Friday, June 29, 2012

Striker to the line! Base ball with the Elizabeth Resolutes

Visit any good-sized county park on a summer Saturday, and you're bound to see a game or two of baseball on the sandlot diamonds. If you're really lucky, you'll run into one that makes you wonder if you've just stepped onto the Field of Dreams.

Well... maybe your thoughts will land a little earlier in history than that, to about 150 years ago.

A couple of weeks ago I stopped by Rahway River Park in Rahway to watch a game between the home team Elizabeth Resolutes and the visiting Brooklyn Atlantics. Unlike the other teams playing nearby, these gentlemen were dressed in baggy uniforms and high-legged stirrups. They play a game called 'base ball' (that space between the syllables makes all the difference), following rules that differ from those most of us grew up with.

The first thing that struck me a little odd was the lineup. I got there in time to hear the Resolutes' manager reel off the batting order to his team.  "Batting fourth... batting fifth..." Okay, nothing unusual there. "Batting eighth... batting ninth... batting tenth... batting eleventh..." Huh? No designated hitter here, but apparently more players approach the plate than actually play defense at any given time.

Second, equipment is very basic: a bat, a ball, home plate and three bases. Players don't use gloves for batting or fielding, and the catcher wears no protective mask or chest padding. The top hat and vest-wearing umpire had a cane, but I never figured out why.

Third, the game is fast paced, especially when judged against today's professional matches. Pitchers throw to the plate virtually as soon as they receive the ball from the catcher, and there's no delay in returning the ball to the pitcher after a strike is called. If the umpire detects any excess time being taken, he'll hurry the game along with a call of "play ball!" This definitely is not the kind of sport where you can look away and expect not to miss anything.

Oh, and the batter? He's a striker, and he's called to bat with the exhortation, "Striker to the line!"

So what's the deal with these guys, and why the unusual club name?

The 21st century Elizabeth Resolutes are members of the Vintage Base Ball Association and honor a team of the same name that played in New Jersey between 1866 and 1878. Starting as amateurs, the 19th century team won the state championship in 1870 and decided to turn pro in 1872, becoming New Jersey's only participant in the national Association of Professional Base Ball Players. Apparently, though, the team's amateur days were their most successful, and they disbanded after just a few years of professional play.

Today's Resolutes are just one of many base ball teams competing on the East Coast, joining the Flemington Neshanock as New Jersey's two vintage clubs. Besides playing matches in local parks, they add sporting flavor to events that commemorate America's past, like Civil War reenactments and history festivals around the region. Check the Resolutes schedule for upcoming games -- they're definitely worth checking out.

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