Though I haven’t really checked on him in over 50 years, I would guess that Mr. Matruder is long gone by now. Even though I never kept track of him in any way in all that time, I do think about him an awful lot, especially during baseball season.
I have loved baseball for as long as I can remember. I don’t know exactly why or how I fell in love with the game, I just remember that I had a passion for it from my earliest memory. In my small town, we had to be eight years old to play in the youngest baseball league around, but my dad knew the director and I got to play when I was seven. I remember sleeping in my team t-shirt and hat the night before my first game. It was like that with me and baseball.
While I can’t put a finger on what lit that fire in my soul over the game, I can definitely say that Mr. Matruder was instrumental in fanning those flames and helping me to see and appreciate so many of the nuances and subtle aspects of the sport.
My dad was a bartender when I was growing up and he worked a lot of nights. My nights, especially in the summer, usually included listening to games on the radio, mostly the Phillies since I grew up in Eastern Pennsylvania. I didn’t discriminate, though, as I listened to any game I could find on the radio of our family’s console stereo. Somewhere about the time I turned nine or so, I realized that it was more comfortable, on the hot summer nights, to turn on the radio and open the back window so I could listen to the games on my back porch and occasionally catch some cooling breezes. As it turned out, Mr. Matruder, who lived four doors down and around the corner, had the same idea. Who knows how many nights he was out there before I started showing up? I know so little about him as a man and a person. I think he may have been a widower. I do know he lived alone in that house and I really don’t remember any interactions at all with him other than those nights on the back porch. Did he have grown kids? Did he have visitors at all? Did I ever bump into him at the corner grocery? I just don’t know/remember. It was just the back porch, and those nights were glorious.
Mr. Matruder gave me an education in the game of baseball as we sat there and listened together. Through that education, I came to know the game more deeply and I came to appreciate its beauty and art. I appreciated the spaces between pitches because they were the moments in which I received my schooling in small bits and pieces. I still love those spaces as they are still the times in which I can think along with the hitter, the pitcher, the managers and the game itself.
In those spaces, I learned about the hit-and-run. I learned about the sacrifice bunt. I learned when it was the appropriate count and situation in which to employ those strategies. I learned about productive outs, brushback pitches, matchups and lots of the unwritten rules that have fallen out of favor in some circles, but were an important part of the fabric of the game back then. I learned some context behind what I knew of the history of the game. I learned about players I hadn’t seen and about the Negro Leagues. It all laid the foundation for how I still watch and think about the game.
After awhile, Mr. Matruder stopped teaching and started testing me. At certain times in a game he would ask me what I’d do if I were the manager or the hitter or the pitcher. My answers were never wrong, or at least he never said they were. Sometimes he would just nod and sometimes he’d say something like, “That could work, but you might also think about…”.
That went on for a couple of summers. It seems weird now that I don’t remember interactions with him in other ways. I probably should have helped him shovel his sidewalk in the winter or gone to the store for him when he couldn’t. I probably should have simply cared more about him as a person, but I was a kid and had at least as much tunnel vision and self-centeredness as most kids.
At about the time I turned 12 or so, I started to develop other interests that ate up a lot of my summer nights and my time with Mr. Matruder ended. I can’t remember, again, if it happened gradually or abruptly and I’ll never know whether the ending of that time left him with a void of any kind. I like to think not, partly because hanging out with me can’t be all that special, but mostly because if it did I’d feel badly about that. Either way, though that time came to an end, what I got from it remains to this day. Much of my thinking about the game today goes in directions that can be out of the mainstream, but I never stop thinking. I will never be someone who complains that baseball games take too long. Admittedly, it can get to be a chore watching a pitcher who refuses to throw strikes, but I still put all of those spaces between pitches to good use. I seldom have any idea how long a game took until I look at the clock after it has ended.
I keep hearing that baseball is dying and that it is losing its appeal with young people. I see a lot of baseball games every year and I don’t know if that narrative is completely true. I see a lot of kids at games. If anything, baseball may have created a situation where people are treated to as many distractions as they are baseball a lot of the time. The theory is that this is necessary because attention spans have gotten so much shorter. My belief is that anyone’s attention span is proportional to how well and how engagingly something is presented. I think if we had more Mr. Matruders to make the game come alive to people and to spur their own creativity in contemplating the game, the game would have no trouble at all gaining and keeping new fans.