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Baseball and My Spiritual Journey

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Note: I have been working hard this week with contractors in the house making repairs to the damage caused when our water heater blew out on February 3rd. Thankfully, despite being so tired I have been able to make a couple of baseball games at Harbor Park here in Norfolk. I have been too tired to make it all the way through either game despite the fact that they were good close games. Tonight I only made it to the top of the 7th inning. At the time the Tides were up 2-1 but had blown a number of opportunities to blow the game open. I got home and found they had lost 3-2. Thankfully I am beginning to see the light at the end of the rebuilding and renovation tunnel and it is not the train. Depending how I feel tomorrow I may try to take in part of the final game of this series. Unfortunately I still have much work that needs to be done around the house…but I digress… on to Baseball and my spiritual journey.

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“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

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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.

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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.

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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 tornadoes 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.

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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.

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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.

Likewise I am enthralled with the Americanness of the game. Michael Novak wrote:

“Baseball is as close a liturgical enactment of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant myth as the nation has. It is a cerebral game, designed as geometrically as the city of Washington itself, born out of the Enlightenment and the philosophies so beloved of Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton. It is to games what the Federalist Papers are to books; orderly, reasoned, judiciously balanced, incorporating segments of violence and collision in a larger plan of rationality, absolutely dependent on an interiorization of public rules.”

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My kitchen and much of my dining room are as close to a baseball shrine as Judy will let me make them.
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 was able to take in a good number of Kinston Indians games but since that team was sold and moved at the end of the 2011 season I didn’t get to see many games in the flesh. Thankfully with my return to the Hampton Roads area I have my season ticket back at Harbor Park and life is coming back into balance.

As I do that I can hear the words of James Earl Jones in the great film 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.”

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In a sense those word say it all to me. In the midst of war, economic crisis and deep political division they are also a prayer of hope of what once was good, and what be again.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Exemplar of Defense the Oriole Way: Paul Blair Orioles “Motormouth” and Golden Glove Dead at 69

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Paul Blair the legendary 8 time Gold Glove Center Fielder of the Baltimore Orioles American League and World Series teams of the 1960s and 1970s died yesterday at the age of 69. He died just under a year after his Hall of Fame Manager Earl Weaver did, both while doing things that they loved.

Blair was bowling in a celebrity bowling tournament in Pikesville Maryland after completing a round of golf when he complained of not feeling well and slumped over unconscious. He died shortly after arrival at Mount Sinai Hospital in Baltimore.

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Blair was born in Cushing Oklahoma but grew up in Los Angeles California. He tried out for the Dodgers but was rejected because they did not believe that he was big enough. The Mets signed him to a minor league contract in 1961. After being left unprotected by the Mets he was drafted by the Orioles in 1962. He moved up through the Orioles farm system and gained his nickname “Motormouth” in 1963 by his manager Harry Dunlop while playing with the Stockton Ports of the California League, it was something that he would relate to me in 2003 when I met him in Mayport Florida and I gave him a Ports hat to autograph. The nickname was revived when he got to the majors by Frank Robinson and Curt Blefary.

After a six month tour in the Army Reserve in 1964 he returned to the Orioles where he became the starting Center Fielder. Known for his speed and skill in the outfield Blair was awarded 8 Gold Glove awards, seven consecutively between 1969-1975. The record of 8 was a record for outfielders only broken by Ken Griffey Jr.  Blair’s career fielding percentage was .987, he only had 57 errors in 4462 chances.

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In a 1997 interview with USA Today Baseball Weekly Blair said of his defensive prowess “I was taught to play defense. Back in our day it was pitching and defense. Our philosophy (the Oriole way) was don’t make the little mistakes that cost you ballgames. That is the way we won over such a long period of time.” Earl Weaver said of Blair’s speed in the outfield “I never saw Paul Blair’s first step.” Orioles All Star Don Buford who played alongside Blair for 5 years noted “When you talk about the greatest defensive center fielders, he was right in the mix.”

Blair hit for a lifetime batting average of .250 with 1513 hits and 134 home runs, an average that may have been affected by being severely injured when he was beaned by Angels pitcher Ken Tatum in May of 1970.

Blair won two World Series rings with the Orioles and another two with the Yankees and was voted to the 1969 and 1973 All Star team. He is the only player to get five hits in an ALCS game when he did so in the final game of the 1969 ALCS against the Twins. After his playing career he coached at he high school and college level and served as an outfield instructor with the Yankees and Astros.

