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The Boys Are Back!

Finally. After the long drought of late fall and a long (but very warm) winter, it’s spring, and the “boys of summer” are back! The Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues are in full swing, and the regular season is approaching.

I fell in love with baseball long before I knew any of the intricacies of the game. As soon as the Knoxville News-Sentinel arrived in our mailbox late in the afternoon, my brother and I grabbed it, stretched out on our bellies on the grass, and turned to the sports page (after a brief stop at the comics page) to devour the baseball news.

I poured over those box scores. I had no idea what all the numbers meant, but I memorized names of teams and players. Names like Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Whitey Ford, and Bobby Richardson. And Stan Musial, Red Schoendienst, and the Boyer brothers. And Phil Rizzuto and Gil Hodges. And so many others.

And then the Milwaukee Braves moved to Atlanta, becoming the only major league team in the South. A local AM radio station, WROL, carried their games, and I listened to them faithfully, even the late west-coast games that were so interrupted by static on the low-wattage station that I often didn’t know what was happening. Since our family didn’t have a TV, I had to use my imagination. And I was hooked on the Braves before it became popular to follow them and in spite of the fact that they often were as unlovely as the first-season New York Mets.

The names I followed changed. I now memorized the statistics of Hank Aaron, Phil Niekro, Rico Carty, Felix Milan, Orlando Cepeda, Felipe Alou, Clete Boyer, Hoyt Wilhelm, and others. My mother was aghast when she one day realized that I had gradually replaced all of the family photos in the house with publicity photos of my favorite Braves players.

Daddy fed my craving for baseball by telling me stories about Uncle Homer, who had been a scout for the St. Louis Cardinals and had taught him to throw a knuckleball. And Daddy regaled me with stories of his favorite players, Pepper Martin and Enos “Country” Slaughter. I loved to “pass ball” with Daddy, who tried to teach me to throw the knuckler as Homer had taught him, burning my palm right through the cheap leather glove I had. Those “passing” sessions were too few.

But I also read baseball voraciously. Two books stick in my memory even today. I bought my own copy of The Greatest World Series Thrillers and read it many times, learning about Don Larson’s perfect game and Bobby Thompson’s and Bill Mazeroski’s big homers. Not wanting to live baseball vicariously but personally, I also ordered a copy of Pete Rose’s little booklet titled How to Play Better Baseball and wore out its pages just like I wore the cover off many a baseball trying to practice what it taught.

I never got to play organized baseball. Given the chance to take piano lessons, I foresaw hours of practice that would mean foregoing baseball, so I turned it down. My brother took the lessons–and played organized baseball both in Babe Ruth League and on the high school team. I not only did not learn piano but also was not allowed by my father to play organized baseball.

I did play unorganized or disorganized baseball, though–on a cow pasture. We had to invent some unique ground rules for that unique field. It was a ground-rule double if the ball bounced into the pond in right field; a homer if it went into the drink on the fly. (The batter did not have to run the bases in those cases. Rather, he ran to the pond and fished out the ball before it became waterlogged.) It was an automatic single if a ball hit the ubiquitous and ever-present cow piles scattered randomly over the field. In spite of the hazards, we played on that field until it was so dark we couldn’t see the not-so-white ball. Today, every time I see a well-manicured Little League field, I turn green with envy of the tykes who are privileged to play on it.

In college one semester, I took a PE class on baseball. It was in that class that instructor Joe Elmer taught me not just to love the game but also to appreciate its intricacies.

Now, any time I hear someone lament how “boring” baseball is (“all they do is stand around”), I shake my head at their ignorance. Baseball is a constantly, continuously active sport. It’s a game of the mind. Before, during, and after every play, every player on the field–and even many off the field–is thinking. What pitch to throw–if you’re the pitcher or catcher. What the pitch will be–if you’re the batter. How much to lead off base–if you’re a runner. Where to throw the ball if it comes to you or where to go if it is not–if you’re a fielder. What signs to give batters and runners–if you’re a base coach. Whether to yank a pitcher or leave him in for one more batter or whether to put in a pinch runner or pinch hitter–if you’re a manager. If played and watched as it should be, baseball can never be a boring game.

When our four daughters were young, a new generation of Braves players arose, and the Braves of the 90s were writ large on our family schedule. Our girls became enthralled with baseball, with the Braves–Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, John Smoltz, and others. Whenever they were in the playoffs and World Series (which was practically every year during that decade), we let the girls stay up ‘way past their bedtime and watch the games to the very end–and they not only stayed awake but were on the edge of their seats with excitement.

We fed the girls’ insatiable appetite for baseball by taking them to numerous Knoxville Sox, Blue Jays, and Smokies games. (The franchise changed team affiliations so often it was hard to keep track of what they were called.)

Yes, I’m glad to see that the boys are back and that another season of America’s pastime is before us. Now that a new season is upon us, let’s sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and play ball!

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