My Life With Baseball: What it all means.

Swainsboro, is a quiet south Georgia town; it was even more so when I was a child.  No amusement parks, no malls, and no movie theaters existed to provide the standard entertainment for students relishing summer break.  As a hyper-active, dorky, awkward kid I had few options–thank god for baseball.  During my childhood, Swainsboro boasted three under-sized baseball fields run by the local Dixie Youth League, of which my father was both an alumnus and the president.  During these early years of my life in baseball, I idolized my dad, who always coached my team.  Every year in the league, I wore his old number from when he was a kid. I had a black 34 on my back, sometimes on a shirt that was so big that the numbers actually tucked into my pants.  This number was especially significant because 34 was also the number of the Iron Horse himself, Lou Gehrig, who happened to be my dad’s all-time favorite player and became mine as well.  After starting off playing right field, where they usually put the most uncoordinated kids, I worked hard and for seven years, ended up playing the position my dad played when he was in the league: Lou Gehrig’s own first base.

Every afternoon in the sweatbox of humidity and heat that is South Georgia, my dad went outside with me to throw the ball.  No matter how hot it was outside, no matter how tired he was after coming home from work, no matter if we had just come home from practice, he was always there for a round of catch.  In front of the giant clumps of pompous grass (you know the huge baseball-swallowing bushes that grow ornamentally for some reason in the South, with blades as sharp as razors) the soft, satisfying swish of ball hitting glove resounded from the back yard for hours, as it did in so many other backyards across America since the game was invented. 

There is a certain bond that a father/son, coach/player combination creates.  Simple things build appreciation and admiration: dad giving advice on how to keep your head down when trying to hit a fastball, teaching me not to flinch or move out of the way when trying to dig a bad throw out of the dirt at first base, or how to look for signs from the third base coach.  Just spending the most brutal of summer afternoons together learning, bonding, and enjoying America’s game are treasured memories of my childhood.

But little league was not all that drew me to baseball.  Like all good kids born in the 1980’s in Georgia, I rooted for one team and one team only, the Atlanta Braves.  They were America’s team.  My dad growing up in the 50’s and 60’s had only one team to root for, the New York Yankees.  He still to this day recalls that no matter what day of the week, if the Yankees were playing then you could hear their game on the radio.  They were one of the few teams that could be heard across the country on the radio for kids to feel the sounds of summer from their homes.  Like the Yankees, the Braves had a media “lock” in the 80’s and 90’s.  The great combination of Ted Turner owning both the Braves and the Superstation, TBS.  No matter what day of the week, what time of the day, if the Braves were playing, kids all over the country could hear and see baseball, bond with the players, and form a sense of pride in a team.  I guess it’s because of this that the Braves became “America’s Team.”

Being a Braves fan in the 1980’s was a tough time.  But no matter what outcome was predicted, I always started the season thinking that we were going to win the pennant and started every game like we were going to pitch a no hitter.  But what really drew me in was a guy named Dale Murphy (I actually wore his #3 for one year in Dixie Youth League, but quickly switched back to 34).  Now granted, as the longest operating franchise in baseball, the Braves team has its share of dynamic and historic players, Warren Spahn, Eddie Mathews, and certainly the great Hank Aaron (who is still the home run champion in my opinion).  But Murphy was different for me.  He was never the biggest, fastest, strongest, or most outspoken player in the Majors, but he played the game like a classic ballplayer.  He played the game with integrity.  He went out there every day and give everything he had, never displayed a bit of poor sportsmanship, and was always at the stadium before the game to sign autographs.  He was the kind of player that made kids like me dive headfirst into the game of baseball and the kind of player that made all Braves fans think that we were going to win the pennant that year.  Even when the Braves lost, he played the game like a winner.

My family vacations as a kid were probably a little different than kids growing up in urban environments.  Instead of going to the beach (we lived pretty close to Savannah) we would head to the big city of Atlanta.  Our trips would usually involve some combination of Six Flags, the zoo, the World of Coke, but there were always a couple of Braves games thrown in.  Coming from playing on a fifty year old little league field with hard concrete bleachers and grass that looked more like a sandy beach than a putting green, old Fulton County Stadium was a mighty impressive sight.  The grass was the greenest thing I had ever seen, the dirt was a color that I still can’t describe, the bases at the beginning of the game were as white as those giant clouds you see in the summer sky.  There was a sweet mixture in the air of hot dogs, peanuts, cotton candy, and stale beer.  No matter where I sat in that old round bowl of stadium I felt like the players, Dale Murphy especially, were playing for me.

I attended dozens of games between 1981 and 1990 at Fulton County Stadium, always thinking that this was the year that America’s team was going all the way, but then something happened in 1991.  Dale Murphy had left after the previous year to head to the Phillies, but America’s team had put together the beginnings of what would become one of the most dominant pitching staffs in the history of baseball, orignally held down by Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Steve Avery, and the veteran south paw, Charlie Leibrandt.  This was to become the magical worst to first season that sent the Braves on one of the greatest streaks in baseball history: fourteen consecutive division championships.  Being a Braves fan during these years was something special.  Pitching still dominated the game and we all just sat back and waited for the solo homerun to lift us to a win after whoever was pitching that night pitched a shutout.

