Tuesday, April 1, 2008

High School Sports Offer A Gritty Clarity

Between the rusted fences, crooked baselines and lumpy outfields lies a game, unfettered by negotiations, eight-figure egos and contracts to define every person's shuffle and step. It won't be seen by millions but rather, a handful or friends and neighbors. There's no fireworks or heart-throbbing music before an at-bat. No gimmicks, trivia questions or foul balls to keep. There's no advance ticket booth and the only season-ticket holders are usually the local volunteer, a man who gets senior discounts and watches every game from his folding chair.

That's the difference between prep baseball and professional baseball. Prep baseball is still baseball. Major League Baseball is The Show.

Pictured to the left is longtime Birmingham Seaholm baseball coach Don Sackett, coaching his last game against his school's longtime rival, Frank Clouser and the Royal Oak Kimball Knights, on May 11, 1990 at what is now Royal Oak High. Sackett's 'Miracle Maples' won the 1988 Class A state title when his Seaholm team won the regional final, quarterfinal semifinal and championship game in their last at-bat. Clouser's Kimball teams went to the title game in '71, '72, '73 and '80 and captured the 1972 title. There's no media relations or sports information department in high school sports. It's hand-written notes and facts committed to memory.

Major League Baseball is a heavy metal band's six-month gold album tour compared to prep baseball, and Opening Day commands our attention in Detroit like a Black Monday automotive press conference. Everyone knows about it, many will be there to witness it first hand and nearly everyone has an opinion about it, too. That's metro Detroit. We love our sports and the Tigers will always own this town in that regard. It's the one game we've all played at some point in our lives. Prep baseball, by comparison, is hundreds of scores and names jammed into agate type in your local paper.

It was amusing to watch and listen to the fans, many sporting a double-fisted 16-oz opinion, talk baseball yesterday in Comerica Park. The game is the same at either venue but the presentation at the major league level distorts the reality of what wins and loses a game. Most fans walked out of Comerica Park yesterday describing a gas can with arms and legs, that being the Tiger bullpen. The Tigers dropped yesterday's opener because they stranded about a dozen runners on the bases yesterday in what should have been an 8-3 Tiger win instead of a 5-4 extra innings loss. Today we're talking about the failure of the Tiger bullpen. The high school coach will talk about all the runners his boys stranded on the island.

That's the difference of prep baseball. It's a game worthy of following or attending. Why do prep players hustle every single ball out when it looks like major leaguers are on cruise control? Because anything can happen in a prep game; a good major leaguer errs about once a month. A prep player gets 20-30 games to prove himself; a major leaguer will play another sold-out concert tomorrow, and the night after that, and the night after that. A prep player doesn't make millions and still has algebra homework to finish after the game.

We don't apply the scrutiny to our kids that we do to million-dollar adults. Prep baseball is what we can improve on; pro baseball is about what didn't get done more than what did. There's going to be 161 more chances at glory for the Tigers. Losing the one game you'll play for first place all season makes high school special in it's own way, too.

If you love baseball as much as you love the Tigers, you'll get to high school game this spring. It's still baseball the way Abner Doubleday saw it. It's gritty, emotional, raw and pure. It's a history teacher who has prepped for 25 dates for the 10 months since last season ended. It's a neighbor or nephew who gets dirty at the first chance he gets. It's a fight to the finish, a handshake at the end and a hug from a girlfriend after it's all over.

That's a real baseball game, and it doesn't need a 40,000-seat stadium to be important.

(Photo courtesy The Daily Tribune, Royal Oak, Michigan/Craig Gaffield)

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