Tag Archives: baseball

Now, It’s Over . . . RIP Mr. Berra

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https://i2.wp.com/img-s-msn-com.akamaized.net/tenant/amp/entityid/AAeEJRa.imgYogi Berra was one of the greatest players to ever strap on a set of baseball spikes. The numbers speak for themselves, he holds the record for most appearances in a World Series at a staggering 14 as a player and seven more as manager or coach. Twenty-one times he appeared on baseball’s largest stage and in the process, became larger than life.

Yogi was a great player and a favorite of sportswriters all over the country. He shared the field with some of the greatest to ever don pinstripes — guys like Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio — , but he never let the amazing success or the rarified company go to his head. He knew he was a grown man blessed to be playing a kid’s game for pay so whenever one of those kids asked ol’ Yogi for an autograph on a baseball or program, he didn’t snarl . . . he smiled and took the item and a pen to sign it with.

In every respect, he was a class act, but, even if he hadn’t been in so many Fall Classics and even if he didn’t have a World Series ring for every finger and two thumbs and even if he didn’t still hold a plethora of records for games appeared in or doubles in the World Series, Yogi would still be remembered because his skill as a baseball player paled next to his alacrity with the English language. To whit,

  • When you come to a fork in the road, take it.
  • You can observe a lot by just watching.
  • It gets late early out here.
  • It’s like déjà vu all over again.
  • It ain’t over until it’s over.

He may not have sported Clark Gable good looks, but Clark didn’t catch the only perfect game ever thrown in a World Series, either. Yogi’s real name was Lawrence Berra, but if anyone outside his family ever called him that, it never showed up in print. He was a Yankee through and through, even though it didn’t start out that way.

Yogi had a rough patch breaking into the Major Leagues. First he was rejected by his hometown St. Louis Cardinals who instead signed his good friend Joe Garagiola, another Hall of Fame catcher. Then, when he ended up as a Yankee, his minor league career took a hiatus over a little disagreement we call World War 2 today. Finally, he ended up on the bench in his first season in The Show because he could hit the ball a mile but couldn’t throw from home to second, which is a debilitating issue for a catcher and the heretical position called the “designated hitter” had yet to be foisted upon the sacred game. Once he found his stride, though, things turned out all right for him. Besides his numerous World Series records, Yogi was a three time American League MVP and a 15 time All-Star in his 18 year career which spanned 1946-1963.

He was also one of my Papa Wham’s favorite baseball players and one of the very few Yankees he could tolerate.

In a bit of irony, Yogi died exactly sixty-nine years to the day of his Major League debut. Perhaps the home run he hit with his first at bat should have clued people in to the greatness to come.

Yogi Berra was 90 years old . . . he will be greatly missed by his family, the Yankees, and all true baseball fans everywhere.

So Long, Mr Jeter, and Thank You

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A baby-faced Derek Jeter looks out from his 1993 Topps Stadium Club rookie card.

I hate the New York Yankees with a passion usually reserved for Crusades. Three times in the glory days that were the 1990s, the hated Bronx Bombers dashed the World Series hopes of my beloved Atlanta Braves. I suppose I inherited my hatred of all things pinstriped from Papa Wham. I’m not sure Papa “hated” anything, but he did express a stern dislike for the Yanks.

Having said all of that, I do admire the game of baseball to a fault and when a player is worthy of making baseball history, I like to acknowledge a life well lived and a career worth remembering. With that in mind, I bid a nostalgic farewell to New York Yankee shortstop and Captain, Derek Jeter.

Jeter took his last at-bat today at Fenway Park in Boston and hit a single, fitting for a player who is at the top of the Yankee’s all time hits list and sits at number six on the same list for MLB with 3,465 putting him just below the legendary Tris “Grey Eagle” Speaker and a shade above the equally-if-not-more legendary Honus “The Flying Dutchman” Wagner (a fellow shortstop, btw). Definitely not shabby company by any metric.

What makes Jeter even more special — at least in my mind — is in an era of massive payrolls, egos, and free agent deals, Number 2 spent his entire two decade career with one team. Of course, when that team IS the New York Yankees, it’s understandable, but still, very few players — and almost none of Jeter’s performance level — stay in one place anymore but prefer to chase the next big contract with some other team, be they perennial contender or celler-dweller. Jeter made New York City his home — at least during the baseball season — for twenty years and never seriously looked to go anywhere else.

