A larger than normal ball (known back in the late 1800s as a “lemon-peel ball”); a leather, workman-like glove lacking in padding; rules conjured up — and put in play — some 125 years ago.
With equipment he wasn’t used to and a set of rules that turned back to the clock to 1887, former San Francisco Giants sluggler Kevin Mitchell thought he would for sure be on the receiving end of a few lumps when he took field at Tempe Diablo Stadium Sunday.
Mitchell, now 50, was a pro baseball Most Valuable Player in 1989 when he hit 47 homeruns, but on this day he was among a group of former stars who hit the diamond at Diablo for “The Showdown in the Desert.” The aptly-named “Legends” took the field against the “Vintage 9” baseball team — a squad consisting of businessmen from across the United States, each paying between $500 and $1,500 to play against the ex-big leaguers.
Vintage 9, a California-based nonprofit organization that raises money for the Major League Baseball Alumni Association Foundation, Childhelp USA and the Vintage 9 Foundation, which supports youth baseball programs, played a 9-inning game set to the rules and using equipment of the National Pastime 125 years ago before a crowd of about 200. The game was the signature event after a clinic was held for up-and-coming young baseball players looking to hone their skills earlier in the day while receiving tips from the former pros.
Pro baseball Hall of Famer and former Arizona State University star Reggie Jackson made a rare appearance at the game, as did Hall of Fame pitcher Rollie Fingers, who threw the first three innings for The Legends. With his trademark handlebar mustache, Fingers looked the part of an 1800s-era hurler, while Randall Swearingen, a sofware developer from Houston carried a fake handlebar mustache himself while serving as the starting pitcher for Vintage 9.
The Legends, which also included Oakland A’s designated hitter Jonny Gomes and former Oakland A’s and Detroit Tigers star hitter Tony Phillips, beat Vintage 9, 35-14 in a nine-inning game backdropped by coaches and umpires wearing derby hats and smoking cigars and players donning baggy uniforms that resembled doughboy soldiers.
However, the presence of modern conveniences brought those in attendance back to the future — many of the former pros including Jackson and Fingers routinely glanced down at their iPhones during the game to check on the score of Game 4 of the 2012 World Series — a game the Giants won to sweep the Detroit Tigers and win baseball’s top prize.
Sunday’s game in Tempe did have a local flare, as Lanny Ropke, a retired captain for American Airlines who lives in Ahwatukee played third base for Vintage 9. Ropke earned the game’s Most Valuable Player Award after going 3-for-3 with two RBI — not bad for a guy who’s 66.
Ropke, who played in three men’s senior baseball leagues each year and is among a handful of players who has played all 25 years of the Men’s Senior baseball League that is playing its national tournament in the Valley this week, said he well knew of the game’s evolution and changes in more than a century. Back then, it used to take nine balls to walk a batter, a foul ball did not used to count as a strike and fielders were allowed to hit the base runners with the ball to get them out.
A batter also used to be called a “Striker,” a run scored was an “ace,” and the fans were called “cranks.”
And an umpire (who sometimes could be easily bribed by the coach of a trailing team), was called a “Sir,” and could be distracted so runners could bypass second base altogether to reach third.
“I’ve been reading a lot about old-time baseball,” Ropke said. “I’m a baseball fanatic and thought it would be a neat thing to try. The game is so different today as it has evolved a lot through the years. I feel privileged and really honored to play against the guys I remember seeing play and used to watch on television. Rollie Fingers told me not to hit the ball back to him, or he’d plunk me on my way to first base.”
Plus, Ropke’s grandkids Jett, 9, and Hudson, 6, were at the game and got a kick out of the glove, bat and ball that grandpa’s team used.
Dr. John Eliot, a renowned sports psychologist who serves as the chairman for Vintage 9, said before the game that the organization tries to get a wide-range of former players — some more recent that younger fans can recognize and some older players for the more mature generations.
“The biggest change in baseball is probably the glove,” Eliot said. “Players used to use what virtually was a gardening glove. They would finish work at the factory and the players would use it in the game.”
Andrew Talley, 11, of Gilbert, and a sixth grader at Centennial Elementary School, was thrilled he learned a few baseball tips from former pros like Mitchell.
“I learned how to crow-hop, and he told me to keep the ball in front of me and make a good throw,” Talley said.
Attendees also included 10-time Grammy-winning singer George Benson who threw out the first pitch, and Jessi Colter Jennings, the widow of country music star Waylon Jennings. Colter, whose real name was Miriam Johnson, grew up in locally and graduated from Mesa High School in 1961. The Scottsdale resident still performs country music and also has provided her late husband’s name to TGEN, an organization that does research to combat diseases, for its diabetes research arm.
After the game was over, Vintage 9 MVP Lanny Ropke said he was a bit sore.
“Baseball is a great game now, but a lot of changes have happened through the years,” he said. “Different situations have happened to cause changes in the rules and transform the game. Baseball is a game for boys, and that’s the way we feel.”
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