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Baseball and My Life: A Spiritual Journey

“Baseball is a curious anomaly in American life. It seems to have been ingrained in people in their childhood…. Baseball is, after all, a boy’s game, and children are innocent of evil. So even adults who are prejudiced revert to their childhood when they encounter a baseball player and they react with the purity of little children.” Jackie Robinson Baseball Has Done It

I feel closeness to God at the ballpark that after Iraq is hard for me to find in many other places.  For me there is a mystery, magic about a ballpark that just isn’t there for the other sports.  With the opening of baseball season I am soaking in the pleasantness of the game.  The past two nights I have had the television on with baseball games.  It is so much more peaceful and edifying than the deluge of political talk and reality shows that are the staple of entertainment now days.

For me the other sports can grab my momentary attention but because of their nature cause them to be merely ordinary and occasionally interesting.  Baseball is another matter, it is more than a game. As George Will said “Baseball, it is said, is only a game. True. And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona. Not all holes, or games, are created equal.” For me baseball is a metaphor for life, a spiritual experience and a game that mirrors life and faith in many ways. For me this goes back to childhood.

As a kid my dad made me learn the fundamentals of the game and whether we were attending a game in person, watching one on television or playing catch, pepper or practicing infield or pitching in the back yard or in a park, dad was all about the game.  Of course he was the same way with football, hockey, basketball and golf, but the sport that he seemed most passionate about was baseball.  As a kid dad was a Cincinnati Reds fan and as we moved West he became a solid San Francisco Giants fan.

 

My mom went along to many games while we were in Anaheim and she lives and dies with the Giants. My mom was a Navy Wife and back then there were not nearly the support structures that we have today and Navy wives had to be wear many hats.  One of those hats was being my chauffeur and number one fan. When my dad was deployed to Vietnam when we were in Stockton she would take me to my Little League games and shuttle me and my friends to Billy Herbert Field to see the Stockton Ports.

My dad’s mother, my grandmother who hailed from the hollers of West Virginia was a die hard Los Angeles Dodgers fan. I still wonder how a woman from West Virginia became a Dodgers’ fan but she was incredibly independent.  My grandfather was killed in a trucking accident when my dad was a small child leaving Granny a widow with two young boys to raise.

She was a single parent and for a while lived with family as she established herself. It was the late 1930s and she went to work, raised her two boys and bought her own house.  Unlike most people in West Virginia at that time she was a Republican. This was long before West Virginia ever voted for a Republican either President or statewide office. True to form Granny was a Dodgers fan in a land of Reds, Indians and Pirates fans, fierce and independent.  I have to admire her perseverance but as a Giants fan I cannot fathom her being a fan of the Evil Dodgers. Despite having fallen under the spell of the Dark Lords of Chavez Ravine Granny was a real baseball fan. Any time you went to Granny’s house and there was a game on, the television was tuned in to it. When she visited us in Texas in the early 1990s we went to a Texas Rangers game but it was called because of tornados and severe thunder storms.

I can say that thanks to my dad, mom and grandmother that I was immersed in baseball from an early age and when we got to a place where dad could take us to ball games on a regular basis he did.

Dad always made sure that we got to see baseball wherever we lived. In 1967 he took us to see the Seattle Pilots during their first and only season in that fair city before they went to Milwaukee and became the Brewers.  In the elementary schools of those days many our teachers would put the playoff and World’s Series games on the TV as many of those games were played during daylight hours.  I remember watching Bob Gibson pitch when the Cardinals played against the Red Sox in the 1967 series.  It was awesome to see that man pitch.   I remember the Amazing Mets upsetting the Orioles in 1969 and the Orioles take down the Reds in 1970. I will never forget the 1970 All Star Game where Pete Rose ran over Ray Fosse at home plate for the winning run and the great dynasty teams of the 1970s, especially the Reds and the Athletics who dominated much of that decade and the resurgence of the Yankees in the summer that the Bronx burned.

When we were stationed in Long Beach California dad had us at Anaheim stadium all the time.  I imagine that we attended at least 20 games there in 1970 and another 25-30 in 1971 as well as a couple at Dodger stadium that year.  We met a lot of the Angel players at community events and before the games. I entered the “My Favorite Angel” contest and my entry was picked as a runner up. This netted me two seats behind the plate and having Dick Enberg announced my name on the radio.  I wrote about Jim Spencer a Gold Glove First Baseball who later played for the Yankees.  I still have a hat from that team with numerous autographs on the inside of the bill including Sandy Alomar, Jim Spencer, Jim Fregosi, Chico Ruiz, and Billy Cowan. It was a magical time for a 10 year old boy.

When we moved to Stockton California dad took us to see the A’s dynasty teams including a number of playoff games.  But he also took us across San Francisco Bay to watch the Giants.  I got to see Ed Halicki of the Giants no-hit the Mets a Candlestick on August 24th 1975.  In Anaheim, Oakland and San Francisco I got to see some of the greats of the era play in those stadiums, Catfish, Reggie, McCovey, Garvey, Vida Blue, Harmon Killebrew and so many others.

I became acquainted with Minor League Baseball when we moved to Stockton in1971. At the time the Stockton Ports were the Class A California League farm team for the Baltimore Orioles.  I remember a few years back talking to Orioles great Paul Blair who played for the Ports in the early 1960s about Billy Hebert Field and how the sun would go down in the outfield blinding hitters and spectators in its glare.  I became a closet Orioles fan back then and today I have a renewed interest in the Orioles because of their affiliation with the Norfolk Tides.  The retired GM of the Tides, Dave Rosenfield has told me about his young days in the California League and time at Billy Hebert Field in the 1950s.

As I have grown older my appreciation for the game only deepens despite strikes and steroids and other problems that plague the game at the major league level.  I am in awe of the game and the diamond on which it is played.  I have played catch on the field of dreams, seen a game in the Yankee Stadium Right Field bleachers, seen a no-hitter, playoff games and met many players. I’ve watched the game in Japan, seen historic moments when deployed to combat zones in and have thrown out the first pitch in a couple of minor league games.

I am enchanted with the nearly spiritual aspects of the game. The foul lines theoretically go on to infinity, only broken by the placement of the outfield wall.  Likewise unlike all other sports there is no time limit, meaning that baseball can be an eschatological game going on into eternity. The Hall of Fame is like the Calendar of Saints in the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican Churches.  There are rituals, the exchange of batting orders and explanation of the ground rules, the ceremonial first pitch, players not stepping on the foul line when entering and leaving the field of play, no talking about it when a pitcher is throwing a no-hitter and the home run trot. The care of a field by an expert ground crew is a thing to behold, especially when they still use the wooden box frames to lay down the chalk on the baselines and the batters box.

My kitchen and much of my dining room are as close to a baseball shrine as Judy will let me make them.  My apartment where I am stationed is another shrine to baseball with baseball artifacts throughout.

Since I returned from Iraq the baseball diamond is one of my few places of solace. When I was stationed in Norfolk I had season tickets behind home plate at Harbor Park.  At the end of the 2010 season I was transferred to Camp LeJeune and still have a bit over a year before I can go back to them. Last year I was able to take in a good number of Kinston Indians games but since that team was sold and moved I won’t get to see too many games in person this year. I am hoping to arrange my work schedule to be able to see the Tides Home Opener on Monday.  If I can do that I will sit back in whatever seat I can get and imagine the words of James Earl Jones in Field of Dreams:

“The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good, and what could be again.”

