Opening Day of baseball.
The neighborhood is alive with summer sounds. It’s lunchtime. I’m sipping my lunch from a tin can.
A few streets over, I hear kids’ voices. Their far-off laughter is infectious. I know they’re playing catch because I hear the rhythmic slaps of leather. Like a metronome.
And I’m thinking about the innumerable evenings my father and I played catch. Catch was our thing. We played whenever the mood hit.
Daddy never went anywhere without our ball gloves in the backseat. We played catch in all kinds of places. In public parks. In driveways. Backyards. In the church parking lot, during the sermon.
Some men’s fathers were Methodists or Presbyterians. My father was a National League man.
Which is why I am on the front porch, listening to dad’s old Zenith console radio. Tweed speaker. Particle-wood cabinet. The game sounds like it’s coming out of a walkie talkie, courtesy of 690 AM. Joe Simpson is in good voice today.
As each year goes by, baseball gets harder to love. The salaries get higher. The game gets more commercial. I keep getting older; the players stay the same age.
The sport of my youth no longer resembles itself. When I was a kid, professional baseball was played by guys who looked like beer-swilling lumberjacks and retired war veterans.
Bucky Dent was the man. Dale Murphy was a deity. You had guys like George Brett, with cheeks full of Red Man, rushing the mound after an inside pitch to beat the pitcher’s everlasting aspirations.
We had Ripken. Nolan. Sid Bream. And it wasn’t a game unless Bobby Cox made a serious attempt to decapitate an umpire.
Baseball has new rules now. The worst corruption to the game is the clock. My father would roll in his grave.
During my youth, there was no game clock in baseball. In fact, baseball was the only thing in life without a clock. Other sports had clocks. Your whole life had a clock. You punched a clock at work. Classroom had clocks.
But baseball was off the clock. You’d eat a hotdog, your pa swilled some Pabst, half the ballpark chain-smoked cigars. Time did not exist.
Still, I remain a fan. Baseball is my touchstone. It’s always been there. Like a beloved uncle. Or the old creek bridge. Or your favorite Norman Rockwell piece.
I don’t even care who wins anymore, just throw the dang ball.
My father was our Little League coach. He was a devout man. He prayed before every game. He’d spit out his Beech-Nut, set down his beer, and tell us to bow our sweaty little heads.
“Dear God,” my father would pray, “help the other team not be too embarrassed when we kick the crapola out of them…”
I was not allowed to play football because we were Baptist and Mama said football was communism. I didn’t play basketball because I was chubby and resembled the spokesperson for Pillsbury.
But chubby boys could play baseball.
And baseball made you feel good. That was its major selling point.
When your homelife was a wreck; when you were having a bad day; when your teacher brought you to her desk and told you that you had failed fifth grade because they didn’t have words for “dyslexia” back then, you always had baseball.
Baseball was there for me when my father died. That year the Braves had Smoltz, Maddux, and Glavine. The Holy Trinity. They weren’t just pitchers, they were real men who ate roofing tacks for breakfast. Men who were often invited to weddings to change the water into merlot.
Baseball was there during my teen years. It was there after every breakup. After every low moment. After every tragedy.
I remember watching the World Series after 9/11 happened. The U.S. president walked to the mound, before 46,537 roaring fans, and he threw the opening pitch like he knew what he was doing. I’ve never felt more American.
You never saw the Queen of England painting the corners of the strike zone.
Baseball has been there for me recently, too. Last year, I lost six friends to cancer. Six. And last summer, when doctors thought I had stomach cancer; when I quit eating; when I wasn’t sleeping; when I lost 30 pounds from stress, the Braves still played every night. And I still watched them.
And when the doctor called to say my scans came back clear, that I was cancer free, guess where I was standing when I received the good news? I was in Truist Park, at a Braves game, waiting in line for a $25.99 beer. I broke down and cried.
“Are you okay?” a random guy asked me.
“Yes, I’m fine.”
“Yeah,” I said, wiping my eyes. “I just really love baseball.”
“Wow,” he said. “I’ve never met anyone who loved baseball THAT much.”
Clearly he never met my father.
stephenpe - March 31, 2023 11:56 am
Better than Lewis G today. Thanks again, Sean.
Alan Q. - March 31, 2023 1:37 pm
Baseball is awesome. You can fail more often than succeed batting and still be a success. It’s the longest season and you have 161 chances after opening day to redeem yourself. Individual performance is important but some of the greatest players have never been on a World Series championship team. The stadium “environment” is essential to the game and its character. As with our nation, baseball is more diversified and is better than ever. Jackie Robinson and Latin players haven’t destroyed it, nor has players getting their “fair share” via a players union. It might have been more leisurely than with this season’s clock but a game still takes a lengthy 2 hours and 30 minutes and nine innings. Now if the Tigers will just win a little more than it loses…
Becky Souders - March 31, 2023 5:51 pm
Don’t leave out Tekulve… nobody pitched like Tekulve. Thanks for this one, Sean Dietrich.
Dee Thompson - March 31, 2023 8:52 pm
Nice column, Sean. Baseball is sacred in my family, too. My grandfather Bob Hasty was a pitcher for the Philadelphia Athletics from 1919-1924. I wrote a novel based on the story of how he was accused of a crime he didn’t commit and although the charges were dropped he lost his major league career. [It’s called Return to Marietta and it’s on Amazon]. / I am so glad you are well now, and obviously enjoying a blessed life.