After the 1999 season, I graduated high school, went to college and began to neglect the game I once loved.  Baseball had changed and I had too.  I imagined baseball to be an ageless passion, but became disillusioned by the politics and show business of it all.  Steroids and controversy had taken over the game and the one or two run pitcher’s duels had given way to players like Jason Giambi, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa belting 450 dingers (I still say Gred Maddux could make any of these guys look stupid with an 80 MPH change up).    In that time, I saw that baseball had become more interested in juiced up stats (pun intended) and players that excited fans, rather than teams that knew how to play together and managers who knew when to call a squeeze and when to hit and run.  The instant gratification of the home run overshadowed the excitement of two pitchers battling each other strike for strike.  Perhaps it was a reflection of our society’s growing need for big story lines, fast paced excitement and plays that write their own headlines.  Whatever the reason, and whatever the significance, players like Dale Murphy and Greg Maddux were no longer the ones to watch.  My response was to withdraw.  I became dispassionate and uninterested  because of what I was seeing and began to revolt against professional sports in general.

It took an eighteen inning playoff game between the Braves and Astros to bring me back.  It was classic baseball, a 7-6 duel with only one run scored between the tenth and eighteenth inning, and it reminded me of the baseball from my childhood.  Granted, the home run still ruled supreme at the time, and the Braves would eventually lose this game and the series, but this game was enough to get me hooked once again.

Since I watched all eighteen innings of that game, I have followed baseball like a religion.  I have seen my team win and lose, but all that matters is the perfect day at the park.  I took my daughter to her first games this season and she even got a ball from the Braves bullpen coach at her second game.  She and I enjoy sitting on the couch together and watching whatever game might be on TV at that time of the day.  It doesn’t matter to her who is playing, just like it didn’t matter when I was a kid, baseball is baseball, no matter what.

So what does baseball mean?  Baseball is fathers and sons who share positions and jersey numbers.  Kids who idolize their fathers as much as their fathers idolized Lou Gehrig himself.   It is about passing down history, teaching children the legends of the game, those who played the game so beautifully they almost seemed like angels that hovered over the field to snag a line drive, or who hit home runs simply by the tradition of eating a bratwurst before the game.  It is about guys like Jackie Robinson, about remembering the past in the present by paying honor to how perfect the game is.

Baseball is what freedom is.  It is proof that no matter what, you have a chance to repair what you have done wrong.  A game not governed by a time limit, a clock, a referee calling fouls, or sudden death.  It is the only game that no matter how poorly a team is playing, no matter how far behind they may be, until they beat themselves by making the final out of the game, that team can still win.  There is no buzzer to tell you that you have lost.  It is a perfect representation of what life should be, the ability to atone our mistakes and to always try our best.

It is a mathematically perfect game.  It is a game of threes.  Three strikes, three outs, three outfielders.  Nine innings, the perfect square of three. If the bases who one foot further apart, the game would not be the same.  A rather arbitrary distance of 60.5 feet set in 1893 is the perfect distance to allow the batter a chance to hit a pitchers nastiest “stuff” but give the pitcher as much of a chance as possible to deceive his opponent. Inches are the difference between balls and strikes, a loud noisy out or a home run, an infield hit and just another groundball.  The world series is often won by mere inches.  The best players sometimes become the best because they know how to take advantage of the most minute distances imaginable during the game.

But ultimately, it is a game of pride.  Pride in a city that may or may not win the World Series, but is damn sure gonna try.  It breathes life into American cities.  Magnificent stadiums in the center of town, rising above their5 surroundings, lighting up the sky at with moths flying around the halogen glow.  Cities like Pittsburgh who have not had winning season since 1992 know what this pride is about, still bringing families to their bleachers night after night, thinking at the beginning of the season, “this is our year” and at the beginning of every game, “this is our game.”  Reflecting the eternal optimism that is the base stitch of the American, baseball is America’s game.

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8 responses to this post.

  1. Nice article son. Well written. Brought a tear to my eye. Baseball is the perfect game. It would be even more perfect if we could get rid of that pesky DH and inter-league play. I would like to see a poll of major leaguers who got their start by throwing with their dad in the back yard.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Marisue Avery on July 21, 2011 at 12:07 pm

    I’m proud of you, son. I remember the hot afternoons and the thud of the ball as it hit your glove. I remember you and your “Granny” watching games together. It was a time.

    Reply

  3. Posted by Sherrie Burke on July 21, 2011 at 10:03 pm

    Great, Great story!!

    Reply

  4. Posted by Duncan on July 21, 2011 at 11:37 pm

    I don’t usually enjoy sports writings but I enjoyed this…; good job.

    Reply

  5. Posted by Linda Carmichael on July 22, 2011 at 12:30 am

    Wonderful story!!! Well-written! Looking forward to more!!

    Reply

  6. Posted by Keith on July 23, 2011 at 2:17 am

    Like I posted on Joel’s entry, I have yet to understand the fascination with baseball. I was born in ’80, played little league in a small Georgia town, and watched the Braves. That is where our stories change pace. After I graduated in ’98, I couldn’t bring myself to follow it anymore. I went to a few Mariners’ games when I was stationed in Seattle and I felt the pull but I never got sucked back in. This entry, your writing, it’s different. It pulls at me. Wants me to appreciate the sport. Not because it is the hip thing, but because people like you and Joel have a certain passion that is contagious. I look forward to reading the journey.

    Reply

  7. […] baseball story is quite different from Joel and Will. I did not grow up in a family where sports were discussed, played, or watched. If I wanted to […]

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  8. Very good article Will. I remember those days. I am proud that Joseph has the same feeling about baseball. Even after practicing for four hours in 100 degree heat he comes home and wants to practice in the yard. When the television comes on in our den you can hear the sounds of an announcer calling a, yep you guessed it, baseball game. Joseph is a die-hard Braves fan and I know Granny is looking down with a smile. I love you brother.

    Reply

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