In a sense those word say it all to me. Despite war, economic crisis and political division they are also a prayer.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Gift My Dad Gave to Me: Baseball and the Mystery of Life

The Big A

This post is an updated and edited version of an article that I published here in 2009.  It is something that I come back to often because it deals with my dad and the influence that he had on my life especially in giving me a gift, the gift of baseball something that almost more than anything else which been a bastion of peace since I returned from Iraq in 2008.

Baseball, it is said, is only a game. True. And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona. Not all holes, or games, are created equal.” George Will

Basketball, hockey and track meets are action heaped upon action, climax upon climax, until the onlooker’s responses become deadened.  Baseball is for the leisurely afternoons of summer and for the unchanging dreams.  Roger Kahn

Baseball has always been a source of enjoyment for me.  I’ve noted in numerous other posts that God speaks to me through baseball.  For me there is something mystical about the game.  It extends beyond the finite world in some respects and there is symmetry to the sport unlike any other.  George Will’s quote at the beginning of this post is dead on.  Not all holes or games are created equal.

Though I had played Little League Ball in the 1960s and well as a lot of backyard or sandlot games, it was during the 1970-1971 season when my dad began taking us to California Angels games while stationed in Long Beach California that the game really captured me.  The seed of course had been planted by him long before when we watched games on a black and white TV and going to see the Seattle Pilots in their inaugural and final season back in 1969 and in our back yard when he taught me to throw, field and run the bases. He tried to teach me to hit, but that didn’t work too well as I never hit above the Mendoza line in any organized league. The only mistake he made, a mistake that my kindergarten teacher also made was to turn me from a natural lefty to a right hander.  I think that this is one of the reasons that I am as warped as I am.  Bill “Spaceman” Lee once said “You have two hemispheres in your brain – a left and a right side. The left side controls the right side of your body and right controls the left half. It’s a fact. Therefore, left-handers are the only people in their right minds.” In a sense my mind has been at war with my body since kindergarten but at least I am in my right mind.  In spite of that he did turn me into a pretty good pitcher something that unfortunately my Little League coaches never noticed.

While my dad thrived on all sports, baseball was the one that he gave me as a gift.  He gave my brother golf, another spiritual game, which Zen master’s love.  But Gold is not to be compared with baseball because it is not a team sport though individual accomplishment is key to both and neither

Growing up with baseball was something that I cannot imagine have not done.  It was part of life from as far back as I can remember and this was because dad made it so.  It kind of reminds me of the beginning of the movie For the Love of the Game where home movies of a child playing ball with dad are shown during the opening credits and score.  I can close my eyes and remember vivid details of ball fields and backyards where dad would play catch with me play pepper and fungo and teach me to pitch.  He never did much with hitting except turn me around at the plate.  When I had him in a brief lucid moment when I visited in May of 2009 when he was markedly deteriorating from Alzheimer’s disease and I thanked him for teaching me to love the game. I told him I still heard his voice telling me to keep my butt down on ground balls and that he did not teach me to hit.  He simply said “you can’t teach someone to hit, it’s a gift, lots of people can’t hit.”

In 1970 we moved to Long Beach California where we lived about 15 minutes from Anaheim Stadium, the home of the then named California Angels.  Back then Anaheim Stadium was called “the Big A” due to the scoreboard shaped like a large “A” with a halo ringing the top in left center field.  Dad took us to more games than I can count and the times there were simply magical.  It was and still is a wonderful place to watch a game.  Back then access to players was easy.  I met players, got signed balls and hats, and was even selected as a runner up in the “My Favorite Angel” contest.  For that I met my favorite Angel, First Baseman Jim Spencer a Golden Glove Winner who later played for the White Sox and Yankees, and two tickets behind home plate.  Now I find that I have a hard time sitting anywhere except behind home plate and when I had season tickets at Norfolk’s Harbor Park that is where I sat.

When we moved to northern California we reconnected with the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A’s.  This was during the A’s dynasty years and we saw a number of games including an ALCS game against the Tigers.  To be able to watch the greats like Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, Rollie Fingers, Campy Campaneris and Vida Blue was awesome but our first love was the Giants.  We only occasionally got to Candlestick Park where they played in those days because it was a lot more difficult to get to from Stockton as opposed to Oakland.  Candlestick if you have ever been there is a miserable place to see a baseball game if for no other reason that it is colder than hell, if hell were cold.   One game we did see was Ed Halicki’s no-hitter against the Mets in 1975.

Me with Angel’s Manager Lefty Phillips in 1970

Minor League ball became a part of my life around the same time. While dad was deployed to Vietnam my mom would drop me off at Billy Herbert Field in Stockton California so I could see the Stockton Ports who at the time the California League single “A” affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles.  Those games were always fun.  I remember talking to Orioles great Paul Blair when he visited a military base that I was serving and he told me how he remembered playing in Stockton as a minor leaguer.

In junior high school I switched to hockey and in high school football and never played organized baseball again falling to the temptation to do what the popular people were doing.  In college I played softball where I did hit better and I always longed to be either playing in or watching a game.  I did get to a few Dodger’s games when attending California State University at Northridge and although I am not a Dodger’s fan I remember their World Series comeback against the Yankees and I have always thought that Vin Scully painted the best verbal picture of a ballgame and season that has ever been done.

I like other sports but they do not hold me captive the way baseball does.  I think there is the nearly spiritual dimension baseball which gives it a timeless and sometimes other worldly dimension.  I find that other sports such as football, basketball, hockey and soccer are limited in this aspect.  Baseball yards are all different, with the exception of the infield dimensions there is a great variance allowed to designers.  The other sports are limited to rectangular playing surfaces of set dimensions determined by their leagues. With the exception of a few old hockey rinks which have smaller playing surfaces there is no individuality to these venues, save perhaps for team or sponsor logos and the quality of the seating.  Likewise all of the other sports play a set time clock which determines much of what happens during the game giving these sports an almost industrial feeling where baseball is not bound by time. In the other major team sports if a team gets way ahead early, it is likely that they will win the game.  While it is possible that a game could go into “overtime” the overtime in these games often has different rules than regulation time.  “Sudden death” “Shootouts” and truncated times show that these games are not meant to go past regulation time.  It is an aberration from what is considered “normal.” In these games a team with a big lead can simply sit on the ball and run out the clock.  

Baseball is not like that.  Legendary Orioles Manager Earl Weaver put it well: “You can’t sit on a lead and run a few plays into the line and just kill the clock. You’ve got to throw the ball over the damn plate and give the other man his chance. That’s why baseball is the greatest game of them all.” In order to win a baseball game you have to throw the ball over the plate and give the other team a chance to come back. A baseball game in theory might not ever end and I have been to a number that I thought had some eschatological dimensions.  W.P. Kinsella’s novel The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, depicts a game that is patently eschatological, though not in a pre-millennial dispensationalist manner between the 1908 Cubs and a semi-pro team in Iowa. The game which is recorded by a young man who steps into a time warp on a country road goes on for well over 2000 innings eventually provoking the intervention of a Native American deity.  In baseball the foul lines in theory go on for eternity and only the arbitrary placement of the outfield wall and the physical limitation of hitters keep the game within earthly limits.  I’m sure that the outfield in heaven is a lot more spacious and has a much more wonderful playing surface than is even imaginable for us on this terrestrial ball.

