A great day at the old ball park [video by Rod J. Eckrich]


Take me out to the Olde Ball Game

Let’s just get this out of the way. I am a certified baseball fanatic. I compulsively check scores from March until November. I have noticeable mood swings that can be tied directly to the success of my team. I spend hours devouring statistics. And if you cared to ask, I could probably name every World Series match-up since the 1970s or the National League starting lineup of the 1983 All-Star game. I love baseball, much to the dismay of many of the people in my life over the years.

I’m pretty sure my parents never expected three baseball-obsessed boys to contend with. While there were a few of the would-be artists in my classes at the University of Tennessee that might venture down to check out the big ruckus over (future football Hall of Famer) Peyton Manning, nobody in our program but me was jock enough to give a rat’s ass about watching (future baseball Hall of Famer) Todd Helton hit .400 for the Volunteers’ forgotten College World Series-bound baseball team. Then there’s my wife, who less than enthusiastically accepts my baseball on television habits as long as there’s a foot rub in it for her.

It's not that any of these folks have a vendetta against baseball – just a pronounced indifference. To “America’s Pastime!”  Which seems to be more common these days. Sure, it’s a healthy billion-dollar industry, but somewhere along the way baseball and apple pie were replaced with football and Big Macs as barometers of all things American. What happened? Has today’s game lost something? What about baseball made it America’s Pastime?

It seems like you need to go back in time to answer these questions.

So we did. We went all the way back to the 1850s – sort of. Right here in The Region. Ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce to you: the Deep River Grinders.

For me, Northwest Indiana has not exactly been baseball heaven. Sure, we’re close to Chicago, but I grew up in New York as a die-hard Mets fan, so even after 10 years in Chicago and a World Series Championship for the White Sox, the Sox haven’t claimed my heart. Then there’s the Cubs, who aren’t even worth talking about if you actually like baseball. Gary has minor leaguers, the RailCats, and that’s worth a trip down I-94, but after three years in The Region I was feeling a bit disconnected from the game I love.

Then at an early Rambler meeting, somebody suggested we do a story on a vintage baseball team that plays in Deep River County Park. A what? Where?

It turns out that for 20 years a ragtag group of everymen gets together on Sundays from May until October and takes a trip back in time, transforming Deep River County Park into a scene from 1858. And while the uniforms and atmosphere may have more in common with Civil War re-enactment camps, make no mistake: The games are real and played hard.

I was all in to do a story on this curiosity. Then my wife, Jolene, discovered the opening game this year was scheduled for May 16, one day before my birthday. A plan was hatched. My brother Jason was invited, as well as our trusty Rambler videographer Rod. The four of us piled into the car and made the drive to Deep River for an old-fashioned family day at the ballpark.

It wasn’t quite the excitement of going to Shea Stadium to see the Mets as a 9-year-old, but it was nice to get out of the house to watch a ball game. I really had no expectations. The drive and parking were easy, so mark one in the advantage column for vintage baseball. And it’s free. If you're keeping score, that’s 2 for 1858, 0 for modern day MLB. Of course, I was still skeptical. Would the players just be a bunch of actors? Could they play? Or would it be like a show?

The walk down to the field gave me some answers. As the players took their warm-ups, a batter smashed a ball in the vicinity of a rather large man located where a shortstop should have been found. Instantly, this giant shortstop reacted with a fantastic diving, backhand grab of the well-struck ball.

“Wow!” my brother said, clearly as surprised as I was.

Did I mention this burly gold glover managed this trick without a glove? In 1858, the players didn’t use gloves. Probably because they hadn’t been invented yet. Not that most of the men playing in those days could have afforded such a luxury, especially for a game. Maybe that’s the key word in this equation – game – and in 1858 that’s what it was. A game played for fun, camaraderie and community, while others gathered around to enjoy the spectacle.

The differences between the game the Grinders play and that of the Cubs and White Sox couldn’t be more striking.

It was a beautiful, sunny Sunday afternoon in mid-May, a perfect day for baseball. Umpire Gentleman Jim Basala, decked out in resplendent tails and top hat, kicked off ceremonies by giving the "cranks" – the vintage term for fans – an introduction to the rules of 1858. After an introduction to the visitors, the Grinders took a few minutes to make their acquaintances. With names such as Lefty, Puddin, Buddy, Pudge, The Rabbi, and The Convict, the players made sure the informs weren't the only prop to bring us back to 1858.

And while modern baseball is primarily a game for the young, the Grinders boast a roster ranging in age from some fresh-faced kids in their early 20s, if not younger, to one player, Phil "Silver Streak" Whitman, still grinding it out in his 70s, and even a father/son combo of Kent "Bogie" Uittenbogaard and Mark "Razor" Uittenbogaard.

With a few "huzzahs" from the cranks, it was time for the Grinders to take their positions on the bases. I mean actually ON the bases. The old-time rules dictate the infielders must stand on their bags until the "striker" has made contact with the ball, with the exception of the "rover" (shortstop) who can play anywhere. With the Grinders ready to go, the "hurler" made a perfect underhand toss right over the center of home plate, as if he wanted the striker to hit it. Actually he did. That's his job. The hurler must deliver the ball where the striker can hit it. He did, and we were off.

The Sleepers from Lockport, Ill., were no match for our Grinders that afternoon. Balls flew all over the field at Deep River that day, including a few that cleared the old sugar shack in right center field, and runners circled the bases several times for both teams, ringing a bell and asking tallykeeper (and Grinder manager) Joanna Shearer to tally an "ace” for their team. But while the Grinders built a comfortable lead, one thing was noticeable: Both sides were having fun. As Umpire Basala had told us during the introductions, this is a polite, gentlemen's game and the spirit and camaraderie were obvious from the first pitch to the last.

When the dust had cleared and the game was done, the players gathered in the infield to shake hands. Tony "The Convict" Rogers, the big guy who had made the stunning barehanded catch in warm-ups, took some time to talk to me about the game and told me that later that afternoon, the two teams would get together for a nice home-cooked meal – something I can't imagine the Cubs and Sox doing after a game at Wrigley, no matter how quaint the old ivy-covered stadium might appear. But first, they had to make time for their fans, forming a line at home plate for kids to get their chance to hit the balls and run the bases just like their heroes. Or dads. Or both. Yes, baseball has lost something, but for one afternoon in May we found it on a little field in Indiana.

The Deep River Grinders are sponsored by the Lake County Parks & Recreation Department. To learn more about Grinders baseball, visit www.deeprivergrinders.com. To contact the Grinders, e-mail drgrinders@yahoo.com or call (800) GRISTMILL.