Perhaps it was this loyalty which prompted irascible Yankee’s owner, the late George Steinbrenner, to name Jeter as the 14th Captain in the long and storied history of the Wearers of the Pinstripes. When you consider some of the names on THAT list — Don Mattingly, Thurmond Munson, Craig Nettles, oh, and a couple of guys named Gerhig and Ruth — it puts Jeter’s place in Yankee history in some perspective. He may not be “The Greatest Yankee Ever” and I’m not sure any group of baseball writers, players, or managers could ever pin that title on any one of the greats who played in the Bronx, but he would certainly be in the dugout in reserve and probably on the field at shortstop with the first team.

Just as much as his performance speaks volumes about his career, the words which DON’T come up in conversations about him are equally important. Despite playing near the high water mark of what is now known as “The Steroids Era,” Jeter’s name has no taint of PEDs to cling to it. No one has ever seriously accused The Captain of juicing and his time on injured reserve as well as his stints in physical therapy point to a guy who didn’t cut corners to play the game he loved. Derek Jeter, who I like to think of as “The Anti-A-Rod,” is one of a handful of players like Cal Ripken, Jr. Ken Griffey, Jr. and my own beloved Dale Murphy who played the game right — no shortcuts, no special favors, just hard work.

Fond farewells, Captain. Hope you have a great retirement.

Of all the qualities that make Jeter a memorable player, though, the greatest is probably his conduct OFF the field. For twenty years, Derek Jeter spent a majority of his time in the hottest spotlight and under the most powerful microscope in the United States. I’m talking about the shark tank that is New York City with its ability to eat celebrities of all shapes and walks of life and turn their lives into a paparazzi fueled Hell. A lot of players and celebs with half Jeter’s talents managed to upset the wrong journalist and ended up in tears amidst one scandal after another. Not Jeter. Despite being one of the biggest in a constellation of stars roaming the Big Apple, Jeter maintained his privacy and his dashing public persona as well.

Oh, to be sure, Jeter is a real life Bruce Wayne in many ways. Mild mannered billionaire playboy by day, hero — on the diamond, not in the alleys — by night. He even has his own extravagant “Batter’s Cave” in a penthouse apartment high atop Trump Tower in Manhattan! The string of lovely ladies who have graced Derek Jeter’s arm at one time or another is long and luxurious, but not very lascivious. So far, no woman from pop singing star Mariah Carey to eye-candy actresses like Jessica Biel and Minka Kelly have managed to wrestle The Captain down the aisle to the altar, but neither have they be splattered across the front page of tabloid after tabloid in one unsavory scandal or another.

So, the numbers don’t lie. Jeter has played a Cooperstown caliber career for twenty years in New York. He’s done it as the consummate professional all the while thriving in the media flashes and enduring the stormy moods of Mr. Steinbrenner. That makes him special all by itself. Goodbye, Captain, and thanks for the great memories, even if you were a Yankee.

And as for all of you . . . Love y’all, and keep those feet clean!

My July 4th Memory – “The Rick Camp” Game

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My Rick Camp 1978 Topps baseball card.

My Rick Camp 1978 Topps baseball card.

Independence Day isn’t grilling burgers or franks, shooting off loads of fireworks, or fun in the Sun on the water; it’s baseball. One game in particular recalls everything which makes baseball the greatest of games — a game where anything can happen on any given pitch and any player from any position can change the history of the game. I watched my game of all Independence Day games with my beloved Papa Wham on Thursday to Friday, July 4 – 5, 1985.

That night, the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets sent their aces — Dwight Gooden for the Mets, Rick Mahler for the Braves — to the mound. Instead of the advertised pitcher’s duel, they were both chased by the fourth inning. Fifteen MORE innings, THREE long rain delays, and a BUNCH of pitchers later, the game would become known in baseball lore as “The Rick Camp” Game.

By the time the final rain delay was over, the game was in the bottom of the 8th with the Braves losing 7-4, which was pretty typical for the 1980s Braves. Finally, however, the Braves’ bats came alive; they scored four times to take an 8-7 lead.

Then things started to get weird.

The Mets tied the game up in the top of the ninth by rocking famous Braves closer Gene Garber for a run. The home team failed to push anyone across in the bottom half of the frame and the free baseball began. It looked like things would be decided in “typical” extra innings when the Mets scored twice in the top of the 13th, but the Braves managed to knot the game up again when Terry Harper jacked a two run homer. Harper came to the plate TEN times in the game and managed five hits. That’s something not many baseball players can boast about.