Baseball stadiums all have their own distinct design and personality. Save for the late 1960s and early 1970s when fascists took over the design of stadiums in order to make them suitable places to play football, baseball parks have had maintained their individuality.  It is a pity that some of the great parks have disappeared, Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium to name a few are gone but new parks have recaptured the magic.  Outfield dimensions, type of grass, the kind of infield and warning track soil which is used, are all determined by the team.  Some fields cater to hitters, others pitchers.  And with the overthrow of the stadium fascists at Baltimore’s Camden Yards, the baseball park regained its dignity.  Gone were the ugly, drab oval stadiums, fields covered in often shoddy artificial turf.  The unsightly and even hideous venues such as Riverfront, Three Rivers, Veteran’s Stadium and others, even dare I say the Astrodome and Kingdome were demolished and made nice piles of rubble, replaced by beautiful ballparks each with its own unique character that reflect the beauty of the game.

In 2009 and 2010 I was blessed to be a season ticket holder at Norfolk’s Harbor Park home of the Norfolk Tides.  Harbor Park was one of the first of the new generation of minor league parks and a wonderful place to see a game, or as I like to say “Worship at the Church of Baseball.”   When Harbor Park was built the Tides were affiliated with the New York Mets. As such the outfield dimensions are nearly identical to the former Shea Stadium, making it a very large yard and pitchers playground.  The outfield backs up to the East Fork of the Elizabeth River, shipyards and bridges dominate the view.  There is not a bad seat in the house.

With every home game the gift that my father gave me begins to unfolded again as I gazed in wonderment at the diamond.  This year is different; my dad passed away last year but up to a year before his death he still knew enough of what was going on to talk about baseball, especially the San Francisco Giants while  bad mouthing the American League. Dad was always National League fan and he loathes the designated hitter. He used to call the American League the “minor league.”  Likwise I do not have my season tickets in Norfolk since I am now stationed at Camp LeJeune North Carolina, but I will get up to a number of games including Norfolk’s home opener next Saturday.

When I was a child he told me stories about the greats of his childhood and he was an avid fan of Pete Rose, he loved his high intensity play and hustle, something that he passed on to me. I can still recall him yelling at me to “get your butt down,” “stay in front of the ball,” “hustle down the line any time you hit the ball” and “don’t be afraid to run over a catcher or go in hard to break up a double play.”   Rose’s banishment from baseball for gambling hit him hard.  I guess it was for him like the banishment of “Shoeless Joe” Jackson and for me the agony of the Steroid Era which was a stain on game but now is now history. Unfortunately it is being used by self-righteous politicians a bureaucrats to make baseball and baseball players look bad so they can look good.   At this point I say reinstate Shoeless Joe and Pete Rose and stop with the endless illegal leaks of documents and alleged positive tests of players whose names are being leaked out one or two at a time.  I think my dad would say the same now, if only he could.

Tomorrow I will take in an afternoon game at Grainger Stadium in Kinston North Carolina. It is the home of the Kinston Indians, or the K-Tribe, the Advanced Single “A” affiliate of the Cleveland Indians in the Carolina League. It will be nice to take in a game, even if not at Norfolk.

Dad gave me a gift, a gift called the game, the game of baseball.  Sure, it’s only just a game.  Right… Baseball is only a game in the sense of the Grand Canyon just being a hole in the ground and the Pacific Ocean a pond.  I’m sure that the Deity Herself must agree.

Peace, Steve+

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Road Trip to See the Stockton Ports

Bakersfield Blaze outfielder David Paisano slides in ahead of the throw to third in the 1st inning

With my dad’s memorial service now in the past and having done all that I can do in fighting through government and business bureaucracies I went to see my old “home town” team play at Banner Island Park. As you all know by now baseball is one of the few things that help bring order to my world in times of stress, grief and loss which pretty much describes the past week.

My association with the Ports goes back to the days in the early 1970s when they played a Billy Herbert Field and were the “Single-A” affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles.  They enjoyed that relationship from about 1958 to 1972.  The fact that they were an orioles farm team and that on “hat day” they gave away Orioles caps caused me to have some interest in the Orioles throughout my life to the point now that I can say that with the Giants and A’s that they are one of my favorite ball clubs despite the fact that they have not had a winning season in 13 years.  The Ports now belong to the Athletics’ organization playing in the California League which along with the Carolina League are consider “High Single A” leagues, so they have some good talented players that do have a legitimate chance to get to the big leagues.  Their new home which replaced the venerable Billy Herbert Field is a marvelous facility that sits on the Stockton Channel with a “splash down” area over the right field wall and concourse. It is a wonderful venue to see a ball game and I recommend it if you are ever around Stockton when the Ports are in town.

Ports Catcher Ramon Soto after applying the tag at home to Andres James in the 2nd inning

Tonight the Ports played the Bakersfield Blaze of the Texas Rangers farm system the first game of a three game home stand prior to the July 4th Weekend. I got to the park a bit early and got my ticket for a seat directly behind home plate in the first row. Like about any minor league park on a really hot day, it was well over 100 today in Stockton, but no humidity, the Monday night crowd was sparse and I sat near some gents that knew the Ports, California League and the A’s system well. I also as is my custom struck up a conversation with one of the ushers as well to ensure that I could move around to get some photos.

Michael Madsen gets a called strike against a Blaze hitter

The game was low scoring; the Blaze scored one run in the 1st inning when John Whittleman singled off of Ports starting pitcher Michael Madsen to score David Paisano from third. They scored another in the second when Andres James doubled to score Doug Hogan who had been hit by a pitch with two outs.  Apart from those two runs the pitching staff of both teams shut down the offense of the other team. The Ports mounted no real threat and scattered only 6 hits scoring none of the 4 runners that reach scoring position.

Ports relief pitcher Scott Deal fields a sacrifice bunt by Andres James in the 7th inning

While I was at the game I found out that former Norfolk Tides infielder Brandon Pinckney who hails from Elk Grove up by Sacramento had just been picked up by the Athletics and signed to a minor league free agent deal with the Ports. At the end of last season Brandon became a free agent and signed with the Phillies who released him on the 15th of June.  After the game I was able to welcome Brandon back to California where while it is definitely hot in Stockton there is no humidity.  Once the sun set tonight the temps were very comfortable.

In Norfolk the Tides dropped the final game of their home stand to the Louisville Bats by a score of 7-2 and in Baltimore, don’t look now but the Orioles have won 4 in a row sweeping the Nationals in Baltimore this weekend and face the Athletics tomorrow at Camden Yards. The Orioles designated First Baseman Garrett Atkins for assignment.

Tomorrow my Road trip continues and I will see the Ports take on the Blaze in a game that will be nationally televised on the MLB Network at 11:05 Pacific Standard Time and 2:05 Eastern Standard Time. I will be wearing my Norfolk Tides black road jersey and hopefully will have a sign to say hello to any of my friends watching the game. I will be attending it with an old high school classmate and retired Navy Master Chief Petty Officer Tony Melendez.

See you there.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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How Baseball Helps Padre Steve Make Sense of the World

Opening Night 2010 at Harbor Park

“This is my most special place in all the world, Ray. Once a place touches you like this, the wind never blows so cold again. You feel for it, like it was your child.” Dr. Archibald “Moonlight” Graham in Field of Dreams

“I love baseball. You know it doesn’t have to mean anything, it’s just beautiful to watch.” Woody Allen in Selig (1983)

Last night was Opening Night at Harbor Park and I the visit took me back to memories of how important baseball is to me.  The Church of Baseball at Harbor Park and in particular my little corner of the world in Section 102, Row “B” Seats 1 and 2 are one of my places of sanctuary in a world that seems to have gone mad.  Baseball has always meant a lot to me but even more so after returning from Iraq in 2008.  Until recently Harbor Park was one of the few places that I felt safe, I have added to the “safe” zones since last season with Saint James Episcopal Church in Portsmouth Virginia and the Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant in Virginia Beach where Judy and I are members of the “Stein Club.” Slowly normalcy is returning to other parts of my life but during baseball season Harbor Park is about the center of my world.

