The batter awaits his cue before stepping to home plate.
“Striker to the line,” bellows the umpire. “How do you like your pitches?”
“Low zone, sir,” responds Matt “Ranger” Petty of the Bay Area Vintage Base Ball League’s San Francisco Pacifics.
That’s right, two words; baseball was “base ball” in 1886.
The bats were heavier in those days, 40 to 46 ounces. To get around on a fastball, Petty prefers the ball from the belt to the knee, rather than the “high zone” option: from the belt to the top of the shoulders.
With a .500 average after his first three seasons in the league, Petty bats third in manager Sage “Buttercup” Bray’s lineup.
“He could hit .100 and I wouldn’t care,” Bray said of Petty, the team’s unanimous selection as 2011 MVP. “What he can do defensively is unparalleled in our league.”
Combining instinct and raw speed with the ability to chase down fly balls using an 1880s-era mitt (resembling a modern-day gardening glove), Petty has become a fixture in center field.
He has an easier time covering the outfield than he does matching the facial hair styles of the day; nevertheless, Petty endeavors to grow mutton chops as the 2012 season approaches.
With scruffy beard and vintage gear in tow, the 39-year-old resident of San Francisco’s Potrero Hill looks forward to opening day in Fremont today.
On March 25, the S.F. team plays the Colonels of Oakland. With the Pacifics historically on the losing end of close games between the two rivals, both figure to be in the mix for the league championship and a slot in the California Cup, a postseason tournament that includes champions from two other Northern California vintage baseball leagues.
The last time the clubs met, at Albany’s Fourth of July Festival, a large crowd gathered, intrigued perhaps by the old-school look of a familiar game, and also by the high quality of play.
“It was a classic back-and-forth battle,” Petty recalls. “Good pitching, great plays. We managed to come out on top. I threw a guy out at the plate, which would’ve been the tying run.”
Bray and Petty comment that between the lines, base ball feels like baseball despite the differences in equipment and variances in the rules.
“One of the most interesting things to me is the hidden-ball trick. In modern baseball the pitcher must have the ball when he comes set,” Petty said, indicating that no mound or rubber exists in base ball, only a chalk-lined box. “In the box the pitcher can get set, but not have the ball. The infielder can have the ball and tag out the runner.”
And the runner knows better than to argue with the umpire.
Season opener: Today
Rivalry game: Pacifics vs. New Almaden Cinnabars (defending league champions), March 11, at Golden Gate Park’s Big Rec Ball Field
LANGUAGE: Baseball was “base ball” in 1886
Take your base: 7 balls, 3 strikes in base ball
Equipment flexibility: The catcher is allowed 20th-century upgrades: mask, chest protector and a glove (circa 1910)