Atlanta. The town is alive. Baseball is in the air. I am part of a crowd of 42,000. We are loping across a footbridge toward Truist Park like the Children of Israel.
I am here to watch the Atlanta Braves square off against the Miami Marlins in a battle until death. Should be a good game.
A kid next to me is decked in Braves apparel. He is clad in red, struggling to keep up with his dad’s long legs.
The kid is gaunt and pale. His neck is lean. And his hair is missing. But he is freckled. Like someone dipped him in syrup and rolled him in confetti.
“Go Braves,” the kid says to me.
“Go Braves,” I say.
The boy is animated. Happy. Crazy with excitement. He is holding his dad’s hand as they walk. I notice the boy has evidence of a PICC line in his neck. A hospital bracelet on his wrist.
“Are you excited about the game?” I ask.
“Who’s your favorite player?”
He shrugs. “Which year?”
Shrug. “I like them all this year.”
“What about last year?”
“How about 1981?” I say.
“Phil Neikro,” says his father.
Finally, the boy isn’t able to walk anymore. He’s too tired. So his dad hoists him onto his shoulders and says, “How about a ride, Jim Ed?”
Jim Ed. Great name.
The boy sits on his father’s shoulders, and towers above the rest of the crowd. He is king.
Our tiny hero shouts, “Go Braves!” to everyone he passes.
The kid loves to get responses from unsuspecting fans. He doles out several high-fives. Lots of shouts. A few people are kind enough to do the Tomahawk Chop.
“Go Braves!” they all shout.
When we get into the stadium, it’s Disneyworld. Imagine a county fair held at a baseball diamond. That’s Truist Park.
Those of us unfortunate enough to have been born longtime Braves fans remember the older, grungy stadiums.
The first time I came to a Braves game was at Fulton County Stadium, I was still filling diapers and speaking in all vowels. Fulton Stadium was like visiting a Third World Country with subpar hotdogs. You needed a tetanus shot to use the restrooms.
Many years later, when the Olympics came to Atlanta, the whole city was revamped. What a great year. The Braves moved to Turner Field.
Turner was nice. Nicer than the older stadium. But it lacked charm and personality. It was like going to a baseball game at the DMV.
Fast forward to present day. A few years ago, the Braves moved to Truist Park. Suddenly we were in high cotton.
Going to Truist Park is like visiting a Carnival Cruise ship only more expensive.
There are carnival games. Entertainment. Upscale restaurants. Exotic drinks festooned with fruit kabobs and live parrots. And the bathrooms are so clean you could ice your beer down in the urinals.
The hotdogs still taste like roadkill, but you can’t have everything.
Before the game, I am inside the restrooms. I see the kid. Jim Ed. His father is lifting his son’s shirt. He removes the boy’s colostomy bags. He dumps the bags into the nearby toilet.
Then the father gives his son an injection in the upper thigh. After the injection, he pulls the boy’s shorts up. Buckles his little belt. He pets his son’s face. He kisses his head. “I love you,” says Daddy.
The kid’s father lifts his son up to the sink. The boy is washing his hands. Scrubbing between his fingers.
The boy looks weak and drawn. And his features are more birdlike than I realized. I can see a scar running up his calf. And there are bruises on his forearms.
Despite it all, the kid looks at his father’s reflection in the mirror. His face erupts in a fantabulous smile. The boy says with a yell, “Go Braves!”
“GO BRAVES!” answer the shouts of 50-odd male strangers in the stalls.
“This is the best day of my life, Dad” says Jim Ed.
“Mine too,” says Dad. “Mine too.”