Lefty Phillips and Me

In the fall after last season ended I would go to Harbor Park just to talk with staff and sit in the concourse.  There is something about baseball people and my seats down in section 102 that help me even when there is no game being played.  There is a peace that I have when I walk around the diamond and I feel close to God when I am around a ballpark, even without the game being played there is something almost mystical about it.  To me there is nowhere more peaceful than a ballpark and every time I watch a game on TV my mind goes back to how much baseball has been part of my life, and how in a very real way that God speaks to me through this special game.

“Baseball, it is said, is only a game. True. And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona. Not all holes, or games, are created equal.” George Will

Me Rich Reese and my brother Jeff

Baseball became part of my life as a child when my dad introduced me to it in our back yard in Oak Harbor Washington.  Even before I played an organized game dad played catch with me, showed me how to grip a ball and told me about the great ballplayers.  He made me learn the fundamentals of the game and whether we were attending a game in person, watching one on television or playing catch, pepper or practicing infield or pitching dad was all about the game.  Of course he was the same way with football, hockey and basketball, but the sport that he seemed most passionate about was baseball.  As a kid he was a Cincinnati Reds fan.  His mother, my grandmother who hailed from the hollers of Putnam County West Virginia was a diehard Dodgers fan, though I am sure that God forgives her for that.  She was an independent woman of conviction and determination that has to in some way influenced her love for the game, even as a little boy if there was a game on television she would have it on and could talk intelligently about it.  I still wonder about to this day how she became a Dodger’s fan but it probably had something to do with her independent streak.  “Granny” as she chose to be called was a woman who as a widow in the late 1930s went to work, raised her two boys and bought her own house.  Unlike most of the people in West Virginia she was also a Republican, a rare breed especially in that era. Likewise she left the Baptist church of her family and became a Methodist. As independent in her choice of baseball teams as she was in her politics Granny was a Dodgers fan in a land of Reds, Indians and Pirates fans, so even with Granny we were immersed in baseball.

Jeff, Me and Rocky Bridges

Dad always made sure that we got to see baseball wherever we lived. In 1967 he took us to see the Seattle Pilots which the next year went to Milwaukee and became the Brewers. The Pilots were an expansion team in a town with a long history of minor league ball. They played at an old park named Sick Stadium, which if you ask me is a really bad marketing plan.  The game that we went to was the “Bat Day” giveaway.  Then they gave out regulation size Louisville Slugger bats.  Mine had the name of the Pilots First Baseman Mike Hegan on the barrel.  That was my first trip to a Major League stadium and I still can remember it as if it was yesterday.  Somewhere in my junk I have a button with the Pilots logo on it.  I’ll have to fish it out again sometime.  The next year I played my first organized baseball with the Oak Harbor Little League “Cheyenne’s.” My coach was a kind of gruff old guy who stuck me out in right field when as any little kid would I was pretty much a spectator as almost nothing came my way.  I don’t know why but our team uniforms did not match, half of us had white and the other half gray. Unfortunately due to military moves I didn’t get to play organized ball again until 1972.

Oak Park Little Little League A.L Rams 1972 and yes A G Spanos of the Chargers was our sponsor

In the elementary schools of those days our teachers would put the playoff and World’s Series games on television in our classrooms as then many of the games were played during daylight hours.  I remember watching Bob Gibson pitch when the Cardinals played against the Red Sox in the 1967 series.  It was awesome to see that man pitch.   I remember the Amazin’ Mets upsetting the Orioles in 1969 and seeing the Orioles take down the Reds in 1970.  I never will forget the 1970 All Star Game where Pete Rose ran over Ray Fosse at home plate for the winning run.  I watched in awe as the great dynasty teams of the 1970s, the Reds and the Athletics who dominated much of that decade and the resurgence of the Yankees in the summer of 1978 when the Bronx burned.  Back then every Saturday there was the NBC Game of the Week hosted by Curt Gowdy, Tony Kubek and Joe Garragiola.  It was a sad day when that broadcast went off the air.

When we were stationed in Long Beach California from 1970-1971 my dad had us at Anaheim stadium watching the California Angels all the time.  I imagine that we attended at least 30 to 40 games there and a couple at Dodger stadium that first year and a good number more before we moved to Stockton California in the middle of the 1971 season.  The move north was disappointing, it took forever to get adjusted to Stockton and I think that part of it was not seeing the Angels every week at the Big “A.” At those games I met a lot of the players and coaches and even some opposing players.  The Von’s grocery store chain and the Angels radio network had a “My Favorite Angel” contest when I was in 5th Grade.  I submitted an entry about Angels First Baseman Jim Spencer and was named as a runner up.  This netted me two seats behind the plate and legendary sportscaster Dick Enberg announced my name on the radio.  Spencer was a Gold Glove First Baseman who later played for the Yankees on their 1978 World Series team.  My first hat from a Major League team was the old blue hat with a red bill, the letters CA on the front and a halo stitched on top. I still have a hat from the 1971 team with the lower case “a” with a halo hanging off of it.  It has numerous autographs on the inside of the bill including Sandy Alomar, Jim Spencer, and Jim Fregosi, Chico Ruiz and Billy Cowan and sits in a display case on my kitchen wall.

Harbor Park in the Fall

While we didn’t live as close to a major league team baseball did not cease to be a part of my life.  While we were not at the ballpark as much it got more interesting in some aspects as for the first time I attended playoff games and saw a no-hitter. We saw the A’s dynasty teams including games one and two of the 1972 American League Championship Series between the A’s and the Tigers.  Across the Bay a few years later I got to see Ed Halicki of the Giants no-hit the Mets a Candlestick on August 24th 1975.  In those days I got to see some of the greats of the era play, Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Steve Garvey, Vida Blue, Harmon Killebrew, Rollie Fingers, and so many others at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum and Candlestick Park.

While in Stockton I became acquainted with Minor League Baseball through the Stockton Ports, who then were the Class “A” California League farm team for the Orioles.  I remember a few years back talking to the Orioles great Paul Blair who played for the Ports in the early 1960s about Billy Hebert Field and how the sun would go down in the outfield blinding hitters and spectators in its glare.  I would ride my bike over in the evening to try to get foul balls that came over the grand stand when I didn’t have the money to get a ticket.

When I was a kid I had a large baseball card collection which I kept in a square cardboard roller-skate box.  I must have had hundreds of cards including cards that if I had them now would be worth a small fortune. Unfortunately when I went away to college I left them in the garage and during a purge of my junk they were tossed out.  Last year I started collecting cards again, mostly signed cards that I obtained at the Church of Baseball at Harbor Park.  In a sense they kind of serve a purpose like Holy Cards due in the Catholic Church for me.  They are a touch point with the game and the players who signed them.