The game went back to deadlock for the next five innings and then the Braves ran out of position players as pinch hitters. With nobody left on the bench to hit for him, and behind by a run, the Braves sent right-handed PITCHER Rick Camp, a lifetime .060 hitter, to the plate. With Camp behind in the count 0-2 — just as pitchers are supposed to be — Mets reliever Tom Gorman grooved a fastball “right down Peachtree Street” and Rick Camp sent it over the left field fence and into baseball history, tying the game.

What most people, including me, tend to forget after such a huge event is the Braves ended up LOSING the game in the next inning when the Mets got five runs in the top of the 19th. The Braves would get two back in the bottom of the inning, but Rick Camp couldn’t make the lightning strike twice and struck out to — finally, mercifully — end the game. It was 3:55 AM, July 5, six hours and ten minutes after it began.

The box score from the game took almost an entire column in the paper. Both teams used seven pitchers and combined for 46 hits. In a terrible bit of irony, Rick Camp proved a worse pitcher than hitter that fateful night, working three innings giving up 5 earned runs and going down as the losing pitcher.

The handful of remaining fans got to see the July 4th Fireworks Show start at 4:01am. Papa and I watched the entire thing; we both slept late the next morning.

Hope y’all had a great July 4th!

Love y’all; Keep those feet clean.

 

 

 

Tommy John Is Not a Doctor!

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Dr. Frank Jobe  1925-2014 The Surgeon

Dr. Frank Jobe
1925-2014
The Surgeon

I was reading through the sports pages on MSN today and amidst all the bracketology talk and bubble predictions about the upcoming NCAA tournament, I saw an article stating Frank Wilson Jobe had passed away March 6th at the age of 88. I figure only the most diehard baseball fans would know that name, but Frank Jobe, in my opinion, should go into the Baseball Hall of Fame on a special ballot even though he never played baseball at any level, never threw a pitch, or fielded a grounder. Instead, DOCTOR Frank Jobe developed a procedure which altered the way injured pitchers looked at their futures and to date has saved the careers of some of baseball’s most noted pitchers including players like Chris Carpenter, John Smoltz, Ben Sheets, and quite recently Stephen Strasbourg. The procedure is properly termed “ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction” but baseball fans everywhere refer to it by the name of its first recipient — then Los Angeles Dodgers left-handed pitcher Tommy John.

Tommy John was a pitching star in the Dodger organization when he blew his elbow out in 1974. At that time, John’s injury was considered career ending. In fact, the fantastic career of another Dodger – legendary Sandy Koufax – had been truncated in 1966 by the same injury John was facing. Tommy John, however, refused to accept such a bleak diagnosis and approached the team’s orthopedist, Dr. Jobe, about ANY possible fixes. Dr. Jobe had a colleague who had used ligament harvesting to treat polio patients’ paralysis and the two doctors mulled over the idea of using a similar technique to replace the ruined ligaments in John’s throwing elbow. From the start, Dr. Jobe was bluntly honest with Tommy John. In an interview I heard on ESPN radio Tommy John recalled, “I asked Dr. Jobe what would happen if I didn’t have the surgery and he said, ‘You’ll never pitch major league baseball again.’ So I asked him what would happen if I did have the surgery and he said, ‘You’ll PROBABLY never pitch major league baseball again.'”

The Guinea Pig Tommy John in 1975,  his rehab year.

The Guinea Pig
Tommy John in 1975,
his rehab year.

But the surgery was a success beyond anything Dr. Jobe could have hoped for. After a complete year of rehabilitation – a practice still followed today — Tommy John returned for the 1976 season and went 10 – 10, which was considered completely miraculous at the time. He also showcased the durability of the reconstruction by pitching fourteen more seasons before he finally retired in 1989. Today, estimates vary, but most hover at around one-third of all major league pitchers have (or will have) some degree of Tommy John Surgery. Thanks to a pitcher who wasn’t ready to throw in the towel and a doctor who was willing to try something entirely untested to put him back on the mound, a blown out pitching elbow no longer means an end to a career, but for many pitchers – the original recipient among them – it signals the beginning of even better performance.

Hopefully, Cooperstown will think the same way I do and eventually, Dr. Frank Jobe will have a bronze bust in the special wing of the Hall of Fame to honor the man whose procedure saved the careers of nearly 100 major league pitching stars even if the non-baseball public continues to think Tommy John was the surgeon and not the patient!

