Darrell Huckaby - 05/27/09

Kids crack me up. They think they invented classic rock music, for instance, and every now and then one of my students will come rushing into my room to tell me about a great "new" author, like Ernest Hemingway, or a great "new" book, like "Atlas Shrugged."

This weekend, for instance, my daughter Jamie, a brand new resident of Savannah, called to tell me about a great new experience. She had been to a Savannah Sand Gnats baseball game and was raving about how much fun it was. More thrills and chills than the Major League counterpart. She said that there was lots of action, on and off the field, with all sorts of gimmicks to hold one's attention between innings. And the players were younger and cuter, too.

Say it ain't so! Chipper Jones is an old man.

Many of my students have been raving about minor league baseball, too. They have become quite enamored of the Gwinnett Braves and seem to prefer the location, laid back atmosphere, and up close and personal seating - not to mention the lower prices - to the real deal at Turner Field.

"You really should see a minor league game," one young lady actually advised me.

For the record, young people, before there was Turner Field - or Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, for that matter; before there was Hammerin' Hank or Dale Murphy or Tom Glavine or John Smoltz or Bobby Cox - before there were Pete, Skip and Ernie - and, yes, before there was Larry "Chipper" Jones and the Tomahawk Chop, there was Ponce de Leon Park and the Atlanta Crackers. Yes, Virginia, there was baseball in Atlanta before the Braves and those minor league Crackers were the New York Yankees of their realm.

I grew up with the Crackers and used to listen to the broadcasts on an old Philco radio while sitting at the kitchen table while keeping score on Blue Horse notebook paper - living and dying with every pitch.

The Crackers had a lot of young players who were passing through; some en route to the Big Leagues and others never to be heard from again, but they also had a lot of veteran players for whom the Crackers and the International League would be the zenith of their careers. The Crackers had the legendary Bob Montague and Country Brown, both of whom were before my time - but my daddy talked about them so much that I felt like I had seen them play and revered their names the way young boys in the Bronx revered Dimaggio or boys in Brooklyn revered Duke Snider.

Ed Thelinius was doing the play-by-play when I used to tune in and he used that same crisp, staccato voice that he used to describe Georgia football games. When the Crackers were behind in the late innings Thelinius would urge the fans to "get out the rally buttons" and this little linthead boy would cross and uncross my fingers while holding my breath on virtually every pitch down the stretch.

Eventually the Crackers began to play a few of their games on television and I could actually see the heroes I had only been able to imagine previously.

And then came that glorious Sunday morning when Daddy announced that we were leaving church early and driving to Atlanta. We were going to Ponce de Leon Park to see the Crackers play - in person! No 9-year-old child has ever been more excited about anything - not in the whole long history of the world.

We battled the traffic on Ponce de Leon Avenue and parked in the big garage, next to the old Sears-Roebuck Building. That building now houses City Hall East - the place where city of Atlanta bureaucrats prefect their incompetence. I was so excited about getting inside the ball park that I raced across the street and ran right in front of an oncoming car. The driver slammed on brakes but still slammed into me, throwing me high in the air. If that had happened today there would have been ambulances and backboards and lawyers involved. That particular Sunday I jumped up and continued across the road, a few bruised ribs a small price to pay for a chance to see the Crackers play in person.

I had to get inside the ball park, understand - and the term "ball park" must have been invented to describe Poncey. It was not a stadium and the word "field" just wouldn't have done it justice. There was a covered grandstand behind home plate - that's where we sat - and bleachers down each baseline. The grass was as green as any grass I had ever seen, before or since. A railroad trestle ran along a high bank behind the right field fence and there was a magnolia tree in deep center field - in play. I might have left church early that day but it didn't matter because I spent nine innings in heaven.

I went to a few more games at Ponce de Leon Park and have been lucky enough to see hundreds of games in dozens of venues since, but nothing will ever compare to that first Crackers game.

Minor league baseball, huh? I think I might just take in a game sometime. Thanks for the tip!

Now tell me about this Rod Stewart guy you've been listening to on your MP3 player.

Darrell Huckaby