Billy Hebert Field

As I have grown older my appreciation for the game, despite strikes and steroids still grows.  I am in awe of the diamond.  I have played catch on the field of dreams, seen a game in the Yankee Stadium Right Field bleachers seen games in many other venues at the Major League and Minor League levels and thrown out the first pitch in a couple of Kinston Indians games.  I am enchanted with the game. The foul lines theoretically go on to infinity, only broken by the placement of the outfield wall.  Unlike almost all other sports there is no time limit, meaning that baseball can be an eschatological game going on into eternity. The Hall of Fame is like the Calendar of Saints in the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican Churches.  There are rituals in baseball such as the exchange of batting orders and explanation of the ground rules and the ceremonial first pitch.  Likewise there are customs that border on superstition such as players not stepping on the foul line when entering and leaving the field of play, no talking about it when a pitcher is throwing a no-hitter and the home run trot. Even the care of the playing field is practiced with almost liturgical purity. The care of a field by an expert ground crew is a thing to behold, especially when they still use the wooden box frames to lay down the chalk on the baselines and the batter’s box.

Grand Slam Home Run by Robby Hammock 2009

We have travelled to many minor league parks often in tiny out of the way locations and even to the Field of Dreams in Dyersville Iowa where once again Judy indulged me and let me play catch. Likewise my long suffering wife has allowed our kitchen and much of my dining room is as close to a baseball shrine as Judy will let me make them; thankfully she is most tolerant and indulges this passion of mine.

Since I returned from Iraq the baseball diamond has been one of my few places of solace.  For the first time last season I bought a season ticket to the Tides and in section 102, row B seats 2 and 3 was able to watch the game from the same place every day.  It became a place of refuge during some of my bad PTSD times, and I got to know and love the people around me; Elliot the Usher, Chip the Usher, Ray and Bill the Vietnam Veteran Beer guys behind home plate, Kenny “Crabmeat” the Pretzel Guy and Barry the Scorekeeper.  This year Ray is not at the park nor is Charlie one of the other Vietnam Vets and the Veterans beer stand is now down the first base concourse where they have been relegated to the boring beers. I now have seats 1 and 2 in the same section and row as last year and it was good to see so many of the old crowd last night.

Chris Tillman

Even still there is some sadness in baseball this year as there was last year.  My dad is slowly dying of Alzheimer’s disease and a shell of his former self but the last time I saw him he did not know me and could not talk about baseball even for a minute.  Maybe if I go back we’ll get a few minutes of lucidity and a bit of time together again but I know that that will not happen because there is little left of him, I wish he was able to get up and play catch, but that will have to wait for eternity on the lush baseball field that only heaven can offer.

Dad Jeff and I around 1973

The season is just beginning and God is not done speaking to me through baseball as I close my eyes and recollect the words of Terrance Mann (James Earl Jones) in Field of Dreams: “The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good, and what could be again.”

In a sense this says it all to me in an age of war, economic crisis and bitter partisan political division.  In a sense it is a prayer, a prayer for a return to something that was good and what could be good again.

Peace and blessings,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Baseball, faith

Dad’s Gift of Baseball to Me…a New Season Begins

Baseball, it is said, is only a game. True. And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona. Not all holes, or games, are created equal.” George Will

Harbor Park

Baseball has always been a source of enjoyment for me.  I’ve noted in numerous other posts that God speaks to me through baseball.  For me there is something mystical about the game.  It extends beyond the finite world in some respects and there is symmetry to the sport unlike any other.  George Will’s quote at the beginning of this post is dead on.  Not all holes or games are created equal and as Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) said in Bull Durham “the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball.”

Though I had played Little League Ball in the 1960s and well as a lot of backyard or sandlot games, it was in 1970-1971 when my dad began taking us to California Angels games while stationed in Long Beach California that the game really captured me.  The seed of course had been planted long before watching games on a black and white TV and having my dad play catch, teach me to throw, field and run the bases.  In 1967 we even saw the Seattle Pilots in person while stationed in Washington State. While my dad thrived on all sports but baseball was the one that he gave me as a gift.  He gave my brother golf, another spiritual game, which Zen masters love, but which is not to be compared with baseball.  Golf it is an interior and individual game whereas baseball is a game where individuals depend upon one another in community much as in an ideal world Christians depend upon one another in the Church.

Me with Angels Manager Left Phillips 1970

Growing up with baseball was something that I cannot imagine not having done.  It was part of life from as far back as I can remember and this was because dad made it so.  I cannot remember a time that I did not have a ball, glove and bat as well as at least one baseball hat. It kind of reminds me of the beginning of the movie For the Love of the Game where home movies of a child playing ball with dad are shown during the opening credits and score.  I can close my eyes and remember vivid details of ball fields and backyards where dad would play catch with me play pepper and fungo and teaching me to pitch.  He never did much with hitting.  When I had him in a brief lucid moment when I visited in May of 2009 I thanked him for teaching me to love the game. I told him that I still heard his voice telling me to keep my butt down on ground balls but complained that he did not teach me to hit.  He simply said “you can’t teach someone to hit, it’s a gift, lots of people can’t hit.”  Obviously he understood that I would never hit much above the Mendoza Line and stuck to teaching me defense and pitching.

Oak Park Little League Rams Stockton CA, the Team Sponsor was San Diego Chargers Owner Alex Spanos

Back in the days at Anaheim Stadium when it was still called “the Big A” I really did fall in love with the game.  I met players, got signed balls and hats, and was even selected as a runner up in the “My Favorite Angel” contest.  For that I met my favorite Angel, First Baseman Jim Spencer a Golden Glove Winner who later played for the White Sox and Yankees, and two tickets behind home plate.  I met so many of the players on that team and those of opposing teams and it was that personal connection of ballplayers giving a 5th grade kid the time of day that endeared me to the game. Players like Jim Fregosi, Chico Ruiz, Andy Messersmith, Sandy Alomar and Ken McMullen as well as coaches and managers gave me some of the best memories of childhood.

Billy Hebert Field

When we moved to northern California we reconnected with the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A’s.  This was during the A’s dynasty years and we saw a number of games including an ALCS game against the Tigers.  Seeing the greats like Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, Rollie Fingers, Campy Campaneris and Vida Blue was awesome.  However our first love was the Giants.  We only occasionally got to Candlestick Park where they played in those days because of the inhospitable location and added distance from home.   If you have ever seen a baseball game at Candlestick you will know that it is a perfectly miserable place to see a game as in that if nothing else that it is colder than hell, if hell were cold.  One game we did see was Ed Halicki’s no-hitter against the Mets in 1975.

While dad was deployed to Vietnam my mom would drop me off at Billy Herbert Field in Stockton California where we lived. In the summer she would let me see the Stockton Ports several times a week. Back then the Ports were the California League Single “A” affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles.  Those games were always fun, chasing balls down and chomping down peanuts that cost a quarter a bag.  I remember talking to Orioles great Paul Blair when he visited a military base that I was serving and he told me how he remembered playing in Stockton as a minor league player in the 1960s.

Pete Rose running over Ray Fosse to win the 1970 All-Star Game

http://mlb.mlb.com/media/video.jsp?content_id=5766041

In high school and college due to other diversions I stopped playing baseball and did not have as much contact with it.  However the call of baseball never completely left me and I always longed to be either playing in or watching a game. I think that the biggest mistakes that I ever made were taking on hockey for a couple of seasons and an ill-fated one year career in high school football. It was like I sold out baseball for games that seemed more exciting but were not me.  I have dreams of what it would be like to get the chance to play at my advanced age for one inning in a minor league game.

