Yesterday was the first day of autumn. I was in Chattanooga, in a cheap motel room, watching baseball on a busted motel TV with a messed-up picture. The colors were screwy. The display was tinted radar-screen green so that the players looked like little green Martians in batting helmets.
I was seated on the edge of the bed, a Styrofoam box of takeout food on my lap. A burger. Medium-well. With American cheese. I like my cheese to be patriotic.
The tiny green Atlanta Braves were playing good baseball. Each pivotal moment was narrated by Chip Caray, and he was in good voice that night.
“…A high, fly ball, hit deep toward left center… AND THE BRAVES STRIKE FIRST IN THE FIRST INNING…!”
It was an important game. If these miniature green guys won, they would be champions of their division. Which is a big deal.
Then again, within a world afflicted with COVID, baseball hardly matters. After all, our society is falling apart right now. There are wildfires out west, serial hurricanes in the Gulf, and a globalized pandemic. I just read that the U.S. death tolls are around 200,000.
So baseball seems like an infinitesimal thing to be concerned about this year. In fact, it seems ridiculous.
But not to me. I’ve watched every game. Seen every play. I’ve listened to Chip call each blessed pitch using the anvil tones of a radio evangelist.
Certainly, our sport was a little different this year. The coronavirus regulations made it feel alien. Ball clubs played to vacant stadiums with canned crowd noise. Players weren’t allowed to high-five, spit seeds, chew gum, or adjust personal regions on national television.
Coaches, trainers, and medical staff wore surgical masks and rubber gloves. All umpires, in strict accordance with ridgid Major League Baseball protocol, were required to be legally blind.
But these green-skinned Braves kept playing. I love them for it. And you can’t help who you love. Love is an affliction.
Historically, the Atlanta Braves have been one of those hapless teams you were never sure why you loved. They went through brief winning streaks, and losing streaks that seemed to last until the next Pope installation.
There were seasons of such pitiful agony that our players could often strike out without ever leaving the dugout.
But oh, it was a great time to be a kid. My uncle and my father would take me to the old stadium on Capitol Avenue. We’d watch opposing teams score against us in the triple digits. And I’d suck down a bucket of Coke.
Then my father died.
He ended his own life when it was shaping up to be a good year for Major League Baseball.
He picked a bad year to die. The Braves happened to be in their prime. Bobby Cox was skippering a trio of the greatest starters of my young era. Smoltz, Maddux, and the laid-back Tom Glavine, who was so relaxed on the mound that sometimes he read the newspaper between batters.
But on the day of my father’s end—and I mean the literal day, September 14—baseball ended, too. It was a freakish occurrence, it was the day the World Series got cancelled. The players went on strike.
My father was gone. And so was his game.
And it couldn’t have happened at a worse time. The Braves were poised for possible 24-carat greatness. They were in second place. Six games behind Montreal. Two and a half ahead of Houston for the wild card.
But it hardly mattered now. Nothing mattered. Because life was over. And so, I guessed, was baseball.
Only it wasn’t over. Not my life. And not the game. Stickball is funny that way. It is an endeavor that will always surprise you. Life does the same thing.
The following year, the Braves won the World Series. It was a record season. The three pitchers I told you about became mythological heroes. Greg Maddux won his fourth Cy Young award. John Smoltz led the league in strikeouts and wins. The ever-tranquilized Tom Glavine earned the World Series MVP.
To many, it was the best World Series of all time. They won five Series games by merely one run. The clinching sixth game was a one-hitter, so unfathomably stressful that many of us who watched it still suffer debilitating constipation.
That Series was bittersweet to me. Like taking a shot of vinegar, and chasing it with sugar. All the greatest games are like that. They remind me of my father so much it stings.
Which is why I almost fell away from baseball after my father passed. I almost grew numb to its deeper meaning. But I’m glad I didn’t. Because the sport exalts the mundane, creates beauty out of red dirt, it is an underdog’s game.
Anyway, last night the ball players on my funky-colored motel TV screen were playing a great game. And they were winning. We. We were winning. I watched, sitting cross-legged on the bed, chin resting on my fists, like a kid. I don’t know if I’ve ever been more in-the-moment than I was in that dingy motel.
I’ll spare you any more baseball talk. If you’ve read this far, you’ve had enough already. So I’ll just leave you with Chip Caray’s final call of the game:
“…It’s a line drive… CAUGHT! BY FREDDIE FREEMAN! IT’S A THREE-PEAT FOR THE BRAVES! THEY ARE THE CHAMPIONS OF THE EAST IN 2020!
I was dabbing my eyes when he said it.
Because I love those little green men.