Love y’all and keep those feet clean.

Papa and the Braves

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Papa Wham’s Atlanta Braves cap hangs right where he left it, 15 18 baseball seasons ago.

Today would have been my beloved Papa Wham’s 96th birthday, so I’m re-running this post from a few years ago in his honor.

I can’t believe, no matter how hard I try, that my papa has been gone for 18 years. Looking back to Papa’s passing in 1995, I realize he was the first extremely important person I lost.  It just simply does not seem possible.  I miss him these days more than ever because I sure could use his support and advice on a lot of things right about now.

I take my love of baseball in general and the Atlanta Braves in particular from my Papa Wham. In 1978, Granny surprised Papa with a special present when she signed their house up to be the first “Cablevision Equipped” residence on Weathers Circle. Now Papa could watch the Braves on the new Turner Broadcasting Channel out of Atlanta right from the comfort of his favorite couch instead of having to go sit in the car and listen to the games on the car radio.

From that first season until I was old enough to stay by myself several years later, Papa and I didn’t miss a game through the week and I’d often make Mama take me to Granny and Papa’s on Saturday or Sunday or both so he and I could watch the weekend games together.

If you call yourself a Braves fan, I have one question for you? Who are Chris Chambliss, Glenn Hubbard, Rafael Ramirez, Bob Horner, and Bruce Benedict? If you don’t know those names, you are not a Braves fan, you are a BANDWAGON jumper who attached yourself to Papa’s beloved team AFTER their meteoric rise from worst to first and the subsequent instant classic that was the 1991 World Series. Those names are the starting infielders from the 1981 Braves team that finished a miserable 15 games back of the NL WEST leaders and eventual World Series Champion Los Angeles Dodgers. Papa and I watched them all. I lay on the floor next to his couch and listened as Papa told Bobby Cox how to manage a game through the television.

Papa and I used to kid each other that we would pay any price for tickets if Atlanta ever went to the World Series. For all the years we watched WTBS, the Braves making the post-season, much less the Fall Classic, seemed about as likely as country ham and cheese grits as the breakfast special of a kosher diner. Still, we watched faithfully. Dale Murphy was a bright spot and when he won the MVP in 1982, we two were deliriously happy. I got my license a couple of years later and mostly stayed by myself, but come summer, at least twice a week and one weekend day I’d pull in to the driveway and run in just in time to watch some new hotshot throw the first pitch of the game.

I went off to Clemson in the fall of 1990. The Braves were on their way to a fantastic finish a mere 26 games out of first. Papa and I groaned about that season all winter. Then came 1991. All summer, I’d cut grass, watch cars, and ride up to Granny and Papa’s to see the Braves play. It LOOKED like they’d finally put an awesome team together, but 15 years of utter futility had taught us not to be optimistic. Still, they kept winning and when I went back to school, the Braves were making a run at the pennant.

I can remember this next part just as easily as if it were yesterday. I was standing in front of a big screen TV in The Tiger Town Tavern. It was after midnight; the Braves were playing the Pirates. The winner, unbelievably, would go to the WORLD FREAKING SERIES. A new kid named John Smoltz pitched a complete game and shut out the vaunted Pirate batting line up — including a young (and much smaller pre-steroid Barry Bonds). The Braves were going to the Series!

I almost got in a fist fight pushing my way to the front of the pay phone line (this was way before everyone had a cell phone) and called Papa. Granny answered the phone and just as I asked her if Papa was up to see the game winning run, I heard him call from the den, “World Series, son, we’re going to the World Series!” Granny just laughed and took him the phone where we replayed every crucial at bat during the entire game.

Unfortunately, Papa took sick later that week. I’d scraped up enough to get us tickets to at least one game, but he was under the weather and Granny said “NO.” So that was that. I ended up watching three of the seven games of the Series against the Twins with him and we were on the phone talking as we watched Gene Larkin break our hearts with the winning hit in that unbelievable game seven.

Papa and I never did get to see the Braves play in any of the World Series of that awesome 15 year run when it seemed the Braves couldn’t be beaten anymore. He was on oxygen by the time little Francisco Cabrera’s pinch hit and Sid Bream’s slide sent us to the 1992 World Series, but I sat with him and together we watched Joe Carter and the Toronto Blue Jays beat us. A baseball team from CANADA. The shame was too great to bear.

