It’s an early summer Sunday afternoon, and the movie theaters are closed. I’m stretched out in a chair on the patio with a pleasant breeze, a Bluetooth speaker and a Tervis full of Diet Coke. I open the MLB app on my phone to see who the Cubs are playing, and there’s nothing. Then I remember — there’s no baseball.
I’d curse whoever’s responsible, but there’s really no one to blame. Or maybe there is, although there wasn’t at first. Baseball suffered the same fate as virtually every other institution in March, when the coronavirus pandemic began rolling across the U.S. My friend Andrew was working for the Boston Red Sox, and returned to Dothan for the stay-at-home period since the game had stalled. One night, I asked him if we were going to have baseball this season.
“Oh, yeah,” Andrew said. “The commissioner said there’d definitely be baseball.”
A few days later, the commissioner spoke to the matter again, and was far less optimistic. The pandemic shutdown slid into the muck of labor negotiations. And the manicured diamonds of the major league ballparks remain idle, at least until an anticipated 60-game, truncated season begins next month.
My relationship with baseball is complicated. I’ve always loved the game, as much as is possible given my broad apathy to sporting events. In the summer before the fourth grade, my family, including my maternal grandparents, made the trek to Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium for an afternoon game because Grandmother was a huge Braves fan. The Cubs were in town to face the Braves at home. It was my first major league ballpark, and my first in-person game.
I might’ve gotten the baseball gene from Grandmother. From her chair in her Felder Avenue living room in Montgomery, she watched or listened to every Braves game each season. When the Braves weren’t on, a police scanner blared. The trip to Atlanta was my father’s gift to Grandmother; anyone who loved baseball that much needed to see a game in person.
I remember the game like it was yesterday. Phil Niekro was on the hill; Joe Torre behind the plate. Felipe Alou, who I thought might have been Bob’s brother, was in center field. Hammerin’ Hank Aaron held down right field. It was Helmet Day for fans. No dance from Chief Nok-A-Homa because Hank didn’t knock a homer, but he did score the game’s only run. Braves win 1-0.
I got autographs from Niekro and Torre after the game.
I decided to be a major league player. Maybe a knuckler like Niekro and his brother, Joe, a Cubs pitcher.
I later signed up for youth ball, and got assigned to a team sponsored by WOOF radio. I got a baseball glove, and set out to break it in. I’d heard you needed to put some oil on it and work it in. Mother didn’t cook with oil much; instead she used Crisco or some goop out of a can by the stove. I opened it up, removed the strainer, and got about a tablespoon of bacon grease to work into my new Rawlings glove. It softened up the glove well, and smelled like breakfast all season.
I was issued a gray uniform with WOOF in green on the front, and a green cap. Mother must’ve been dubious of my newfound baseball enthusiasm because we got a pair of cleats at Gaylords instead of Pake-Dyess Sporting Goods. I had the costume; now all I needed was skill, which never came.
I was still fascinated by the game I watched from the dugout. I marveled at the speed of pitchers like Forrest Latta and Alan Hightower. I marveled at the size of a bruise on my thigh that lingered long after I got hit by David Dauphin’s inside pitch at practice one day. But mostly I marveled at how a kid could go to every practice without fail and never improve enough to get off the bench.
It was a dejecting season. I wanted to quit, but my parents wouldn’t let me. I had to finish what I started, they said. It’ll build character, they said. All I really understood was that it was no fun watching everyone else play from the wrong side of the chain link. I never stole third or slid into home. I had one at-bat and struck out. The experience soured me on baseball for decades. I didn’t even want to listen to WOOF radio.
But I’d still always be mesmerized by the cadence of Milo and Ernie on the Braves Radio Network over the dull white noise of an unseen crowd. It was comforting, even if at the end I had no idea who won, or who the opposing team was.
One season riding the bench was enough. I didn’t go to tryouts the next year, even though the coach had called my father and told him he wanted to see how I’d do at catcher. My dad told him he didn’t think I was interested. He was right. Perhaps he could tell that the sizzle of a fastball had the same effect on me as the angry rattle of a snake. I would have failed miserably as a catcher.
But I excel at random baseball ephemera, and am fascinated with ballparks. A tour of Wrigley Field several years ago remains one of the highlights of my life — and I’ve been to Graceland.
There are 311 yards of wool yarn — three different types — wrapped around the cork center of a baseball. The white cowhide is prepared in Tennessee, and the finished balls are taken to the Delaware River by major league teams and rubbed with a particular mud.
Do you know how many stitches are on a baseball? 108 — every one sewn by hand.