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I met Blair twice in 2003 and 2005 when he doing goodwill tours to military bases. On both occasions we had time to talk. In Mayport Florida I was able to spend over an hour with Blair, the late Hall of Fame 1st Baseman of the Twins Harmon Killebrew, Hall of Fame Pitcher Ferguson Jenkins as well as John Tudor, Manny Sanguillen and Jimmy Wynn. I really enjoyed Blair’s stories about his time in Stockton, which I consider my home town as well as his stories about his playing days. He was a joy to be around.

I was hoping that I would get another chance to meet up with Blair. That won’t happen now so I will just say Rest in Peace.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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A Quiet Achievement: Jim Thome Hammers Two Home Runs to join Elite 600 Home Run Club

Jim Thome Hits Number 600 (AP Photo)

“Not only is he a great player, but he’s a great individual… I think he was a little apprehensive about passing me up. I said, ‘Jim, I passed a lot of guys up myself along the way. I hope you hit 100 more.'”  Harmon Killebrew on Jim Thome passing him on the home run list with 574 Home Runs in 2010.

There was little build up or fanfare leading up to the Twins and Tigers game tonight. There should have been as one of baseball’s “good guys” did something that only 7 other Major leaguers had ever done, hit 600 home runs.  Maybe it is because he now plays for the Minnesota Twins who are in the midst of one of their worst seasons in recent memory.  Minneapolis is not exactly the center of the sports media universe like New Yorkwhere almost every at bat of Derek Jeter was covered in his quest to reach the 3000 hit mark.  However to me it doesn’t matter. I have been a Jime Thome fan for a long time and while I may be in North Carolina I was watching live when ESPN switched from the Giants-Braves game to the Twins-Tigers game to cover Thome’s at bat in the 7th inning.

A Smile and a Handshake (Getty Images)

Thome came to the plate after hitting home run 599 a two run shot off of Rick Porcello during his previous at bat in the 6th inning.  He was facing Tigers pitcher Daniel Schlereth and with a 2-1 count and two runners on base Thome hit Schlereth’s pitch over the Left Field fence for number 600.  He rounded the bases at Comerica Park in Detroit to a standing ovation given by the Tiger fans as well as his teammates and his family who were also in attendance who also greeted him on the field. On the scoreboard the home team congratulated Thome’s achievement;Detroit does recognize great baseball achievement’s even when it comes at the bat of an opponent.

It was a special moment that all baseball fans should celebrate and that non baseball fans should also take note of because Thome accomplished this huge feat, a feat even great than Jeter reaching 3000 hits Out of the 17,000 plus players that have played in the Majors only 8 have hit 600 or more home runs while 28 players have over 3000 hits.

Thome Honored by Teammates and Opposing Fans

Thome has struggled with injury this year and has not had his best year. He is beginning to show his 40 years the oldest player to reach the 600 mark, the previous being the then 38 year old Sammy Sosa in 2007.  Despite this he was the second fastest player to reach 600 home runs reaching it in at bat 8137 games as opposed to Babe Ruth who by far reached it faster than anyone else needing only 6921 at bats to reach 600 on his way to 714.  In reaching the 600 mark Thome joins Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez and Sammy Sosa in the 600 club.

Thome reached the mark without a lot of fanfare or for that matter controversy. He was never tainted by the steroid controversy and is one of the nicest people in baseball, not hesitating to talk to children that come up to him in public or people that knew him in his early days.  His teammate Michael Cuddyer said “He is the nicest, gentlest, kindest guy you will ever meet … When he walks in a room, everyone watches everything he does. It’s the way he treats people, it’s the way he respects the game….”

His manager Ron Gardenhire said “He’s like Babe Ruth around here…The fans here get all mad at me for not playing him every day.”

Thome is known around the league for his work ethic and will to win.  He worked hard at his craft initially beginning as an outfielder before being converted to Third Base.  Unassuming he once said “I always had to work to be good, because I never was very good. I mean, I always had to work to get where I wanted to be. It was never easy. It still isn’t. It still isn’t.” He is called by some today’s Harmon Killebrew, a complement by any standard of measurement.  I’m sure that Harmon is looking on now cheering and probably telling Saint Pete stories about just how big of an achievement that Thome’s feat is because Thome won’t do it when he meets Saint Pete.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Padre Steve’s First All-Star Game Memories

My dad taught me to love the game of Baseball and art of that love was the annual experience of watching the All-Star Game. I continue that tonight with the National League has just one by a score of 5-1.

