SunTrust Park holds 41,500 people. There are even more than that here tonight.
The man taking tickets at the gate is all personality. He says, “Man, we sold out tonight, even our standing-room-only tickets went like hotcakes.”
The Atlanta Braves are playing their first home game of the season, and everyone in the South is here to greet them.
There is magic in baseball. I don’t know how, and I don’t care. Our ancestors played this game. Our daddies taught us to swing while we were in diapers. This magic is not make believe.
I meet Amy and Christopher in the mile-long ticket line. They’re from Dalton, Georgia.
“These tickets were his Christmas present,” says Amy. “We’re so ready for baseball.”
“So ready,” Christopher says.
That makes three of us.
My wife came to the game with me. She is not a baseball fan. Even so, after years of marriage, she knows how to keep score, and she knows the infield fly rule. I count this as progress. She knows about the magic here.
We find our seats. In the row ahead of me is a man from Auburn. Early thirties. Father of three. His name is Darren, his kids are with him. His wife is playing on her phone.
His family wears Auburn University T-shirts with Braves caps.
Darren and I end up having a conversation during the game. This is what men do. We cannot wind our watches and chew bubble gum at the same time. But we can have an in-depth discussion during a baseball game and never miss a play.
My father was the same way. I remember when my father used to change the oil in our station wagon. The dull roar of a crowd would come from a Philco Radio. He would be listening.
“What’s the score?” I would always ask.
“Ain’t good,” he’d say. “Turn it off, I can’t bear to hear it.”
I would click the game off.
“No!” he would say. “Don’t do that! What if they score?”
Hope holds out until the last inning in baseball.
My new friend Darren says his father was a baseball fan.
“My dad worshipped the Yankees,” he says. “But he never got to see them before he died. We were gonna take him for his sixty-fifth birthday, but…”
Single to right.
Caught on a low hop.
“Dad could never play sports,” Darren goes on. “It killed him when he was a kid, he had a bad leg from polio. He limped all his life. But he encouraged me, he was always at my games, front row, never missed. He made me love baseball.”
Darren pauses to observe his own son. The ten-year-old sits entranced with the pastime of ghosts and heroes. The look on the proud father’s face says more than I can write.
Line drive up the foul line. It’s fair.
The throw isn’t in time.
The place goes ape.
“It’s funny,” says Darren. “I’m not used to Dad being gone, not yet. Sometimes, I call his cellphone just to hear his voice on his answering machine greeting. I can’t bring myself to disconnect his old telephone number. He was my hero.”
I look around SunTrust Park. I see a lot of heroes and their faithful sidekicks in this stadium. In fact, I see 41,500 of them.
A blonde boy sits on his father’s lap, eating a hot dog. A baby sleeps on her mother, wearing a onesie that reads, “Go Braves!”
A man and his elderly father, sipping Miller Lite. A young couple, with a redhead girl dressed in a baseball uniform. A group of kids in Boy Scout uniforms.
A Hispanic toddler, speaking rapid Spanish with his father.
“Los Bravos!” the boy shouts.
“No,” his father clarifies. “Say, ‘Lessgo Braves!'”
The remnants of a person’s life can be found in the game they played. That’s why the sound of a bat brings back my old man, lying beneath a Ford. Motor oil on his face. Always waiting for a miracle at the plate.
Darren holds his infant daughter against his chest. It’s late. I suspect all children in this park are getting sleepy at this hour.
Another run is driven in.
Braves are going to win.
“Papá!” shouts the Hispanic boy. He leaps upward. He spills his drink all over himself. But the kid is too busy to worry about messes. Not when a Brave is trotting the bases.
“Vaya!” yells the boy’s father.
A group of teenagers screams. Darren screams with his kids. A redheaded boy screams. The crowd couldn’t be any gladder to have the Braves home.
Darren’s boy high-fives him and shouts, “LOOK, DAD! WE SCORED!”
I find myself whispering the same thing to the sky.
And for a moment, I feel magic.