Papa was gone by the time the Braves made the series again in 1995. He died of a heart attack in Daddy’s arms right after the All-Star break. His beloved Atlanta baseball cap hung on the top peg of the hat rack in the kitchen right where he’d put it the week before . . . the last time he’d worn it before he became bed-ridden. I wanted to bury it with him, but Aunt Cathy couldn’t stand the idea of parting with it, so we didn’t. I’m glad now. It’s still right where he hung it. It’s never been moved. Cathy will gently dust it off every now and again, but it’s waiting for him.

I sat alone in tears and watched the Braves beat the Indians in game 6 of the 1995 World Series to win the only World Series they would win during their streak. The next day, I cut the box score out of the local paper, had it laminated, wrapped it in a plastic bag and buried it under the gravel in the corner of Papa’s plot. The Braves haven’t won another series since. I guess all the magic of their greatest fan just petered out once he was gone. I miss him terribly and to this day, fifteen eighteen years on, I can’t watch a Braves game without thinking of him.

So to all you fathers and grandfathers out there, take in a game and make some time for each other. I love you, Papa.

And I love y’all!

Keep your feet clean now!

Asterisks Don’t Tell the Whole Story

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My all-time favorite player! Squeaky clean, awesome player, plenty of homers, great guy . . . no Hall of Fame. That’s a crying shame.

I’m a baseball fan from way back. Some of my earliest, clearest and fondest childhood memories are summer nights playing catch with Papa Wham after supper then going in to get a shower before stretching out — Papa on the couch, me on the floor — to watch the cellar dwelling Atlanta Braves of the late ’70s and ’80s play ( and most likely lose) a baseball game via the original incarnation of Ted Turner’s TBS SuperStation on the only TV set on Weathers Circle with cable instead of “rabbit ears”. I’ve watched the game all my life. The fact my beloved Budge is an extremely passionate and knowledgeable baseball fan figured highly in my decision to marry her. I just love the game.

Keep them out? I don’t think so.

Unfortunately, a huge span of my best baseball fan years occurred in what’s now labelled “The Steroid Era.”  Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds, along with a multitude of other MAJOR stars and superstars, admitted or were otherwise implicated in the use of “performance enhancing drugs” throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Now the vast majority of those PED tainted players have retired from the game I cherish and several of them finished their careers with statistics gaudy enough to guarantee them entry into the holy halls of Cooperstown’s Baseball Hall of Fame, but steroids are still haunting them.

Rafael Palermio, great numbers but not so good at telling the truth.

Consider this, seven of the top fifteen players on the All-Time Home Run List, including Barry Bonds at the top of the pile, are tainted by proven or alleged steroid use. Roger “The Rocket” Clemens is the only person in baseball history to win 7 Cy Young Awards as the greatest pitcher of the year, but he has a dark cloud of allegations hanging over his head that at least some of those 7 awards are the result of steroids. Because of the scandal, a lot of baseball purists have conducted what I think amounts to a statistical witch-hunt and cried out that NONE of those implicated in steroid use should EVER be admitted to Cooperstown.

I think that’s a load of crap myself. Sure, I’ll concede to purists a ball hit off a “juicer’s” bat will most likely fly farther than one hit by a “mere” major leaguer. As Shakespeare said though, “There’s the rub!” They still have to HIT THE BALL.

Villain or hero? Where would baseball be without his ’98 season.

According to polls by USA Today, ESPN, and Sporting News, hitting a baseball thrown by a major league pitcher is THE hardest feat in team sports. A several pitchers in the history of “The Show” have been able to consistently throw the little white ball with stitches on it in excess of 95 mph. More than one — Nolan Ryan and Randy “The Big Unit” Johnson come to mind — routinely surpassed 100 mph. At that speed, the hitter has around 0.4 seconds to find the ball and put his bat on a trajectory to intercept that ball. Hitting a baseball is so difficult anyone who can consistently do it 1 out of every 4  at-bats can make a good living in the major leagues, those who can hit .300 for a year are awarded with dump-truck loads of money. The one in a million, literally, who can hit safely 40 times out of a hundred for an entire season stands to get awards and buildings named after them. Steroids might make the ball fly farther, but they don’t slow the rock down on its way to the plate.

Baseball people also forget just how much the game owes those “juicers,” particularly Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. In 1994, the Major League players went on strike. The entire post-season — including the World Series — was cancelled. The work stoppage went on into the 1995 season. Fans were pissed off and I was one of them. These guys get millions of dollars to play a kid’s game and they are gripping about not getting enough? Anyway, baseball was in a black hole bunch of trouble after the strike. Estimates show attendance at games and television ratings dropped 20% in one year. Baseball was on life support.

