Tomorrow is opening day in baseball and as always I am as excited now as I was when I was a little boy. Technically there is a game tonight and there have already been two games in Australia this season but for most major league teams tomorrow is officially opening day.
I honestly do not remember the first baseball game I attended but I do remember going to a major league ballpark for the first time. The outfield at Atlanta’s old Fulton County Stadium was so large and vast I couldn’t believe it was real. The grass was so green and luscious. It appeared that every blade was manicured perfectly to match the others. The distance from home plate to the fence in the outfield seemed to be twice as long as I anticipated. Television has a way of making the field look smaller and seem smaller so seeing it for the first time was breathtaking. When the game started I felt like I had been to a hundred baseball games before. The flow of the game was so smooth and flawless and natural to watch in person. Watching a third baseman throw someone out at first was so impressive. Before I thought that was a throw that anyone could make but after watching it in person that throw seemed much longer than I believed it to be. I was in awe watching the pitcher throw the ball to home plate. It was hard to track the ball on some pitches because it didn’t seem like it had left the pitcher’s hand before it was in the catcher’s glove and he was throwing it back to the pitcher. Needless to say I was hooked and that feeling has never left. Even now when I go to games and stand for the national anthem I am always blown away by the serenity and beauty ballparks have. Even with jumbotrons and all the other amenities new ballparks have it has such a classic feel.
This baseball season is going to be different for me. Last September I lost my grandfather who was an avid baseball fan. He graduated from Chattanooga’s Central High School in 1950 and lettered in baseball for 3 years even being the captain in his senior season. He had an opportunity to continue playing but decided not to pursue it, which was something he regretted. I remember being very young and him explaining to me that he probably would not have made it to the major leagues but he felt deep regret over not trying and seeing where it went. He was telling me this at a young age encouraging me to take chances and pursue opportunities that came to me. I remember our conversation like it was yesterday and it is something I won’t soon forget. I remember him telling me a few years ago that when we went to a Braves game together in the early 90s he got extremely emotional during the national anthem. When the stadium announcer informed everyone to stand and asked the gentlemen to remove their caps I simply did it. As I put the hat over my heart my grandfather began to cry. He loved baseball but he also loved his country. He fought in Korea and saw things that he never would talk to me about even though I often asked. The words to the national anthem were different for him than they are for most people. He was so proud of my small act of patriotism.
Throughout the years we always talked about baseball. He had such a unique perspective about the game. Great commentators have the ability to point out nuances in the game that most people do not see or notice. He had that ability and I loved watching games with him for that reason. I loved hearing him talk about old players and old games as well. It was like stepping back in time when he started talking. Last summer I read a Mickey Mantle biography and I talked to him so much about baseball while reading it. Even though his mind was not what it used to be I don’t recall him ever being more cognizant in those last months of his life than when we were talking about Mickey Mantle and those old Yankee teams. It was so nice to share conversations with him like that.
He taught me much more about loving God and loving your family then he ever did about baseball. That statement is a great example of the kind of person he was because he taught me a great deal about baseball. Baseball more than any other sport enables us to bond with each other. Normally when you grow up you remember playing catch with your dad for the first time, I know I do. The pace of the game allows for conversation. I remember going with my dad to a minor league game and him explaining to me what it meant for someone to hit .300. Those conversations are ingrained in my mind deeply and I seemed to be reminded of them every time I attend a game. I really miss my grandfather and I know that although baseball is only a small part of it, it will always remind me of him. This season will be different because I won’t have him to talk to about it but I hope that one day I will have a son that I can talk to about it, and maybe even one day a grandson. One great thing about baseball is if you lose a game there is probably another game tomorrow and you have a chance to get back out there again and try to win. Life is very similar to that. It was really hard to go to work after his death and just get through the day much less try to win. I kept getting out there though and made it through. Like life baseball keeps going and does not stop. I’m reminded of James Earl Jones’ quote in Field of Dreams:
“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and that could be again.”
I’m planning on attending a few baseball games this season and I can’t wait to get there and experience all the things I have missed over the long cold winter. I also know that when I put my hat over my heart for the national anthem I will probably be crying like my grandfather did several years ago.