Moonlight Graham

I feel in a sense like Dr. Archibald “Moonlight” Graham in Field of Dreams when he tells Ray Kinsella:

“Well, you know I… I never got to bat in the major leagues. I would have liked to have had that chance. Just once. To stare down a big league pitcher. To stare him down, and just as he goes into his windup, wink. Make him think you know something he doesn’t. That’s what I wish for. Chance to squint at a sky so blue that it hurts your eyes just to look at it. To feel the tingling in your arm as you connect with the ball. To run the bases – stretch a double into a triple, and flop face-first into third, wrap your arms around the bag. That’s my wish, Ray Kinsella. That’s my wish. And is there enough magic out there in the moonlight to make this dream come true?” I can totally relate.

Other major sports do not hold me captive the way baseball does.  I think there is a spiritual dimension that the game has which makes it timeless.  Other sports such as football, basketball, hockey and soccer are limited to rectangular playing surfaces of set dimensions determined by their leagues. With the exception of a few old hockey rinks there are no individuality to these venues, save perhaps for team or sponsor logos.  Likewise all of the other sports play a set time clock.  If a team gets way ahead early, it is likely that the game will be over.  While it is possible that a game could go into “overtime” the overtime in these games has different rules than regulation time making them seem somewhat hypocritical to me.  “Sudden death” “Shootouts” and truncated times show that these games are not meant to go past regulation time.  It is an aberration from what is considered “normal.” In these games a team with a big lead can simply sit on the ball and run out the clock. Earl Weaver put it well: “You can’t sit on a lead and run a few plays into the line and just kill the clock. You’ve got to throw the ball over the damn plate and give the other man his chance. That’s why baseball is the greatest game of them all.”

Jeff Fiorentino Going Yard at Harbor Park

Baseball is not like that.  In order to win you have to throw the ball over the plate and give the other team a chance to come back. The nine innings could in theory go on for eternity, as they nearly do in W.P. Kinsella’s The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, A story which is patently eschatological, though not in a pre-millennial dispensationalist manner.  Foul lines in theory go on for eternity, only the arbitrary placement of the outfield wall and the physical limitation of hitters keep the game within earthly limits.  I’m sure that outfields are a lot more spacious and have a wonderful playing surface in heaven.

I love baseball parks. I like their individuality and savor their differences and save for the late 1960s and early 1970s when fascists took over the design of stadiums in order to make them suitable to play football on, baseball parks have kept their individuality.  Outfield dimensions, type of grass, the kind of infield and warning track soil which is used, are all determined by the team.  Some fields cater to hitters, others pitchers.  And with the overthrow of the stadium fascists at Baltimore’s Camden Yards, the baseball park regained its dignity. Although the ivy of Wrigley Field, the Green Monster of Fenway are about all that are left of the great old ballparks however the new ballparks have returned to what makes every ballpark special in its own way.  Gone are the ugly drab oval stadiums with their fields covered in often shoddy artificial turf with only a small cut out for the bases.  The unsightly and even hideous venues such as Riverfront, Three Rivers, Veteran’s Stadium and others, even dare I say the Astrodome and Kingdome were demolished and made nice piles of rubble or retired to serve in other capacities and replaced by beautiful ballparks each with its own unique character that reflect the beauty of the game.

Oak Harbor Little League where I played my first organized baseball

Last year for the first time in my life I bought season tickets for my local AAA team, the Norfolk Tides who are the AAA Affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles. I also went Norfolk’s Harbor Park to see the Commonwealth Classic an exhibition game between the Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals.  The ballpark is a place of solace for me that was after I returned from Iraq one of the few places that I could have peace, even church was a dangerous place but walking onto the concourse and taking in the lush green diamond and immaculately trimmed infield there was a place of peace.  I found that watching the young players striving to reach or get back to the majors to stay helped motivate me as I recovered from PTSD, chronic pain, depression, anxiety and a crisis of faith that scared the hell out of me.  I appreciate the young pitchers that I have met behind home plate as the chart the game following their starts, and my hope and prayer for them is that they will see their dreams fulfilled and eventually make it to the show and stay there.  So Jim, Andy, Chris, Ross, David This year I look forward to again taking me seats in Section 102 Row B seats 1 and 2.  Opening day is the 8th of April and the Weather Channel’s 10 day forecast says that the weather should be good.  However this is Hampton Roads, opening day was rained out last year and in 2005 the temperature at game time was 38 degrees with winds of 25-40 knots coming out of center field.

Harbor Park was one of the first of the new generation of minor league parks and a wonderful place to see a game, or as I like to say “Worship at the Church of Baseball.”   When Harbor Park was built the Tides were affiliated with the New York Mets. As such the outfield dimensions are nearly identical to the former Shea Stadium, making it a very large yard and pitchers playground.  The outfield backs up to the East Fork of the Elizabeth River, shipyards and bridges dominate the view.  There is not a bad seat in the house.  My seats in Section 102 row 2 are right behind home plate and offer a field level view of all the action. I love the people in the section, Elliott and Skip the Ushers, Kenny the Pretzel Guy, Marty the Card Dealer, Ray, John and the Vietnam Veterans of America at the beer stand and of course legendary General Manager Dave Rosenfield and President Ken Johnson as well as Linda, Heather and the rest of the staff.

With every home game the gift that my father gave me begins to unfolds again as I gaze in wonderment at the diamond.  This year is different than last year but similar my dad is still in a nursing home in the end stage of Alzheimer’s disease, the disease is taking its time and now has robbed him of everything that he once was. In November I saw him and he did not know me.  It is so sad to see.  A year and a half to two years ago he still knew enough of what was going on to talk about baseball, especially the San Francisco Giants and bad mouth the American League. Dad was always National League fan and he loathes the designated hitter. He used to call the American League the “minor league.”  I never shared that opinion or the fact that I have been a closet Baltimore Orioles fan for years as he could barely handle my liking the Oakland Athletics.  He did not like Earl Weaver one bit but was a lot like him in his approach to the game and life…however he did admire Brooks Robinson and Frank Robinson.

Dad told me stories about the greats of his childhood and he made sure that there were books of baseball stories around the house.  I learned to read with books about Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth and Bob Feller, Stan Musial, Rogers HornsbyJackie Robinson and Satchel Paige. Dad was an avid fan of Pete Rose; he loved “Charlie Hustle’s” high intensity play and hustle, something that he passed on to me. I can still recall dad yelling at me to “get your butt down,” “stay in front of the ball,” “hustle down the line any time you hit the ball” and “don’t be afraid to run over a catcher or go in hard at second base to break up a double play.”   Rose’s banishment from baseball for gambling hit him hard.  I guess it was for him like the banishment of “Shoeless Joe” Jackson and for me the agony of the Steroid Era where players who were Hall of Fame caliber sacrificed their reputations by doing steroids.

My Dad and I May 2009

I don’t know how long my dad will live. He has outlived his doctor’s expectations by well over a year maybe even a year and a half. He doesn’t know what is going on for the most part but somewhere in his Alzheimer’s ravaged brain he must still be there.  Dad gave me a gift, a gift called the game, the game of baseball.  Sure, it’s only just a game.  Right… Baseball is only a game in the sense of the Grand Canyon just being a hole in the ground and the Pacific Ocean a pond.  I’m sure that the Deity Herself must agree.

Play Ball!