Not my favorite person, but he could seriously damage a baseball and that’s not just due to steroids.

Then came 1998 and “The Great Home Run Chase.” Sosa and McGwire lit up the scoreboards with homers and people who swore they would never watch another baseball game again plopped back down on the sofas and tuned in to see if a 40+ year old record could fall. When it did fall in September with Big Mac’s 62 home run, baseball was back in the high life again.

Personally, I don’t see what the huge uproar is about steroid use. It’s dangerous to the user and it helps in healing, but does it make someone a better ballplayer? I don’t really think so. Besides, what’s the difference between the steroid abuse of the 90’s and the cocaine epidemic of the 70’s and early 80’s? People forget just how many ballplayers from THAT era have admitted to using the Peruvian Marching Powder, but no one would think of putting asterisks by their names or taking them out of the HOF.

These guys were trying to play better ball and hit more home runs, which is what they were being paid to do and what fans were paying to watch. They weren’t shooting up in front of kids who admired them. Truthfully, if Congress had kept its collective nose out of it, the whole thing would have passed just like the cocaine debacle did. Unfortunately, America LOVES a good scandal, even if it costs their icons everything.

Oh, and lets lease not bring up “character issues.” The majority of baseball’s heroes were “characters.” Babe Ruth was known to show up to games with colossal hangovers. Mickey Mantle struggled mightily with alcohol and was an inveterate womanizer. As far as role models go, if I had a son, I would MUCH rather him view Mark McGwire as a role model than one of the HOF’s founding members.

Keep him in but not let in “juicers”? Where’s the justice in that?

I’m talking about “The Georgia Peach” Ty Cobb. Ty Cobb was a marvelous baseball player, but he was one of the most odious human beings to ever put on baseball spikes. He was racist, a bigot, and an outright dirty player, but he smiles from a bust in Cooperstown.

So instead of making the Steroid Era superstars out to be villains and denying them their rightful places in the Hall of Fame, judge them by what they contributed to the game. If not for their tape measure homers and gaudy pitching stats, baseball might have died out by now. These guys aren’t evil; they aren’t even particularly awful. In reality, they are modern day heroes, the kind that are hard to find.

Love y’all and keep those feet clean.

I-85 Take Me Home To The Place I Belong!

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It all started with a simple high school baseball game.

This post is the direct result of a memory jog brought on by reading about some random high school baseball playoff. Looking at the box score of a couple of schools I’ve never heard of took me back to one of the most confusing nights of my life that also just happened to involve a high school playoff game . . . sort of.

As Kid Rock so eloquently puts it, “It was 1989 (technically, 1990), my thoughts were short, my hair was long . . . ” My alma mater, Laurens District 55 High School, was playing for the State 4A Baseball Championship against Lancaster High School. My long-time best friend, Robby, asked me to go to the first of the three game series with him and we watched the Green and Gold dismantle the Bruins at Laurens’ stadium. The second game was the next night in Lancaster and Robby asked me to go to that one as well.

At that point, Robby and I managed to maintain what was left of our grade-school spanning friendship. He hadn’t been home from his freshman year at college long  when the playoffs in question started. He’d gone off to Clemson University while I had chosen a girl over my education and stayed home — which is another story for another time — and gone to Greenville Tech. (Spoiler alert: I came to my senses and rectified that situation in the fall of ’90.) So we agreed to meet at his house the next night about 4 and make the three hour drive to Lancaster in time for the game.

Now if you look at the relative positions of Lancaster High School and our home town of Gray Court on a map of South Carolina, you’ll probably start to wonder how in the world it can take three hours to make such a seemingly short trip. The answer — as an old man once told me — is simple, you can’t get there from here. What I mean is, then as now, NO road worth driving connects Gray Court and Lancaster. What’s more, you never ACTUALLY reach a town in the course of the entire trip there. You always “head towards” a town but make a turn before you get to the town limits. For example, in the first leg of the trip, we “headed towards” Union, but turned before we got there in order to “head towards” Chester. The upshot of it all is what looks like it should take 45 minutes to an hour of hard driving takes 3 or more hours of winding country roads through one of the most desolate areas of my home state.

Our chariot for the evening's events. Robby's looked almost exactly like this one.

