I grew up in an era when baseball could, without any reservation, lay claim to the title: America’s Pastime. I realize that the game of baseball is still often referred to in that way, but the reality is that in the intervening years, the National Football League and the game of professional football has replaced baseball as the most popular sport in America.
While I thoroughly enjoy both sports, there’s just something very special about sitting in the sun on a warm spring or summer afternoon, eating a bag of peanuts or Cracker Jack, while watching a baseball game. I don’t care if it’s a high school, college, or major league game, the action on the field, the crack of a bat meeting the ball, and smell of grass and dirt touches something inside of me.
When I was six years old, my family moved to Tampa, Florida where we lived for a brief period of time. Even at that age, all of my friends and I lived and breathed baseball. We played the game every spring and summer, we spent every nickle and dime that we could find on packets of baseball cards and gum, and spent countless hours sitting and chewing in the shade of the front porch as we pored over those cards, trading them, and reading the statistics of our favorite players.
During games, I usually played third base. But I also caught from time to time. When I was at third, I always imagined myself to be Eddie Matthews, the third baseman for the Milwaukee Braves. Behind the plate, I immediately morphed into none other than Yogi Berra. As far as I was concerned, there was no better catcher in all of baseball.
In February 1958, my Dad took a day off from work and along with my mother, drove my brother and I across the bay over into St. Petersburg to Al Lang Field. This was truly a pilgrimage to holy ground as far as I was concerned.
At that time, Al Lang Field was the spring training home of the New York Yankees and had been since 1952. I remember driving across the causeway connecting Tampa to St. Pete. I can only imagine how excited I must have been at the prospect of being on my way to watch Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Hank Bauer, Whitey Ford, and Elston Howard take on the St Louis Cardinals in a spring training game. These players, who until that time I’d only seen on television and on baseball cards, were actually going to be on the field right in front of me playing the game I that I was already beginning to love. To have said that I was awe struck would have been a gross understatement.
I remember that afternoon as if it were yesterday. My mother brought along our Kodak 8mm camera. I still have several three minute long reels of home movies showing Mickey, Yogi, and even the venerable Casey Stengel, manager of the Yankees, warming up just in front of our field level seats. To me those movies, and the images which they contain, are priceless.
After that game, it would be nearly 25 years before I would see another major league baseball game live. Sometime around 1983, I took a group of employees to Atlanta to watch the Braves take on the Philadelphia Phillies. That was another memorable day for me because I was able to watch Pete Rose play. While it was special in its own way, it will never replace the memories I have of that February afternoon in 1958.
Spring training is just getting underway again. Games will start to be played later this week in both Florida and Arizona as the Grapefruit and Cactus leagues get underway.
I hope that at every game, there will be Moms, Dads, and sons sitting together in the bleachers sharing what will, for them, become their own lifetime memories.
Images from OrlandoSentinel.com and MyYesNetwork.com