Tuesday, May 15, 2012

At the old ball game

Getting emotional about baseball is one of the worst cliches of the middle-aged man. Many of us get all blubbery about it for a variety of reasons, the most common of which is that it was the one thing that connected us to our fathers.

That's very true for me, though it wasn't the only thing my dad and I bonded over. We shared a common love for electronic gadgets, stand-up comedy and boxing, among other things. But baseball was pretty high on the list, too.

My dad played years and years of softball, both fast pitch and slow pitch. I was bat boy for a team in the 70s for which my dad was player-manager. Emphasis on "manager" there, as he would only play when absolutely necessary. He also spent years as a softball umpire and fanatical follower of the sport, so he and I spent a lot of time at softball diamonds.

One of the great things about going to softball tournaments with him was the concession stand. He would pretty much buy me whatever I wanted from the concession stand, though fortunately for him I was usually more interested in playing in the dirt or exploring the park.

This, you understand, was back when no one really thought twice about letting an 8- or 9-year-old run off on their own in a public park. You couldn't do that now, and maybe my dad shouldn't have done it then. But he did, and I was fine. And the memories are incredible.

When it comes to baseball, what I really remember about my dad is going to Cleveland Indians games with him. We went to quite a few Indians games back in The Day, and they were almost all bad. Seriously, the Tribe was horrible in those days. Going to a game and seeing them win was a rare and enjoyable treat.

Like a lot of guys (and girls, too, I'm sure), I have especially vivid memories of my first major league game. It was May 1978, and the Indians were playing the Baltimore Orioles. Getting the chance to actually go to old Cleveland Municipal Stadium was exciting, but the undisputed highlight was walking up the tunnel and seeing that field for the first time.

Oh my, was that something. TVs weren't exactly high-definition back then, so I had no idea how green and neatly kept the grass was. And the dirt was so well-manicured. And there was Andre Thornton, my favorite player. HE WAS ACTUALLY STANDING 50 FEET AWAY FROM ME. So were Duane Kuiper, Buddy Bell, Rick Manning and all of the other players on what was, for most everyone else in the world, a mostly forgettable team.

But they were MY team. And baseball at the time was MY game. And I was there with MY dad, who of course bought me a hot dog and a soda. I had such a great time.

You're probably expecting this story to end with an Indians loss, which in the context of my career as a Tribe fan would make perfect sense.  But they actually won. If I remember correctly, Kuiper had a couple of hits and the Indians chased Baltimore starter Dennis Martinez from the game early, like in the third or fourth inning, and we won, 7-5.

Ironically, Martinez would come to Cleveland and pitch for the Indians an amazing 17 years later as a 40-year-old veteran. He was key to the Indians' 1995 World Series run. But that particular night in the spring of 1978, Dennis lost, and there was at least one 8-year-old boy and his father in the stands who couldn't have been happier.

I still love baseball, of course. The Indians still are, and always will be, my favorite team. They haven't won a World Series since 1948, but year after year I put my faith in them, thinking the Law of Averages will serve up a championship at some point in my lifetime (when in fact that makes no mathematical or statistical sense at all...there's no guaranteeing the Indians will EVER win another World Series, in my lifetime or otherwise).

My dad passed away 12 years ago, so it has been a long time since I got the chance to go to a game with him. I miss him. And come to think of it, given how relatively few Indians games we get to these days, I miss baseball, too. Which I suppose is OK. The best games are always the ones with the best memories attached to them anyway.

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