M & J-
I feel like it’s the duty of every American to identify the role baseball has played in their lives. Even if you don’t like baseball, you should enthusiastically state the reasons for your opposition to “boys of summer.”
For me, baseball was an early escape. I didn’t really play- I remember having to quit my first tee-ball team for losing my glove after our initial practice. It wasn’t the first time I was enrolled in a sport and pulled out immediately- later that year I had to quit Karate on the first day after peeing my pants because I thought the sensei’s introductory speech on self-discipline meant I should “hold it.”
Baseball became important to me for two reasons. The first was the extraordinary amount of time I used to spend grounded. My only option for entertainment during this time of solitude was reading, but you can only read The Boxcar Children so many times before you start to think you’re the missing sibling of Henry, Jessie, Violet and Bennie. At some point I discovered the writing on the backs of baseball cards could provide their own entertainment. The statistics told stories of efficiency, excellence and overcoming adversity. Some of them listed “fun facts,” or “did-you-knows” on the back. I remember spending countless hours organizing the baseball cards I’d collect by hometown, overall batting average or alphabetically by last name. I’d find the cards here and there, and they became like one page books to me. My favorite book was “Tony Gwynn.” He always had the highest batting averages and the most hits. At the time, he was also the best player on the team geographically nearest to me.
The second reason baseball was important to me is that my grandparents did what millions of other retirees all over America did during the 1990s- they watched the Atlanta Braves on TBS. Every summer my dad would fly me up north to spend a couple of months with my mother’s parents. Every day was the same, Nick Jr and the Price is Right on TV, and then some time outside enjoying the beautiful Wyoming weather before coming inside to eat lunch and then watch their beloved Atlanta Braves. It was hard to not be entertained by the Braves. They were always good, and had classy players that were easy role models. I can still remember the lineups and pitching rotations of almost every team they put out in the 90’s. They had a tiny guy on the bench named Rafael Belliard who would only play every 3 days or so, and was famous for having only one home run in his entire career. We’d roar with laughter and burst into applause if he ever popped the ball up into the middle of the outfield. “Must’ve had his Wheaties today!” squealed my grandmother. It was funny every time.
You may wonder where I’m going with all this. I told you that story so that I could tell you this one- back in 1993, the Braves did something that was considered incredibly rare for them: They brought a young kid by the name of “Chipper” Jones up from the minor leagues at age 21. The Braves usually had so much talent on the roster that it was hard for players in their minor league system to get called up to the majors. When they called up Chipper, who was the youngest player in all of baseball at that time, my grandparents knew this kid was special. They practically adopted him as their unofficial 6th child. Over time, he became the heart of an ever-competitive Braves team, and in a league where players often spend time on a few different teams during the course of their career, Chipper remained a Brave. Once a year, my Grandparents would drive down to Denver to watch Chipper play in person against the Colorado Rockies. After a while, I started to purchase tickets to go see the Braves any time they came to Phoenix to play the Diamondbacks.
Toward the end of the 2008- the first year in 38 seasons that TBS didn’t broadcast the games, my grandfather passed away. Just before the 2009 season, my grandmother followed. I don’t really watch the Braves anymore. They were never my favorite team, I just enjoyed watching the games with Buddy and Kathleen. Now, watching Atlanta just reminds me that my grandparents aren’t around anymore.
Last Friday, I came home and turned on the one-game playoff between The St. Louis Cardinals and The Atlanta Braves. I did this knowing that if the Braves lost, this would be the final game of Chipper’s career. It came down to the final inning- the Braves were down 3 runs with one out before their season would end, and Chipper came up to the plate. I felt sick with anticipation of my own flood of emotions that would result in the end of an era that meant not only were my grandparents gone, but something I used to share with them is gone too. Watching the at-bat was torturous. Win or lose, I just wanted the proverbial band-aid to be ripped off quickly. The crowd was roaring “CHI-PPER! CHI-PPER! CHI-PPER!” when all of the sudden he hit a ball up the middle that the Cardinals mishandled, and Jones was safe at first. I thought I’d be overcome with sadness, but instead, I found myself jumping up and down with tears of joy running down my cheeks. Instead of the solemn end of an era, I got one last reminder of the celebrations of yesteryear.
A few minutes later the Braves had lost, and I was left to think about the things we bond over as family members. My sister loves Marilyn Monroe, my brother loves monster trucks- and anything I know about those two subjects has come from my desire to be a part of what interests them. So far in your young lives, my interest in dinosaurs and The Avengers comes from your collective enthusiasm. Baseball may never be an interest of yours, but whatever your interest is, I’ll be there to support it.