My daddy loved baseball. I heard him say a million times, "me and Ty Cobb used to play ball back when I was a kid." I was pretty old before I realized that Daddy was telling the truth - sort of. My father did play baseball when he was a kid - on the sandlots of Winterville and Lagrange and several other small Georgia towns. Ty Cobb, of course, played for the Detroit Tigers - in slightly larger venues than the vacant lots that were Homer Huckaby's fields of dreams.
I didn't have much access to my dad when I was a child. He worked on the second shift at the mill. I went to school. But on Saturdays we spent many happy hours in front of the television set, listening to Dizzy Dean and Pee Wee Reece broadcast the Falstaff Baseball Game of the Week. I think Daddy's favorite part of those broadcasts, which usually featured the New York Yankees, was when 'Ol Diz would get a little over-lubricated from sampling the Falstaff and break into a few bars of Wabash Cannonball.
We finally got Major League baseball in Atlanta when I was 12 or 13, the prime age for attending ball games with your dad, but his work schedule - and probably his paycheck - prevented him from taking me to the ballpark when I was a kid. By the time I was in college, however, he had retired and I made it a point to take him to as many ball games as I could.
This was back in the day, understand, when you could walk up to the ticket booths at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and pick up a pretty good seat 30 minutes before game time.
One year, on the Fourth of July, I took Daddy to a double header. Denny McClain pitched the first game. He was about 30 days out of prison and about 30 pounds overweight, but he lasted about five innings, if memory serves me correctly, and we had a big time watching him. The nightcap - along with the post-game fireworks - was washed out by a deluge, but we didn't care. We got to sit in the left field bleachers and watch a ball game and a half, so we both went home happy.
Another time we saw the Great Karl Wallenda walk a tight-wire stretched across the top of the stadium. He stopped in the middle and stood on his head. I think we were more impressed by the post-game show than we were the game on that particular day. Another time we watched Hank Aaron try to reenact his 715th home run. The ball was juiced and the bat was corked and it took him about five swings, but The Hammer finally hit one out and trotted around the bases. One of the two kids from the original historic round-tripper even jumped out of the stands to circle the bases with him.
I think our favorite night at the ballpark came when I took him to watch the Dodger phenom, Fernando Valenzuela, pitch against Gaylord Perry. Valenzuela was built like Babe Ruth but pitched like Sandy Koufax. Fernando, a 20-year-old rookie at the time, had a great screwball, but Perry, a grizzled veteran - I've always wanted an excuse to call someone a grizzled veteran - who had been pitching in the Big League since before Valenzuela was weaned, had a spitball that kept the LA hitters off balance all night and, much to our delight, took the young Mexican to school. We root, root, rooted for the home team and on this night, at least, the home team won.
It really didn't matter, though. When my daddy and I went to a baseball game together it was never about which team won or what the individual players did. It was about the two of us being together and enjoying a common interest. The trips would always be strangely similar. As we'd sit and watch batting practice, Daddy would tell me story after story about how tough the ballplayers of his day were. He'd talk of Cobb and Babe Ruth and Walter Perry Johnson. He would berate the players of the day, calling them "soft" and "greedy" and "spoiled" - I wonder what he'd say about today's players - and he would always sit and bemoan the fact that so few pitchers ever finished what they started. He always blamed Casey Stengel for the concept of the relief pitcher.
And he would sit in the stands eating peanuts by the peck while complaining about the price of concessions. He loved to get on to the players. He was one of the last people I knew who knew what it was to give a player the old raspberry. He thought Bob Horner was too fat - called him "Captain Lard-Ass" - but loved Dale Murphy. Who didn't?
The only thing he complained about more than the concession prices were the ball girls, who dressed in those days in hot pants and Braves' jerseys. He said they didn't belong, but his disdain for them didn't keep him from looking at them through my binoculars between innings.
My daddy loved baseball, and I loved being with him at the ball game. He's been gone for more than 20 years, but at least I have a lot of precious memories of our time together. I'm hoping that someday my son will take me to a ball game.
Happy Father's Day, y'all.