CHARLESTON—The Atlanta Braves game plays on the radio. I’m listening on an alarm-clock radio that sits on my hotel nightstand.
Our cheap room overlooks the not-so-snazzy outskirts of the Holy City. This is not one of your slick hotels. This is the kind of place that smells like fifty-year-old Pall Malls and has a wobbly toilet.
We just got into town, but I never miss a game if I can help it. And when I close my eyes, I can see the game, even though it’s happening on a radio.
I wanted to be a baseball writer as a kid. There was an old man in our neighborhood who was an actual sportswriter. The white-haired old salt was the real deal. He carried a portable typewriter to ballgames. He sat in press boxes. He tapped out five-hundred word columns like a regular Red Smith. It was unbearably cool.
The old man could fully appreciate the game in ways that only old men can. He’d covered the Bronx Bombers, the Brooklyn “Bums” in ‘55, and the Milwaukee Braves when they signed a young guy named Hank. He’d shaken hands with Koufax, watched Mantle and Maris duke it out in ‘61, and he was present for Jackie’s funeral.
But alas, I never even came close to being a sportswriter. All I can do is listen by radio.
The sound of the crowd sounds like static. This year Major League Baseball is using fake crowd noise on broadcasts since COVID-19 prohibits fans from attending games. Which means that the Boys of Summer are traveling the nation to play in empty stadiums. This is eerie when you think about it.
But the canned crowd sounds aren’t so bad since baseball doesn’t work without crowds. And if you don’t believe me, sing the first verse of “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.”
I was never in any danger of being an actual baseball writer. For one thing, you have to be a great lyricist to make baseball sound romantic. I’m not. Oh, sure, I love the game as much as the next hick, but no matter how hard I try I can’t make it sound like poetry.
The closest I ever came to being a real bat-and-ball chronicler was when I got hired by a little publication to write about the history of Georgia baseball.
Man alive. It was the greatest gig of my life. I was over the moon. I toured Grayson Stadium in Savannah—built during the Coolidge administration. I did interviews with old-timers. I spoke to an elderly Chatham County man who had seen Satchel Paige, Walter Johnson, and the Babe.
I wrote my articles and by some weird turn of events I got fired before the columns never saw the light of day.
Oh, well. You live and learn. I learned that I am just a fan. It helps to know what you truly are.
I freely admit that I am just a middle-aged guy writing about a child’s game. My hair is thinning, and I have crow’s feet, but I still tune in to broadcasts with the same slack-jawed wonder of a boy.
Because it’s not a sport to me, it’s a way of thinking. It’s a ballet performed on grass. It’s a game where losers can actually win. Where underdogs surprise you. A game that looks beautiful on the radio.
My father taught me to enjoy radio games. When I was a boy he would listen to them, sipping non-fundamentalist beverages, closing his eyes during the late innings. Those beautiful hazel eyes that I will never see again.
He also taught me how to fill out a scorecard. Which is a lost art among young men. I haven’t used a scorecard in ages.
Though years ago I was at a minor league game in Montgomery where I met an eighty-year-old woman who used a scorecard. She wore a large sunhat, and had a voice like a Greek Revival home. In the fifth inning she asked if I had a pocket knife to sharpen her pencil.
We became friends immediately, and she went on to tell me about her father. Everyone talks about their daddy during a baseball game.
She said, “Daddy wanted a boy, but he got me instead, so he did boy stuff with me, baseball was our thing.”
She loved the game more than most men I’ve known. And she loved her Montgomery Biscuits. Before she and I parted ways—I’ll never forget this—she asked, “So what do you do for a living?”
I told her I was a writer. Her face lit up. She asked me to put my name on her scorecard so she could look me up. So I did, and I wrote down my email address, too. We stayed in touch until she died.
I wish she could have seen Major League Baseball make its triumphant return this year, amidst a deadly pandemic and a virus-ridden world. She would have gotten a kick out of it all.
Because old-timers know that baseball always comes back. There’s just something about it.
It’s a game that defies naysayers. It teaches a kid to cheer instead of complain. And to ignore impossible odds. A game that, for a brief moment in time, transforms me. All of a sudden I’m no longer a middle-aged man, overlooking the cityscape of Charleston from a dingy motel room. I am a child, seated on the lap of my late father, eyes closed, watching a boy’s game on the radio.
A game that only an old soul can fully appreciate.