Thursday, March 31, 2011

Opening Day!!

Today is opening day in Major League Baseball. It’s been nearly 6 months since the end of the world series and every day since there has been something missing from my life, something reassuring, comforting, and familiar. I count myself as part of that vanishing breed of Americans who believe that baseball is still America’s pastime. Sure, I know that it really isn’t anymore. I know that most people prefer the flash and violence of football with all of its brute strength, its unhinged personalities and the cheerleaders gyrating on the sidelines. But starting around age 10 every sticky summer night I fell asleep to the crackle and pop of a blue plastic AM radio propped up in my window picking up Ernie Harwell calling a Tigers game or Joe Buck describing the fortunes of the St. Louis Cardinals. And that was after I finished listening to Frank Soden recreating the away games of my hometown Richmond Braves. From a studio somewhere in Church Hill old Frank would describe the action with the aid of cheesy sound effects and canned applause…

“And now Hal Breedan comes up with the bases loaded. The beefy first baseman has had a rough night as he wears an 0 for 3 collar, but if he can launch a long one into the dark Toledo sky right now all will be forgiven!”

Yes..he actually talked that way, and we loved him for it. My brother and I would put that radio in the windowsill and recreate the action in our back yard. Donnie was great at it because he was a switch hitter and could hit the ball a mile. I would follow Frank’s calls to the letter on the mound…

“ …the Rochester right-hander peers in for the sign, gets the one he wants and comes set. He checks the runner at first and deals!!”

Then I would fire the ball in to Donnie who would have to guess whether to swing or take. He had an uncanny ability to guess right. He would swing just as Soden would scream out…

“cut on!!…that’s a high fly ball deep to right center field, its high enough, its far enough…BYE BYE BABY!!”

More often than not the ball that Donnie hit would clear the maple tree, the roof of the house, the road out front, the parking lot of the church and land in scary old Mrs. Lawrence’s field down by the spring. It would take forever to find the ball because the balls we had were so old they had taken on the color of our gloves so we would both kick around in the leaves with one eye on the ground and the other on the Lawrence house up on the hill hoping that the front door didn’t swing open and that crazy old woman didn’t come out with her shotgun.

I suppose when your earliest memories are tied up with a game you’re stuck with it for life. As a kid my heroes were guys like Shawn Fitzmorris, Hal Breedan, Ralph Garr, Darrell Evans and Dusty Baker..all minor league stars who played for my hometown team. Later on I worshiped Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Nolan Ryan, Sandy Koufax and Tom Seaver. By the time my 5th grade teacher let us watch the Mets and Orioles game on the black and white TV during the 1969 world series, I was irretrievably captured never to return. No matter what baseball does I can’t shake it and it has done a lot. The players go on strike. They pump themselves up with steriods and lay waste to the record books. The owners create the designated hitter rule…and still, here I am giddy with joy and expectation for opening day like a fat kid with a box of doughnuts. Play Ball!