“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.
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
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 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. 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.
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.
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,