They were calling for rain. But no rain came. Yet.
The umpires stood on the field, clad in clerical black, staring at the sky, palms facing upward. Modern-day soothsayers.
The sky was the color of a battleship. The air was damp and sticky.
“It is definitely going to rain,” I said.
“Not necessarily,” said an old man nearby. “This is Georgia. Our weather changes its mind quicker than our politicians.”
Meantime, the ballpark was slammed with fans. Young and old. Male and female. The johnny-come-latelys, and the clinically deranged zealots. We were all waiting to see whether the opening day of baseball in Atlanta would be delayed by Mother Nature.
Opening day in Truist Park is an event not unlike a typical papal installation.
Braves fans wander the park in chaos. There are team jerseys galore. Suburban dads wear T-shirts that read, “I am a Braves-A-Holic.” Suburban mothers wear shirts that said “I am married to a Braves-A-Holic.” Everyone has a beer.
“I was 20 years old when the Braves first came to Atlanta,” said the old man. “I was in the Army.”
The old man was leaning over a guardrail, overlooking the Braves’ bullpen. He was vaping, although this is against park rules. He wore a Braves ballcap that predated the Mesozoic era.
“It was 1966,” he said. “I was living in Fulton County when they said we were getting a baseball team.”
The Milwaukee Braves made their debut in Atlanta one sunny day in mid-April. Lyndon Johnson was in the White House. There were 500,000 troops in Vietnam. The top grossing movie was “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”
The man attended opening day at Fulton County Stadium along with 50,671 other spectators. He remembers it well. The Pittsburgh Pirates were the visiting team. Not a seat was vacant. The air was pure cigar fog. It was a Tuesday.
“Tony Cloninger was pitching,” he said. “That man pitched a 13-inning complete game.” The old man’s blue eyes were bright. “Ain’t never seen ANYONE pitch 13 innings. Didn’t know such a thing could be done.”
Hank Aaron was in right. Eddie Matthews played third. Joe Torre was catcher. It was quite a day.
“Quite a day indeed,” he said.
Shortly thereafter the man got shipped off to North Vietnam. While he was overseas, armed forces radio occasionally broadcast ballgames. Sometimes, he even got to listen to the Braves.
“It was like being back home. These Braves got me through.”
When the man got back on U.S. soil, he married his high-school sweetheart. Whereupon his wife joined in his sports obsession and officially became one of the hapless and tormented souls we call Braves fans.
The old man has endured every Braves era. He was there for the lean years, when q Braves outfielders was like Michael Jackson; he wore one glove and didn’t use it.
The old man was there for each World Series run. Each National League victory. He saw salaries go from $6000 per year to $12 million.
“My wife never missed a game.”
He removed a mobile phone from his back pocket. He fumbled with it until he found a black-and-white photo of a young man and young woman.
“That’s her,” he said. “That was my Caroline.”
Her hair was in a flipped bob cut. His was buzzed. In the photo, the couple stood before a Pontiac GTO, smiling goofily, the way children do when they get hitched.
His Caroline got pancreatic cancer three years ago. The disease moved fast. She passed suddenly. One month he was taking her out to dinner in Atlanta, the next month he was standing at a graveside, pitching handfuls of earth onto a casket.
“I didn’t even know how to cook for myself,” he said. “Didn’t know how to pay my own bills. I’m so lost without her.”
There were tears in his eyes, but he choked them back like a good soldier.
He admits that he probably would have never left his house if it hadn’t been for baseball.
A few years ago the old man’s daughter bought him Braves tickets. His kids forced him to attend games regularly. At first he resisted. But eventually, going to games became his ritual. Baseball helped him grieve. It was an escape.
“I just feel good here,” he said. “That’s why I keep coming. I feel better when I’m here. I mean, look at all these people. There’s not a sad person in the bunch.”
The umpires finally decided it wasn’t going to rain. Soon, opening day festivities were underway. The music was loud. The people were louder.
I watched the old man sing the national anthem with his cap solemnly held over his sternum. And once again, the joy of God’s favorite game has arrived in Atlanta. Hallelujah.
Braves win; 7-6.
Dee Thompson - April 8, 2023 4:36 pm
Beautiful! I remember going to the Braves game in 1966 on Old Timer’s Day, when they honored my grandfather Bob Hasty, who pitched for Philadelphia from 1919-1924. I still have the program from that game, and from the next Old Timer’s game in 1967. I didn’t know my grandfather was famous until I heard the crowd applauding and cheering, and I saw Papa in his uniform… When they were fixing to tear down Fulton County Stadium in 1996 I went to the last game and just cried through the game. So many memories.
pattymack43 - April 8, 2023 6:30 pm
I am one of “those people” who is not a baseball fan; however, I LOVED your story!!! Keep them coming! Blessings!!