Peace, Steve+

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Filed under Baseball, faith, PTSD

My Life and Baseball: How Padre Steve Makes Some Sense of the World

harbor park opening dayThe Church of Baseball, Harbor Park Parish

“This is my most special place in all the world, Ray. Once a place touches you like this, the wind never blows so cold again. You feel for it, like it was your child.” Dr. Archibald “Moonlight” Graham in Field of Dreams

“I love baseball. You know it doesn’t have to mean anything, it’s just beautiful to watch.” Woody Allen in Selig (1983)

I went to Harbor Park last week just to talk with staff and sit in the concourse.  Tomorrow after work, though the weather is not predicted to be very good I plan on doing the same. There is something about baseball people and my seats down in section 102, row B, seat 2 and 3 that help me even when there is not game going on.  I walked around the diamond, the weather was gorgeous and it was so peaceful, even as the head groundskeeper aerated the field in preparation for the winter.  I feel close to God when I am around a ballpark, even without the game being played there is something almost mystical about it.  To me there is nowhere more peaceful than a ballpark.  Tonight as I sit watching game one of the National League Championship Series between the Dodgers and the Phillies my mind goes back to how much baseball has been part of my life, and how in a very real way that God speaks to me through this special game.

grainger stadiumGranger Stadium Kinston NC

“Baseball, it is said, is only a game. True. And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona. Not all holes, or games, are created equal.” George Will

Baseball is part of my life and I think this goes back to my childhood when my dad introduced me to it in our back yard in Oak Harbor Washington.  Even before I played an organized game dad played catch with me, showed me how to grip a ball and told me about the great ballplayers.  He made me learn the fundamentals of the game and weather we were attending a game in person, watching one on television or playing catch, pepper or practicing infield or pitching dad was all about the game.  Of course he was the same way with football, hockey and basketball, but the sport that he seemed most passionate about was baseball.  As a kid he was a Cincinnati Reds fan.  His mother, my grandmother who hailed from the hollers of Putnam County West Virginia was a diehard Dodgers fan, though I am sure that God forgives her for that.  She was an independent woman of conviction and determination that has to in some way influenced her love for the game, even as a little boy if there was a game on television she would have it on.  I still wonder about to this day how she became a Dodger’s fan but it probably had something to do with her independent streak.  Granny as she chose to be called was a woman who as a widow in the late 1930s went to work, raised her two boys and bought her own house.  Unlike most of the people in West Virginia she was also a Republican, a rare breed especially in that era. As independent in her choice of baseball teams as she was in her politics Granny was a Dodgers fan in a land of Reds, Indians and Pirates fans, so even with Granny we were immersed in baseball.

Me and Lefty PhillipsCalifornia Angels Manager Lefty Phillips and Young Padre Steve 1970

Dad always made sure that we got to see baseball wherever we lived. In 1967 he took us to see the Seattle Pilots which the next year went to Milwaukee and became the Brewers. The pilots were an expansion team in a town with a long history of minor league ball. They played at an old park named Sick Stadium, which if you ask me is a really bad marketing plan.  The game that we went to was the “Bat Day” giveaway.  Then they game regulation size Louisville Slugger bats.  Mine had the name of the Pilots First Baseman Mike Hegan on the barrel.  That was my first trip to a Major League stadium and I still can remember it as if it was yesterday.  Somewhere in my junk I have a button with the Pilots logo on it.  I’ll have to find it again sometime.  The next year I played my first organized baseball with the Oak Harbor Little League “Cheyenne’s.” My coach was a kind of gruff old guy who stuck me out in right field.  I don’t know why but our team uniforms did not match, half of us had white and the other half gray.   Unfortunately due to military moves I didn’t get to play organized ball again until 1972.

jim_spencer_autographMY Favorite Angel Jim Spencer as a Yankee

In the elementary schools of those days our teachers who put the playoff and World’s Series games as many were played during daylight hours.  I remember watching Bob Gibson pitch when the Cardinals played against the Red Sox in the 1967 series.  It was awesome to see that man pitch.   I remember the Amazin’ Mets upsetting the Orioles in 1969 and seeing the Orioles take down the Reds in 1970.  I never will forget the 1970 All Star Game where Pete Rose ran over Ray Fosse at home plate for the winning run.  I watched in awe as the great dynasty teams of the 1970s, the Reds and the Athletics who dominated much of that decade and the resurgence of the Yankees in the summer that the Bronx burned.  Back then every Saturday there was the NBC Game of the Week hosted by Curt Gowdy, Tony Kubek and Joe Garragiola.

halicki no hitterEd Halicki No Hitter

When we were stationed in Long Beach California from 1970-1971 my dad had us at Anaheim stadium all the time.  I imagine that we attended at least 30 games there and a couple at Dodger stadium that first year and a good number more before we moved to Stockton California in the middle of the 1971 season.  That was disappointing, it took forever to get adjusted to Stockton and I think that part of it was not seeing the Angels every week at the Big “A.” At those games I met a lot of the players and coaches and even some opposing players.  The Von’s grocery store chain and the Angels radio network had a “My Favorite Angel” contest.  My entry about Angels First Baseman Jim Spencer was a runner up, netting me two seats behind the plate and having Dick Enberg announce my name on the radio.  Spencer was a Gold Glove First Baseman who later played for the Yankees on their 1978 World Series team.  My first hat from a Major League team was the old blue hat with a red bill, the letters CA on the front and a halo stitched on top. I still have a hat from the 1971 team with the lower case “a” with a halo hanging off of it.  It has numerous autographs on the inside of the bill including Sandy Alomar, Jim Spencer, and Jim Fregosi, Chico Ruiz and Billy Cowan and sits in a display case on my kitchen wall.

Me and last last picMy Dad and Me May 2009

While we didn’t live as close to a major league team baseball did not go away, though we were not at the ballpark as much it got more interesting as I got to see playoff games and a no-hitter.  We saw the A’s dynasty teams including games one and two of the 1972 American League Championship Series between the A’s and the Tigers.  Across the Bay a few years later I got to see Ed Halicki of the Giants no-hit the Mets a Candlestick on August 24th 1975.  In those days I got to see some of the greats of the era play, Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Steve Garvey, Vida Blue, Harmon Killebrew, Rollie Fingers, and so many others at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum and Candlestick Park.

While in Stockton I became acquainted with Minor League Baseball through the Stockton Ports, who then were the Class “A” California League farm team for the Orioles.  I remember a few years back talking to Paul Blair the Orioles great Paul Blair who played for the Ports in the early 1960s about Billy Hebert Field and how the sun would go down in the outfield blinding hitters and spectators in its glare.  I would ride my bike over in the evening to try to get foul balls that came over the grand stand when I didn’t have the money to get a ticket.

1972 Oak Park AL RamsMy Championship Season

When I was a kid I had a large baseball card collection which I kept in a square cardboard box.  I must have had hundreds of cards including cards that if I had them now would be worth a small fortune, unfortunately when I went away to college I left them in the garage and during a purge of junk they were tossed out.  This year I started collecting cards again, mostly signed cards that I obtained at the Church of Baseball at Harbor Park.  In a sense they kind of serve a purpose like Holy Cards due in the Catholic Church for me.  They are a touch point with the game and the players who signed them.

As I have grown older my appreciation for the game, despite strikes and steroids still grows.  I am in awe of the diamond.  I have played catch on the field of dreams, seen a game in the Yankee Stadium Right Field bleachers seen games in other venues and thrown out the first pitch in a couple of minor league games.  I am enchanted with the game. The foul lines theoretical go on to infinity, only broken by the placement of the outfield wall.  Likewise unlike all other sports there is no time limit, meaning that baseball can be an eschatological game going on into eternity. The Hall of Fame is like the Calendar of Saints in the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican Churches.  There are rituals, the exchange of batting orders and explanation of the ground rules, the ceremonial first pitch, players not stepping on the foul line when entering and leaving the field of play, no talking about it when a pitcher is throwing a no-hitter and the home run trot. The care of a field by an expert ground crew is a thing to behold, especially when they still use the wooden box frames to lay down the chalk on the baselines and the batter’s box.