I first remember doing this in the late 1960s but where the All-Star Game became etched in my mind was in the summer of 1970.  We were living in Long Beach California about a 15 minute drive from “The Big A” as Angel’s Stadium was known back then. Dad was taking me to every game that he could and back then tickets were easy to come by and players were very accessible to fans, especially 10 year old kids like me.

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I remember going the Anaheim Stadium and getting to vote for the players. I didn’t know it then but it was the first time since 1957 that the position players were voted in by fans.  I don’t remember all the players that I voted for but the one that I do remember voting for, Angel’s First Baseman and Gold Glove winner Jim Spencer was not elected or named as a reserve.  Later that year I wrote a short essay for the “My Favorite Angel” contest telling why Spencer was my favorite Angel and ended up being one of the runners up for the contest. My name was in theLong Beachpaper, I still have the clipping and my name was announced by Angel’s announcer Dick Enberg during a game and I got two tickets directly behind home plate.

I do remember some of my other picks that made the rosters as elected players or reserves, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Boog Powell, Harmon Killebrew, Johnny Bench, Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Sandy Alomar, Tony Perez, Jim Fregosi and Pete Rose.

I was the first election that I ever voted in and certainly more worthwhile than most political elections that I have vote in since.  When the game came on July 14th we gathered in from of our television to watch.  I was transfixed as I watched the action. We still had a black and white television and antennae as cable TV was not available.  It is hard to believe that back then we had only the three major networks ABC, NBC and CBS, no ESPN, MLB Channel or any of the region sports networks that air Major League games today.

Left Phillips California Angels Manager and me in 1970.He was one of Earl Weaver’s American League Coaches in the 1970 All Star Game

The game as was telecast on NBC which also televised the Saturday “Game of the Week” and called by Curt Gowdy, Tony Kubek and Mickey Mantle who had been out of the game for a season and a half.  It was played at the brand new Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati a dual purpose stadium designed for the Reds and the Bengals covered in some of the most horrible artificial turf imaginable with cut outs for the bases, home plate and the pitcher’s mound.  It was very similar to Three River’s Stadium inPittsburgh; Veteran’s Stadium inPhiladelphiaand so unlike the nicest field built in the 1970sKansas City’s Kaufman Stadium.  It should come as no surprise that Riverfront,Three Rivers and the Vet are gone and Kaufman is as beautiful as ever.

It was a great game certainly one of the epics in terms of All Star Games.  The American League had a 4-1 lead in the top of the 9th as Jim Catfish Hunter gave up a lead off home run to Giant’s catcher Dick Dietz. Two more runs would score the last being Joe Morgan, then with the Houston Astros who scored on a sacrifice fly by Roberto Clemente off Yankees’ pitcher Mel Stottlemyer who was credited with a blown save.

The game went to the 12th inning tied 4-4 Earl Weaver sent Angel’s ace Clyde Wright who had thrown a no-hitter in Anaheim against the A’s just 11 days before for a second inning of relief work.  Wright got the first two outs and then gave up consecutive singles to Pete Rose and Billy Grabarkewitz. He then gave up a single to Jim Hickman which was fielded by Royals outfielder Amos Otis. Otis got a great throw to Indians Rookie Catcher Ray Fosse who dropped the ball when he was run over by Rose at home plate.

The Pete Rose hit on Ray Fosse that gave the National League a 12th Inning Walk Off win

Dad was torn on this. He loved Pete Rose but he had come to like dare say an American League team, the Angels.  He hated to see Clyde Wright get the loss.  I still remember that collision as if it were yesterday and despite his being banned from the game I still admire the playing ability and hustle of Pete Rose.

That was my first All Star Game.  The only ones that I have missed since have been those when I was deployed and unable to watch.  I love to see the players there and though the All Star format has its flaws I still love it because it takes me back to that magical summer of 1970 and fond memories of my dad teaching me the game at Anaheim Stadium and in our back yard.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Remembering Hammerin’ Harmon: Harmon “Killer” Killebrew 1936-2011

Harmon Killebrew 1936-2011

Baseball lost one of its best today. Harmon “Killer” Killebrew, or Hammerin’ Harmon died of Esophageal Cancer at the age of 74.  He died today with his wife Nita, friends and family at his side. Jack Morris the 1991 World Series MVP said something that I can totally understand in regard to Harmon Killebrew:

“To remember the innocence of being a young kid who just looked up to a guy he didn’t know because of what he did as a baseball player, something that you hoped that maybe someday you could be like. But as a grown man, I look back at him now not as that guy, but as the guy who tried to show me that you don’t have to be angry. You don’t have to be mad. You can love and share love. We’re all going to miss him, and we’re all going to love him forever.”

