Major League Baseball’s opened play this week and Philadelphia native Melissa Butler couldn’t be happier.
Butler, a political science professor at Wabash College, has been an avid baseball fan most of her life. A once-over glance of her office includes a Philadelphia Phillies 1980 World Series champions pennant in a frame, just above a Philadelphia Athletics pennant. There is also a team photo of the 1977 Phillies and a picture of Mike Schmidt, who Butler considers the greatest third baseman in the history of the game and who was the Most Valuable Player of the 1980 World Series — the lone championship in Phillies’ history.
She’s infatuated with baseball and its history and even, aside from her political science duties at Wabash, teaches a freshman tutorial course on baseball history.
Despite the course’s name, it’s no easy task — as perceived by most students until "usually about the second day." That’s when Butler asks the students to decipher a quote from George Will’s book "Men at Work." After a dozen years teaching the course, Butler says that’s the moment when most students enrolled in the class realize they don’t have as much baseball wit as they thought.
"Wabash is a liberal arts college and baseball is kind of the perfect liberal arts subject," Butler said. "And with all the material that’s available, there’s a lot of stuff to research."
The topic of cheating in baseball has also been debated in class. Baseball has been plagued by steroid rumors and MLB has installed its own drug-testing policy to suspend players who violate the policy.
"Because of the impact on youth, I think baseball needs to be a lot more militant about that," she said.
The class always attends a baseball game, then each student is asked to observe and write an essay on their day at the ball park. Part of the class requires the students to learn to keep score, forcing them to actually observe what is going on. Wrigley Field was the choice of destination, but in recent years, Butler said tickets for Chicago Cubs’ games have been harder to come by. The class now attends a Cincinnati Reds’ game at Great American Ballpark, which opened in 2003.
Going to Cincinnati also makes it possible for the class to visit the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame and Museum. While the trip across the Ohio border allows for the museum visit, Butler liked the historical aspect of Wrigley Field.
"Wrigley Field is in a neighborhood where there’s no parking," she said. "It really reveals a lot of urban history. I miss that aspect of Wrigley Field."
This year’s visit will feature Butler’s favorite team — the Phillies — on April 20. Her students think she purposely set it up to see the Phillies, but Butler denies all allegations, saying she had to find a game that corresponded with Wabash baseball team members’ schedule.
The students enrolled in the course generally fall in one of two categories, Butler said. One group is the athletes and the others are those who just know "tons and tons about baseball." The class tends to fill up pretty quickly and at times brings students from their homes when the course opens just to make sure they have a spot in the class.
Butler first became fascinated with baseball as a young child. Growing up in Philadelphia, her grandfather took her to a shopping district on 52nd and Market streets and bought her a Philadelphia Athletics cap. Her father was a Phillies fan. But when the Athletics left for Kansas City in 1955, Butler quickly became a Phillies fan.
She never stopped loving the game and is quick to offer her opinion on the things she’d change. She isn’t a fan of interleague play, doesn’t support the American League’s designated hitter rule and doesn’t think the All-Star game should determine home-field advantage in the World Series.
"I’m more of a traditionalist," she says.
She also thinks Pete Rose deserves to be barred from the Hall of Fame. Rose was ousted from baseball for gambling, but is the career record holder in Major League Baseball for hits with 4,256 and won three World Series titles, including one with the 1980 Phillies. Him not being elected into the Hall of Fame, a place Butler has visited in Cooperstown, N.Y., is one of the more debated topics in baseball history.
"If you don’t maintain a hard line on gambling, then I think baseball becomes professional wrestling," Butler said.
When Butler attends a game at Yankee Stadium later this year, it will make 21 MLB stadiums she’s visited. In that time, she’s seen a triple play by Brooks Robinson, after a fan in the stands claimed he would make up for his error on the previous batsman with a triple play, and seen Nomar Garciaparra hit a grand slam. She still has one to cross off the list though.
"I want to see a no-hitter," she said.
On top of all the baseball she’s seen, she has also attended games in other countries and watches the Class A Clearwater Threshers when she’s in Florida.
Soon she may be seeing even more baseball. Knowing there is life after work, she’s planning her retirement by finding a house in Fort Myers, Fla. — where some spring training baseball is played. But after spring training is when the real baseball begins.
"I’m always happy when the season starts," she said.