- Special Sections
- Public Notices
A steamy Sunday afternoon in early August, 1963. Crosley Field, the old baseball park in Cincinnati, and the Pirates are in town to play the Reds in that long lost treasure called the “Sunday doubleheader.”
Both teams just a couple of years removed from playing the Yankees in the World Series. The Pirates have Roberto Clemente, Series hero Bill Mazeroski and Willie Stargell, Hall-of-Famers- in-waiting. The Reds aren’t a “big machine” in those days, but they have Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, Joe Nuxhall and a flat-topped, ever-moving rookie named Pete Rose, who gets three of his record 4,256 career hits.
A boy not yet 10 watches the magic of his first major-league game unfold. His mom, dad and younger brother are there. He drinks lemonade and tries something called brats and keeps score in pencil on a 10-cent card. He watches outfielders chase fly balls up that odd embankment that served as a warning track at Crosley. He wishes one of the pitchers warming up in the Pirates’ nearby bullpen would toss him a ball.
He sort of roots for the Reds, the team two hours up the road from the sandlots where he chases his own dreams. That’s the team whose games he hears on his transistor radio, whose ups and downs are chronicled in the daily newspapers.
But forget all of that. This special day so long ago isn’t about winning or losing or loyalty. This is a baptism, the day the great game of baseball washes over him and dyes his wool for the rest of his days.
He is – cue James Earl Jones’ voice – a baseball fan.
Skip forward more than a few years to another sunny day, this one in May. That baseball-immersed boy sits at the Great American Ballpark, an intimate stadium two generations removed from Crosley Field. He is four rows behind the dugout of his favorite team, the Atlanta Braves, and they are playing his game before more than 30,000 on a resolutely wonderful day.
There is a magical, almost cosmic connection between these two days 50 years apart. There have been thousands of baseball games in between, visits to dozens of major-league parks, seats in observance of some of the game’s great and wonderful moments, including the boy’s first three World Series games at old Riverfront Stadium.
But if there is to be a lifetime’s final visit to a ballpark, the one celebrated a week ago would be a fitting bottom of the ninth. The Braves win, there are four homers, one a grand slam, and a 10-year-old in front of him actually catches a ball flipped into the stands by Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons.
To understand this connection you must understand the care and breeding of this baseball fan. He was lured to the sport by his mother, whose connection to many sports is like a DNA strain. She loved Mickey Mantle and the Yankees, and thus did the boy, although he was maybe 7 or 8 before he ever saw the great Mick limp to the plate on a grainy black-and-white TV as the great Dizzy Dean narrated. Yet, Mickey and the Yankees were his team as surely as UK or UofL are yours. It was fact. He devoured the books, magazines and newspapers and tried to consume every bit of info he could about the team and its players. He wanted an impossible-to-find navy cap and a pinstriped something.
But as surely as those Yankees were the muscle of his baseball fanhood, the Reds formed its ligaments. They were close, and they were more real than the Game of the Week. He knew the Reds’ players and read all the episodes of frustration between that Series loss to the Yanks in 1961 and their next World Series, which was with that Big Machine in 1970, when the he listened via the intercom at Shelby County High School. He was proud, even though the Reds lost again.
A few years after that, baseball changed. It became a money sport. It turned ugly. Values eroded at every turn, and this inured fan sadly watched as the Yankees became the billboard for the new culture and the Reds ultimately succumbed to it, trading great stars rather than paying them the going rate. And the fan, no longer a boy, was sad.
That drew him to the Braves, who in the 1970s were a woeful and inept embryo of the successful dynasty of the past 20-plus years. He watched them on cable TV and embraced them in the way you hug lovable losers. He lived in the South and built loyalty to the South’s team, America’s team, continuing his follow-the-team-and-memorize-the-nuance support.
Which brings us back to Row 4 at the Great American Ballpark.
If the boy’s mother created him as a baseball fan, she also ensured he got to see that first major-league game and his second and his third and probably his fourth. She understood that immersion and wanted to give him the chance to see the game at its highest level. She arranged, sacrificed and persevered and beamed at the boy’s joy.
Last week it was that boy’s wife who created the day at the ballpark. She got those fabulous tickets, took a day off from a very busy job, arranged for the kids to be picked up at school and tolerated the boy’s narration of hitters and trends and moves and activities.
A baseball fan was born of a mother.
A baseball legacy was borne of the mother of his children.
Mothers everywhere help their sons grow in sports and life. Two helped this boy bookend a collection of memories that could fill a stadium-sized library.
Mother’s Day is a few days past, but, my, what a wonderful gift they gave him.
What great thanks he owes to these mothers.