Harmon was one of the classiest players who ever played the game. A genuine star he did not make a show of fame or demean an opponent.  He played with a singular passion for the game and was a consummate gentleman who engendered the respect from his teammates and opponents and love from those that knew him.  A true superstar he hit 573 home runs and stands at 11th on the all-time home run leader list and drove in 1584 runs.   He was a 13 time All Star and the American League MVP in 1969.  In 1970 he led the American League with 41 home runs and hit over 40 home runs 8 times during his career. He began his career with the Washington Senators in 1954 and went with the franchise when it moved to Minnesota in 1961.  He finished his career with the Kansas City Royals in 1975.  In 1969 he hit 49 home runs and drove in 140 runs, a career best.  Since his records were set in the non-steroid era at a time when ballparks were larger than when many of the current home run leaders played they are truly remarkable. He was elected to the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in 1984  on his fourth year of eligibility with 81.3% of the vote.

He was a generous man who contributed much to his community and to cancer treatment and research. He made sure that he continued his association with the Twins until this season when after his diagnosis with Esophageal Cancer he spent his customary time with the team during Spring Training.  Due to his treatments he was unable to attend opening day.

I had the privilege of meeting him twice. The first time was on Sunday July 12th 1970 when I was 10 years old at Anaheim Stadium when the Twins were playing the Angels. It was photo day and though my parents took pictures of us with many of the players including Harmon who I remember teasing me about my Angels’ cap.  He hit a two run home run in the first inning off Angels’ starter Tom Murphy.  It was amazing thing to see for a ten year old.  That picture must have been lost years ago as I found only a few from that day when I was searching my parents’ collection of photos after my father died last year.

One of his nicknames was “killer” but that was in relation to his hitting and how he played the game. In life he was a kind, generous, soft spoken and gentle man who exemplified all that is good. He was a mentor to young people and players and many players who played with or on teams where he coached credit him with lessons in life as well as baseball. He was engaged in many charitable beginning in 1977 when he established the Danny Thompson Memorial Gold Tournament which has raised over 8.6 million dollars in the fight against Leukemia and Cancer and is named after a teammate from the Twins who died of Leukemia in 1976 at the age of 29.  In 1991 he established the Harmon Killebrew Foundation.

I met Harmon again in the summer of 2003 when I was stationed aboard the USS Hue City at Mayport Florida.  He was on a USO tour co-sponsored by AT&T called the Heroes to Heroes Tour. He was travelling with fellow Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins, John Tudor, Manny Sanguillen, Paul Blair and Jimmy Winn. There were two visits that day in Mayport, one at the Naval Station Galley at breakfast and one at the Navy Exchange. The breakfast meeting was not well publicized and due to traffic congestion the players arrived late. However, I was one of just a few sailors who where there when they arrived. We spent an hour together the players outnumbered the sailors. I remember Harmon as one of the nicest athletes that I had ever met. I told him about meeting him in 1970 and he remembered the day but not the 10 year old, but then there were hundreds of us out there that day.

He was one player that I always admired. Legend has it that his image was used as the Major League Baseball logo, although that his contested by the artist. Personally I think that he had to be the model for the logo as the image is so true to Killebrew that I cannot believe that it is anyone other than him. But then I can believe what I want, if he wasn’t and it was a composite as the author claims his image had to be part of it.

George Brett the All Star of the Kansas City Royals said something that I hope will be said of me when it is my time to pass from this world into the next:

“He was just a fierce competitor and a perfect gentleman at the same time. You don’t see that a lot. Sometimes you get fierce competitors who are bad people. You see guys that are not fierce competitors but nice guys. You don’t see the two of them together very much.”

Harmon Killebrew was an amazing man who I am honored to have met and seen play on television and in person. I have his autograph on a card with the other 5 players that I met in Mayport that morning in 2003 as well as the Stockton Ports hat that I was wearing that day.  Though I only met him those tow times I feel like I have lost a friend. The things that he signed and my memories of him are what I have left of one of baseball and humanity’s greats. Harmon you will be missed. May you rest in peace.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Autographs can be Expensive


I love collecting autographs.  I have a lot of them, especially of baseball players including such greats as Hall of Fame players such as Harmon Killebrew, Ferguson Jenkins and the Duke of Flatbush Duke Snider. Yesterday on my way home from Camp LeJeune to Virginia Beach I got another autograph.  What a lucky man I am.

