I’m watching the Braves game on TV, eating a hamburger, trying not to get my keyboard greasy.
The Atlanta Braves are locked in a treacherous battle against the Philadelphia Phillies. Both teams are fighting for a shot at the pennant, and neither team is going down without taking fistfuls of flesh and hair with them.
This column is part of my longstanding tradition wherein every year I write a handful of boring baseball columns. I do this faithfully although I’m no expert on baseball, nor am I an athlete. Also, I’m hard pressed to believe that the same ball players I care so deeply about would ever visit my place of work to cheer for me.
Even so. There’s just something about baseball.
To me, stickball is more than just an American sport. It’s not merely vivid green grass, halide lights, peanut vendors, or howling fans who have been overserved. Baseball is my past. Baseball is boyhood on a stick.
Of course the game has undergone many changes since my day. Even the entertainment delivery methods have changed.
The TV I’m watching, for example, is about 68 inches wide, plasma, high-definition, and connected to my mobile phone. This television has the capability of answering emails, browsing the Internet, obeying spoken voice commands, and communicating with military aircraft.
When I was a kid, however, the technology of baseball was different. Our beat up television ran on unleaded and picked up one-point-two sports channels. There was WGN, out of Chicago, and TBS out of Atlanta.
The Chicago station broadcasted games wherein the Cubs lost each night by double digits, whereupon Harry Caray would sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” to a stadium of clinically depressed Chicago fans at Wrigley.
But the Atlanta channel had Dale Murphy, John Smoltz, and the fighting Atlanta Braves. To us, they were America’s Team. Los Bravos. The Tomahawks. The Peach Clobbers. They were ours. And there weren’t many American kids who didn’t love them.
My childhood was a good era for baseball. It wasn’t as good as the Mickey Mantle era, or the era of Ted Williams, Yogi Berra, or Joe Dimaggio. But mine was a period when everyone’s old man still wore work uniforms and talked about the famous catches made by the “Say Hey Kid,” or Roger Maris’ 61 homers. And of course, they never missed a chance to discuss Mazeroski’s walk-off.
Even at my youngish age I can still remember a golden age before instant replay, when umpires were still infallible, when ballpark hotdog buns weren’t non-GMO, and a hot dog contained a blend of 39 varieties of “meat product.”
It was a time when all kids kept score on official scorecards with eraserless pencils. A time when—hard as this is to believe—our phones didn’t even shoot good video.
Almost every summer evening my old man would sit on our camel-colored sofa in our basement, poised between a collage of cushion stains, watching or listening to ballgames. We’d either tune in with a transistor radio or a Zenith television that was the size of a Cheez-It box.
Sometimes the televised image would go staticky, at which point my father would untwist a wire clothes hanger, sculpt it into a strange shape, then attach it to the TV’s backside to improve reception. If this didn’t work, he’d add aluminum foil to his makeshift antenna. If this didn’t work, he’d get another beer.
Sometimes it’s hard to believe he’s been gone for so long. Often I have to remind myself that my father has been deceased now for more years of my life than he hasn’t.
Even so, baseball brings him back to me. And therein lies the charm of this unique game. It’s a game that retells your history in full Technicolor. You remember everything when you watch 18 men play with a five-ounce ball.
Every time I tune in to see an overpaid, prepubescent millionaire swing a bat before a nationwide audience, I remember the way my father once guided me through my batter’s stance in our backyard.
I remember his ever vigorous six-word sermon, the mantra of boyhood: “Keep your eye on the ball.”
I remember late evenings in the tall weeds, beneath the glow of dim porch lights, serenaded by cicadas, playing marathon games of catch with neighborhood boys, throwing the ball until one of us sustained a dental injury.
I remember televised games on Atlanta’s superstation, when I would sometimes crawl onto my old man’s lap as he slept. I would curl beside him until one of his arms draped around my shoulder and held me. And I can still remember how safe I felt in those arms. I remember feeling like I belonged to someone. I remember feeling like I mattered.
In some small way I still feel like that when I watch games. Because, as I say, there’s just something about baseball.