Baseball is a special gift passed on by dads to their sons, and their daughters, too (though not in my experience, with three sons and no daughters). No one like me, who lost their father, before having kids, can easily forget the scene, in “Field of Dreams”, when Kevin Kostner, as Ray Kinsella, gets to introduce his dad to his grandkids. On a ball field, where they can have a catch. I’ve been to that ball field, in Dyersville, Iowa, where I had a catch, and thought of my Dad, and my kids.
My Dad remembered seeing Lou Gehrig, his favorite player, hit a long home run to centerfield off of the Philadelphia Athletics in Shibe Park, between the LF grandstand and the flagpole, a distance that was 447 feet when I much later saw Phillies games in what became Connie Mack Stadium. The distance was even longer, back when Lou was still playing.
I got to see Johnny Callison, then my favorite player, hit an inside-the-park home run in old Connie Mack Stadium, when his long fly ball landed on a catwalk at the bottom of the RF scoreboard, and bounced, as the opposing right-fielder jumped and swatted desperately at it. Nothing quite like an inside-the-park HR.
I attended the first game at Philadelphia Veterans Stadium, in 1971, and later each of my sons would see many games there. Ben and I saw Chase Utley hit his first major league HR – a grand slam! Ben and I also were at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium, to see Wilson Alvarez of the White Sox pitch a no-hitter against the Orioles. My son James somehow became a fan of the old Montreal Expos of the mid-1990’s, with Tim Raines, Andres Galaraga, Dennis Martinez. And my youngest, Michael, was with me when Citizens Bank Park opened with an exhibition game against the Indians, on a cold rainy day. We thought the game would be called, and headed up late, when we heard it was still on, just delayed by the storm. Most fans stayed away, and we were free to wander about the stadium and explore.
What I remember of that first visit to the new ball park is that first glimpse of the impossibly green field, under the lights on a gray blustery day, looking inviting and perfect. So improbable amidst the brick and concrete and iron in an industrial area. So much like the first view of the magical green field at Connie Mack Stadium, just as incongruous, in the middle of North Philadelphia row houses and urban decay. As a kid I could not quite believe that was real grass and dirt, so my Dad took me down to the field after the game. On that cold rainy day opening Citizens Bank Park, I could attribute those tears in my eyes to the wind, and not the pure joy I was feeling.
One night, as a kid, I went to a game at Connie Mack with my Dad. He drove one of his big Buicks, and we arrived early enough (or the crowd was small enough) to park in the lot next to the stadium. Parking spots were scarce, so the cars were parked head-to-toe, which meant that no one could leave early, or until the driver of the car ahead appeared. After the game we hustled down to the lot, only to find that the car had a flat tire. The cars were packed so close together that Dad could not find room to use the jack or remove the tire. We waited until everyone else had made their way out, honking at us, leaving us in a big empty parking lot.
As my Dad finally worked on replacing the tire, he noticed a door open across the street at the ball park, and two figures emerge. He told me they must be ballplayers, so why not take our scorecard and get an autograph? Needless to say, I ran over and asked. One of the guys bent down and signed. I ran back, and in the dim light inside the Buick, my Dad read “Ray Culp” – a solid if unspectacular right-handed pitcher who would go on to have a long career. I was pretty proud. Then my Dad asked, “Why didn’t you ask the other guy too?” And I froze. No idea. I was too excited. I asked my Dad if he knew who that was. “Jim Bunning”, my Dad laughed. The year was 1964, and Jim Bunning had pitched a perfect game, and was leading the Phils in the pennant race that would culminate in a legendary collapse. But all I could think of was what I had just missed. My Dad gave me a hug and said, “next time”. Jim Bunning went on the become a United States Senator from Kentucky. Ah, no autograph.
I’ll post a recent photo of my sons and me at a Phillies game, still living the dream. They know that I will not leave a game early, no matter what. It’s the nature of the game itself. No matter how far the Phils are behind, something special might happen – – an inside-the-park home run, or a triple play, or maybe just the debut AB of a guy who ends up in the HOF.
Here’s an example why my sons know not to ask to leave early. Years ago, before they were born, I attended by first (and last, regrettably) Grateful Dead concert, in Williamsburg, Virginia. Driving back north that night, we got as far as Richmond, Virginia. The next morning, at breakfast, I happened to read in the local paper that the irrepressible Jim Bouton was attempting a comeback with the Braves. So of course we went to the afternoon game, with the Rochester Red Wings. Bouton sat in the bullpen and didn’t pitch. But we did see a rare 5-4-3 around the horn triple play on a ground ball. A Dead concert and a triple play in less than 24 hours!