The man who gave it to me was very nice and very polite and  As I said I have gotten a lot of autographs in my life some that I have gotten for free and others that I have paid various amounts of money for. I have met some baseball greats including Hall of Fame players who I have received autographs for which I have paid nothing that I treasure.  I have others that I have paid for at various autograph signing sessions which I also treasure. However it is the autographs of various State Troopers in North Carolina that I treasure the most. I think this is because they have cost me the most money and despite the professionalism and politeness of the various troopers involved if find that they are the most annoying to collect.

I am stationed about 210 miles from home which I try to get to as many weekends as I can. I have to drive on US 17 from my home and workplace near Camp LeJeune to the Hampton Roads area. If you are familiar with this highway you know that the area between New Bern and Windsor is nothing but an 80 mile long speed trap. Today I had a miserable drive home. I had knuckleheads that would not do the speed limit. I had other people driving in an unsafe manner that scared the bejezus out of me early in the trip.  But the scariest part of the trip was when some sort of Redneck sociopath talking on a cell phone and writing while driving a red Buick LeSabre who probably abuses children did his best to endanger me between New Bern and Washington.  The man almost ran me off the road and either tail gated me or refused to let me pass him.  His actions were most threatening and I should have called 911 but was afraid that he would do something to retaliate.  I’m sure that he didn’t get cited for anything.

So when I pulled into Williamston to defuel and refuel I was pretty stressed due to this local shithead’s threatening behavior. Thus after conducting said defueling and refueling operations and getting back on the highway I figured that I was in good shape with nothing but 4 lane highways ahead of me for the rest of the way home. However I forgot the little speed differential at the Martin and Bertie County line where the speed limit drops for no real reason from 60 to 55 miles an hour. Normally I am aware of the change in speed limit because I know the area is a speed trap but I was still a bit rattled following my encounter with the local sociopath in the red Buick LeSabre. Unfortunately my cruise control and GPS does not automatically adjust to such arbitrary changes in the speed limit. Since I was feeling the kind of stress that I had felt in various convoys while serving in Iraq I simply didn’t notice the change in speed until the polite State Trooper nailed me.

The trooper was very polite and had my cruise control and or GPS alerted me he would, by his own words would have let me off with a warning. Instead I either pay $171 to the law abiding citizens of Bertie County or about $100 more to a lawyer to get me off on a mechanical violation or some other non-descript offense. I’ll probably pay the extra $100 or so just to avoid my insurance rates going up.  I haven’t figured out what I will do yet except to minimize the damage and buy a good radar detector upon my return to North Carolina. I figure if they want to set up speed traps then I should do my best to ensure that I have fair warning.

Sad to say that the NC State Trooper’s autograph at a speed trap will cost me more than some baseball legends autographs, but such is life.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Opening Day 2011: How Baseball Helps Padre Steve Make Sense of the World

The 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)

We are approaching Opening Day for baseball and in a couple weeks more the Norfolk Tides will play their home opener at Harbor Park against their rival the Durham Bulls. Unfortunately this year I cannot keep my season tickets in 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.  My assignment at Camp LeJeune will keep me from this place 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 2008 but Harbor Park has a special place in my heart a place of solace and community that has been a constant for me. While I will not have my season tickets this year I will still make games whenever I am in town at the same time that the Tides are at home and I will catch some games in Kinston North Carolina where the K-Tribe, the Kinston Indians will play their last season before moving to Zebulon and it’s wonderful ballpark.

Baseball is reassuring.  It makes me feel as if the world is not going to blow up.  ~Sharon Olds

The ball park is important to me.  When I was really suffering from depression and a major crisis in faith related to my tour in Iraq and battle with PTSD and feelings of abandonment after the tour 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 with California Angels Manager Lefty Phillips in 1970

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.

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.

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, Andy Messersmith, and Billy Cowan and sits in a display case on my kitchen wall.

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.

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.

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.  Last year the Vietnam Vets and the Veterans beer stand were moved down the first base concourse where they were relegated to the boring beers.

Even still there is some sadness in baseball this year as there was last year and the year before.  My dad passed away last year after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease.  I miss talking baseball with him and wish he was alive and in good enough health to play catch.  However that will have to wait for eternity on the lush baseball field that only heaven can offer.

The season is about to begin 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, natural disasters 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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