We made it to the game without a hitch, riding in Robby’s high school graduation present – a frost white 1989 Chevy Beretta. It was a beautiful day full of  bright spring sunshine. Once there, we watched as Laurens was handed its hind-quarters on a silver platter by a pitcher named “Pep” Harris who would eventually play for the Cleveland Indians and the California Angels. The boy was “throwing bb’s” as the baseball expression goes and he made our visiting team look sickly and anemic, which future major league pitchers often do to their high school competition. I got to shake his hand before Robby and I packed up and headed home.

Here’s where the fun began.

See, this was in my younger and less responsible days when I preferred the company of my dear uncles James Beam and Jonathan Daniels over lesser forms of entertainment. Robby shared my love of the “family”, though his preferences ran more towards Messrs. Bartles and James. In any event, we had brought along several “family members” on this particular adventure and by the time the sun went down, most of those dearly beloveds had gone on to a new place of residence. In short, we were a bit less coordinated for our trip home than we’d be on our trip out.

We did fine until we were “headed towards” Chester. Then, for reasons that aren’t completely clear even now, we went UNDER a bridge that we were supposed to go OVER. That would have been trouble enough, but what with our relative lack of thought processing compounded by a joyous rendition of the ENTIRE AC/DC discography played on one of the first in-dash CD players I’d ever seen, we did not notice our mistake for nearly an hour.

When we realized we should have long since reached Union, we started looking for road signs. We were on a two lane road in the middle of the boondocks. Road signs were at a premium. Now two 19 year old guys are not lost so long as there is gas in the tank; they are merely taking the scenic route, so we weren’t worried. The fuzzy effects of our erstwhile uncles had worn off so we were in full possession of our outstanding senses of direction. We reasoned that “home” was to our left, so the very next intersection we found, we turned left. After spending twenty minutes on that road, we figured we must not have turned far enough left so at the next crossroads, we hung another left.

We started to feel this way after midnight.

After twenty more minutes of driving through scrub pine and cotton in the desolate northern borderlands of South Carolina, we came to another crossroads. At that point, a glance at the fuel gauge told the two of us we were dangerously close to getting lost. Unfortunately, we had not the foggiest idea where we were since this was well before a future POTUS Bill Clinton opened up the GPS system for civilian use. I hate to admit it, but we resorted to flipping a coin. The coin chose “right turn” and five minutes later we were at the chain link locked gate of an abandoned cotton mill. After throwing that particular quarter over the aforementioned gate, we headed back the way we came on what amounted to a left hand turn.

About ten minutes later, our luck changed somewhat. After two and a half hours of roaming around aimlessly in the dark, we saw our first road sign. It read “Charlotte 35 miles.” Somehow, we had managed to wander to within 35 miles of the largest city in North Carolina. We were no less than 270 degrees in the wrong direction. Undeterred, we now had knowledge, somewhat anyway, of our position. We still needed to keep going left. At the next intersection, we did. Twenty minutes later, we came to an intersection with a sign pointing off to the right reading “Charlotte 45” above some other places I’d never heard of and I’ve lived in this state all my life.

Now at that point, Robby — ever the stubborn optimist — wanted to turn left again. One glance at the dash, however, told me we were now SERIOUSLY close to being lost so I said, “Temp, let’s go to Charlotte.”

Click to enlarge!

He looked at me like I had two heads and asked, “Why do you want to go to Charlotte? We need to get home.”

I replied, “I KNOW. That’s why I think we should go to Charlotte.”

He said, “Why?” I asked, “Do you know where we are?” He shook his head then said, “But what good will it do to go to Charlotte? That’s even further from home.”

Finally, exasperated, hungry, tired, and my throat sore from imitating Bon Scott and Brian Johnson, I said, “I KNOW THAT DAMMIT, BUT I ALSO KNOW THAT I KNOW HOW THE HELL TO GET HOME FROM CHARLOTTE!!!!”

We turned right and headed towards Charlotte.

Along the way, about ten minutes later, we crossed a road with a sign reading “SC 92”. Before I could say anything, Robby had already slammed on the brakes and did a half doughnut turn onto that road. Two hours and a seedy gas station stop later and we were home because Robby knew what I did . . . SC 92 dead-ends onto SC 14 and SC 14 is also Main Street of Gray Court.