We have travelled to many minor league parks often in tiny out of the way locations and even to the Field of Dreams in Dyersville Iowa where once again Judy indulged me and let me play catch. Likewise my long suffering wife has allowed our kitchen and much of my dining room are as close to a baseball shrine as Judy will let me make them; thankfully she is most tolerant and indulges this passion of mine.

042Elliott the Usher

Since I returned from Iraq the baseball diamond is one of my few places of solace.  For the first time I bought a season ticket to my local minor league team the Norfolk Tides.  Section 102, row B seat 2 and 3 and was able to watch the game from the same place game after game.  It became a place of refuge during some of my bad PTSD times, and I got to know and love the people around me; Elliot the Usher, Chip the Usher, Ray and Bill the Vietnam Veteran Beer guys behind home plate, Kenny “Crabmeat” the Pretzel Guy and Barry the Scorekeeper.

122Moon Over Harbor Park

My dad is slowly dying of Alzheimer’s Disease and a shell of his former self but the last time I visited him we had a few minutes where he was with it we talked baseball and I gave him a new Giants t-shirt and hat.  I plan on going back next month sometime to spend some time with him.  Maybe we’ll get a few minutes of lucidity and a bit of time together again, I wish he was able to get up and play catch, but that will have to wait for eternity on the lushest baseball field imaginable.

The season there is over, but God is not done speaking to me through baseball as I close my eyes and recollect the words of Terrance Mann (James Earl Jones) in Field of Dreams: “The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good, and what could be again.”

044Jeff Fiorentino hits a 3 run shot at Harbor Park

In a sense this says it all to me in an age of war, economic crisis and bitter partisan political division.  In a sense it is a prayer, a prayer for a return to something that can be good again.

Peace and blessings,

Padre Steve+

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Minor League Moves: The Dance Begins, Connecticut Defenders move to Richmond

007Minor League Moves: The Orioles Affiliated with The Norfolk Tides in 2007

Minor League Baseball teams move around for many reasons with a fair amount of regularity.  At the end of every season there are almost always a number of teams that either changes their major league affiliation or moves to another city.  A few years ago my team here in Norfolk told the New York Mets and the Minaya – Bernazard Axis of Idiocy to “get out of town and don’t let the door hit you.”  The Mets had treated their AAA affiliate badly for years and these guys gutted the Mets farm system.  I talked with various Mets scouts this year who although not saying anything on record nodded in agreement about my observations of the Mets.  So the Mets went to New Orleans and this year to Buffalo and managed to continue their mangled management of their minor league system.

However teams change affiliations for a number of reasons.  One reason that Baltimore relocated to Norfolk was the entrance into the Hampton Roads TV market.  Other reasons include facilities, distance from the home club, fan base issues, tradition or local government policies.

When I was a kid I lived in Stockton California where I got my first taste of Minor League ball watching the Stockton Ports of the California League in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  At the time the team was affiliated with the Baltimore Orioles.  A few years back I had opportunity to talk with Orioles great Paul Blair who remembered his days playing in Stockton at Billy Hebert Field.  The Ports have since been with the Brewers, the Rangers, the Reds and the Athletics and maybe a couple of others over the years.  This is not unusual as teams try to move their teams closer to the major league club or local owners negotiate deals with major league franchises to move teams to their markets.

Last year there were several moves in the International League and the Pacific Coast League. In the PCL the biggest news was the relocation of the Dodgers AAA affiliate from Las Vegas to Albuquerque, a move that returned the Dodgers to one of their tradition minor league cities.    The Ottawa Lynx franchise left that city for Allentown Pennsylvania to become the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs. This left that city without any baseball.  A Canadian league that was supposed to move a team there folded.  This is actually sad for Canada as both Ottawa and Montreal which had a long baseball heritage with the Major and Minor leagues no longer have teams.  This is in large part due to the Canadian government’s tax policies that ensured that minor league players would be taxed by both the US and Canadian governments.  This made the situation difficult if not impossible for many minor league players from the states and as a result the major leagues moved all of their teams out of Canada except the Vancouver Canadians in the Northwest League.  Since the Northwest League is a short season single “A” league and most of the players are college players there is a different dynamic at work than the rest of the minors.

In 2009 the New York Mets brought the team once known as the Norfolk Tides from their home in post-Katrina New Orleans to Buffalo. In Buffalo the Mets replaced Cleveland who had moved their team to Columbus.  This ensured that the city of Buffalo and especially Bison’s fans would bask in the misery inflicted on both Norfolk and New Orleans fans for the foreseeable future.  The Bisons under Mets management finished the season with the worst record in Triple “A” ball.  I saw them several times in Norfolk and there wasn’t a young prospect of any caliber on the team.  There was an ass-load of older “has been” players who are deep into the tail end of their careers and I looked like I was in better shape than some of them, some of the guts and butts were simply huge.   The Mets under the current Oscar Minaya management are pathetic.  They have no prospects, their minor league system is broken and if the Bison’s plight was not enough their AA affiliate the Binghamton Mets were the worst team in AA Ball.  If Ross Perot was talking to Larry King about them he would say “That’s just sad Larry.”

Cleveland moved its affiliation to Columbus to be closer to the major league team while the Washington Nationals who had been in Columbus moved to Syracuse when Toronto moved its Triple “A” affiliation to Las Vegas in the Pacific Coast League.    In the mean time Atlanta which had been embroiled in a decade long contest with Richmond’s clueless city council led by Doug “I have no plan or clue” Wilder for a decent stadium to replace the cesspool called “The Diamond” gave up.  Since they and not a local owner controlled the franchise, they moved the Braves to the Atlanta suburbs of Gwinnett County.  Richmond has one of the worst if not the worst ball park in the International League and maybe the minors.  Having been to the Diamond many times I have to say that it was the worst venue that I have ever seen a ball game, decrepit and uncomfortable seating, poor amenities, and a field that flooded if so much as a thimble full of rain fell made it a horrible venue for fans as well as players.  Thus the city which refused to work cooperatively with the Braves lost its team and AAA franchise, a franchise that has been for many years one of the best in the minor leagues.  Richmond lost their hockey team as well to this bunch’s inept leadership.  These people have to be one of the most clueless city government s in the entire United States and certainly the worst managed state capital.

All of this leads to the first move of the 2009-2010 off season.  On the 23rd of September the Eastern League announced that the Connecticut Defenders franchise would move to Richmond in time for the 2010 season.  The city has agreed to make improvements on the Diamond to keep it viable until a new stadium can be build by 2012, a plan that should be doable unless the city has decided to make their plans for the new stadium on the Mayan calendar which assumes that the Cubs will win the World’s series, that Jesus will come back and the world as we know it will end.

The team is an affiliate of the San Francisco Giants, which means that if the Tides are not in town that I may make a number of trips to Richmond in 2010.  The Giants will stay with the team through the end of 2010 and hopefully for me will remain in Richmond for many years.  Richmond is allowing fans to suggest new names for the team.  A link to that site is here: http://www2.timesdispatch.com/rtd/sports/baseball/name-the-team/

There will be more team moves announced in the coming month or so as cities and major league teams alike assess what they need.  Cities with a long minor league heritage may lose teams, some cities are building stadiums to get teams and some cities may end up with teams in the independent leagues.  Regardless Minor League Baseball will continue to do well and fans will come.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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