Bring Back the Cracker Jack Classic

A call to arms (specifically Pat Hentgen and David Cone)
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Sometime in the 80’s, in a city that seemed as likely to one day host major league baseball again as Montreal does today, I went to the “Cracker Jack Old-Timers Classic” at RFK stadium. It was a big deal in my house, which was still permanently scarred from the Washington D.C.’s second loss of Major League Baseball in 1971. Admittedly, not scarred at “Flowers in the Attic” levels, but still, the void was big enough that it wasn’t ever fully filled by interminable drives to Memorial Stadium.

The Classic featured true oldie station mainstays like Brooks Robinson, Harmon Killebrew, Warren Spahn, Tommy Davis, Al Kaline and Frank Robinson. Age groups were welcomed indiscriminately, as retirees from 1950 (Luke Appling) to 1982 (Luis Tiant) made appearances at games which were held between 1982 and 1985. The Classic itself became a traveling road show of sorts, branching out to other cities, although Robinson himself declared that the D.C. version remained the crown jewel and who are we to doubt a man deemed the greatest third basemen ever by numerous characters in Sleepless in Seattle?

The Classic had pretty much everything you could want nostalgia-wise, ranging from hobbled Hall of Famers to the promise of tons of offense. In 1984, there was even a hot-button controversy when Willie Mays refused to participate after having appeared only as a pinch-runner the previous year. The greatest moment in Cracker Jack Old-Timers Classic history happened in the 1982 game, when a 75-year-old Appling homered off Spahn. And of course, throughout it all, Bob Feller acted cranky.

This was baseball’s “greatest generation” in victory parade mode and yes I use that phrase “greatest generation” hoping you plant your face into your keyboard just reading it. Just as we’re exhausted by the war heroics of the “greatest generation,” we ought to be be tapped out on the Brooklyn-Dodgers-loving, stickball-playing, Willie, Mickey-and-the-Duke warbling pap that is the baseball equivalent. Nonetheless, in the 1980s, the players in the Cracker Jack Classic were it – the embodiment of baseball’s past, baseball being a sport that takes the embodiment of its past about as seriously as it takes its present.

The problem is that in 2012 the embodiment of baseball’s past would be….the exact same players. As with much else in life – professorships at universities, Republican Presidential candidates, folk music – the Baby Boom generation will just not let go. If you played between their childhood and the time of their 4th tear gassing than you’re iconic; everybody who came later is swept to the dustbin. Unfortunately, baseball can’t move forward if it forever worships the old myths. Worship itself is fine, probably essential, but new deities are desperately required.

I propose bringing back the Cracker-Jack, now to be dubbed something like the “Samsung Galaxy III State Farm Auto Insurance Cracker Jack Old-Timer Game” for maximum marketing potential. But the long-awaited call would be sent out: All-Stars of the 80’s, 90’s and 00’s (Ricky Henderson, Bernie Williams, David Cone) we need you! Pat Hentgen, Terry Steinbach, Brian Giles, we will feign interest in you! Mike Bordick, we’ll make your career an allegory on the Clinton Administration! And if, due to a cosmic injustice, you were never named to an All-Star team (Todd Zeile, Derek Bell), we need you also! Even if you not being named to an All-Star team proves there is a just and benevolent spirit watching over us (Jim Traber, Henry Cotto), the call goes out to you as well! A new Classic must be staged.

Can you imagine Ozzie Smith, Vince Coleman, John Tudor, Jack Clark, and Tommy Herr back on the diamond? And those are just the Cardinals (clearly we would have to go heavy on the Cardinals again for marketing potential). What would be the Appling homer now? Davy Lopes off Randy Johnson? Glenn Hubbard off Eric Gagne? It’s time for Dave Winfield to become our Duke Snider and Jack McDowell to become our Whitey Ford. “Where have you gone, Steve Buechele, our nation turns its lonely eyes to you” needs to be a lyric on track 3 of the next Bon Iver album.

A new Classic would not only move baseball out of its sepia-toned past and into at least a disposable camera tint; it would correct another problem: our utter disposal of the everyday player. I don’t know when exactly Reggie Sanders retired, but I’m pretty confident the announcement wasn’t given a tearful (fist-pumping) SportsCenter montage. The Reggie Sanders, the Darin Erstads and the Jay Bells of the world fill highlights and box scores for seemingly endless seasons, and then suddenly you realize you haven’t heard their name in 6 years. Their careers are reduced to ironic call-backs. They become the kickball league of baseball players.

