touring the nation’s small towns to make some extra money. Players like Ruth and Gehrig would play on opposite teams and fill the gaps not filled by MLB stars with the town’s best players. They’d play a game, hang around town, then move on to the next town the next day.
I got to thinking about this after reading about Jose Canseco’s return to baseball, which reminded me of Rickey Henderson’s flirtation with the very same need to be around the game. And Darryl Strawberry’s. And Mark Prior’s. Over-the-hill baseball players have a hard time letting go of the game.
So why make them?
Okay folks, time for the Ridiculous-But-Neat-Idea-of-the-Day: Let’s get them together on a grand ol’ barnstorming tour!
Hear me out. The old guys who can’t do it anymore, the ones like Henderson and Canseco who have no legitimate major league skill left to them but can’t get away from the game, could have a place to play and be adored everywhere they go. Players that can’t find a job, for one reason or another, like Jermaine Dye and Barry Bonds, would have a place to showcase their wares and stay in the rhythm of the game. Players that have something to prove and are trying to regain their old form, like Mark Prior and Eric Gagne, would have a place to go and rub shoulders with all-time greats.
And it’s not like the stress of the game would wear down these guys. Four or five games a week, four or five weeks a year, maybe less, playing against the best amateurs a town has to offer. It’s just plain fun, and good for everybody. You’re telling me you wouldn’t go see a game with Rickey Henderson, Jose Canseco, Jermaine Dye, Barry Bonds, Mark Prior, Eric Gagne, and Sean Casey? How about Sammy Sosa? Would Mark McGwire feel like hitting home runs somewhere other than batting practice? The game is littered with great players who want to play the game, but aren’t given the chance. This is their chance.
More importantly, it’s a great chance for fans to see the greats that they may never have gotten to see in their prime. Or maybe to see the greats they remember in their prime and never could get enough of. Or maybe to play with the greats they saw in their prime. How exciting would that be? To be on a team with the Man of Steal?
Even if the games were riddled with steroid-stained shells of their former selves, in the backyard those “crimes against the game” are put on the back burner. The only things that matters is who you are and what you’ve done. If Roger Clemens came to my house, would I say I didn’t want to play catch? Hell no. Find me a glove.
MLB has a similar institution already in the Celebrity All-Star Softball Game before the Home-Run Derby. What’s better than watching Goose Gossage strike out Sarah Silverman in slow-pitch softball? Well, a lot of things. But one of them is certainly getting a firsthand look at Pedro Martinez’s changeup. And hitting it. Or not. It doesn’t matter, you just batted against Pedro Martinez! Why should only Sarah Silverman get the chance to do that? Bring baseball back to the people.
The hindrances are few, but the money, of course, would be the biggest stumbling block. It’s not like these guys don’t just have time to kill anyway (and probably money, too), but money is the only way something like this can happen.
And that’s why Bud Selig should take this opportunity to go back to baseball’s roots and begin a “Grassroots of Baseball” campaign across America, promoting the history of the game and re-establishing the fundamental elements of what makes baseball great, headlined by a team of former greats playing for and with the game’s greatest and oldest fans: the hometown crowd.