The sports-media industrial complex treats these millionaires as nothing more than processed beef to be thrown into a Lunchables for our immediate entertainment. An Old-Timers Senior league would rectify all of that. We might have failed to give previous generations of baseball players their proper goodbye, but now we can fix that. The idea is not unlike a reverse Quantum Leap: we’ll make them come to us, and together we’ll right a wrong. Jason Bere, I’m sorry, I forgot about you until I saw your name on baseball-reference.com, but please accept this apology and pitch two-thirds of an inning in an exhibition game.

Lastly, to make the new Classic truly memorable, we’ll need to deploy the scorched earth trump card.

Andy Van Slyke.

Lots and lots of Van Slyke. He’ll be the Phil Rizzuto/Dean Martin/Roastmaster of the proceedings. Whenever a game threatens to become sad or repulsively dull, and that’s probably a given, just send Van Slyke onto the field for some postmodern ironic Max Patkin. Really the fact that Andy Van Slyke isn’t physically present at every single baseball function on earth already is itself a reason for the Classic to come back.

Admittedly these are just introductory stages. We as a society must make this happen. Players, stadiums and rules will be determined by us - the readers of sport webpages. The logistics can be worked out, and the possibilities are, if not endless, at least as numerous as all the major and minor league ballparks on the planet. Some proposals:

- No Classics before Major League games; that reeks of “Old-Timer” events and you know, ahem, the fences can’t be moved in if scheduled then.

- Games in cities abandoned by Major League Baseball: okay, sure, although unless one of the teams is comprised almost entirely of 1994 Expos (Wil Cordero that means you) it’s likely Montreal doesn’t give a shit. It goes without saying that minor and independent leagues would prostrate themselves at this opportunity. I can only imagine the River City Rascals would ecstatically sacrifice all the teenage virgins in the O’Fallon, Missouri region for a chance to host an event featuring Todd Worrell. Could Juan Gonzalez smack the train going past Riverwalk Stadium in Montgomery Alabama? Don’t we deserve to find out? Could Jay Buhner put a hanging Steve Avery curve in the Hudson River behind Richmond County Bank Ballpark in Staten Island? Seems to defy the laws of biology, physics and 10,000 years of human achievement, but let’s find out anyway. And as with the original Cracker Jack Classic, games would be five innings and feature fences and fastballs similar in dimension to the Little League World Series.

The Cracker Jack Classic I attended wasn’t exactly transcendent. I remember my father getting us the hell out of R.F.K. after yet another sloppy run crossed the plate making the score something like 27-18. After more than a decade of yearning for Major League Baseball to come to our city, we left a 5-inning game early. You can’t say D.C. area baseball fans don’t have that extra panache (which continues to the present day--as the best team in baseball plays to half empty stadiums). But it happened. People went. We paid tribute--somewhat tepid sure--but tribute nonetheless to those that came before. A father was able to tell his son how overrated Minnie Minosio was and then hustle everybody into the Jeep Cherokee to get the hell back to the suburbs, the faint notion of former glory still in the air.

My favorite moment in “Field of Dreams” doesn’t involve Kevin Costner or his dad or even Timothy Busfield. It’s the speech by James Earl Jones before (spoiler alert) he disappears into the cornfield. In it, he talks about America being rebuilt and erased like a blackboard (a beautiful line, no doubt, but also one that certainly plays to those who envisioned themselves the ultimate blackboard erasers: the baby boomers). At the end of the speech, before he disappears forever, Jones says this about the people who will pay money to see a game in nowhere Iowa: “Oh people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.” Allow me to fill in the rest: “Oh people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come...to watch Carl Everett slam into Brad Ausmus at home plate when the score is 11-9 in the second inning while Matt Williams stands on deck surveying the scene.”

The time is now. We must wrench baseball’s glory days from the boomers. Let them clutch their Dave Clark 5 “First American Tour” ticket stubs instead - they will always have that. It’s time for the “Samsung Galaxy III State Farm Auto Insurance Cracker Jack Old-Timer Game” to fill our summer nights. Terrance Mann’s words mean nothing if they don’t extend into the past and the future, stretched like the arms of Paul Assenmacher getting ready to face one more left handed batter in his glorious one-third of an inning.


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