So the moral of the story? Don’t hang out with your “uncles” then try to drive . . . or navigate either for that matter, but if you do and you end up on the backside of nowhere, head for Charlotte because I-85’ll take you to I-385 and I-385’ll get you to Gray Court where you can stop at Mama’s and have her call me and I’ll come and try to get you home.

Love ya’ll and keep those feet clean!

I’m Offically Middle Aged

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Thanks for all the memories, Kid!

It all started when Bret Michaels had his stroke and I thought for sure he was going to join Janis. Then, while riding around last week, I heard Pearl Jam on WROQ — “your CLASSIC ROCK station.” Then today, the bottom just fell out of my delusion that I am still young when I turned on ESPN SportsCenter to find out Ken Griffey, Jr. retired last night.

“The Kid” has hung up his cleats.

To me, Junior will always be the best baseball player of my generation. He is the anti-Barry Bonds. When everyone else in the game, from the power hitters to the ball girls in the outfield corners, was juicing up on performance enhancing drugs, Junior stayed clean. In time, he passed the tarnished likes of McGwire and Sosa to settle in at number five on the all time home run list for major league baseball. Over a career that began the year I graduated high school, that gorgeous left-handed arching swing blasted a ball over the outfield wall 630. Every time, it was his own power that did it. Nothing in a bottle, pill, or needle.

In many ways comparing Junior to Barry Buffoon goes deeper than just the home runs. It shows a lot about raising children. Bobby Bonds was a pretty good baseball player too, but he was a consummate jerk as well. That makes it no surprise that son Barry would be surly, ill-natured, and divisive as well. Across the country, however, Ken Griffey, Sr. was putting together a masterful career with “The Big Red Machine” of the 1970’s and he was doing it with class and grace.

Like father, like son.

Junior wasn’t just clean, he was classy. Win or lose, he kept a calm demeanor. He wasn’t a press hound and truthfully shunned the spotlight as much as possible. Unfortunately for him, when you singlehandedly save a franchise from shutting down — the Seattle Mariners in this case — the press is going to want to talk to you A LOT. When he left the revived M’s to play elsewhere, he turned down the gobs of money thrown at him by nearly every team in baseball, including my beloved Braves. Instead, he took a much lower salary to play for the Reds — his daddy’s team, his hometown team. In this sports era of contracts the size of some small countries’ GNP, Junior was never the highest paid player in baseball, but he was certainly one of the classiest. In five years, he’ll be a lead-pipe lock for first ballot election to the Hall of Fame and it won’t shock me in the slightest if he’s the first unanimous selection since Lou Gehrig was given a special election so he could see his bust in the HOF before the disease that bears his name took his life.

So “The Kid” is done. He’s 40 years old, just one year older than me, so that means my generation of baseball players, the ones I sat and watched in college as rookies and wished I could be, are passing. It’s not a terrible tragedy, I suppose, but it is one more signpost on life’s road saying, “Son, you’re not as young as you used to be.”  So now I’m one step closer to becoming one of those old guys who drives the young people nuts with stories about “I remember when . . . ”

Hopefully, I’ll be good at the job.

Congratulations on a magnificent career, Junior, and for the rest of you, know that I love you and keep those feet clean!

Take Me Out To The Ball Game!

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I GOT IT!!!

Budge likes to support her children when she knows they play a sport so tonight we trekked out to Heritage Park to see one of her fourth graders pitch. Now, Heritage Park is a beautiful facility with six regulation fields that have excellent seating, backstops, and dugouts. The infields are manicured and the outfields are free of yellow dandelion heads. These facilities are parsecs away from the diamonds of my youth.

The players haven’t changed quite as much though.

First of all, the group we were watching was the first year kid pitcher threw the ball at kid batter instead of some tee or coach providing the target. That in and of itself is one scary proposition. I mean, they’re fourth graders. Ask any of them and they’ll all assure you they can be the next Nolan Ryan or Greg Maddux. Well, they can’t. If a coach can find a kid who can throw the ball across the plate about belt high roughly four out of five times, he has an ace. If the kid happens to be left handed, he’s got a shot at the championship! Of course, it’s always funny to see a team facing their first lefty. Once when I was watching a similar age group much earlier in the season, the first batter to face the fielding team’s left-hander shouted to his coach, “Hey, Coach! What do I do? He’s standing on the wrong side of the pitcher’s mound!!”

Just as an aside, if Budge and I are ever blessed with a son (doubtful at this point, but hope does spring eternal), I have already decided that I’m going to duct tape a baseball into his LEFT hand and superglue a glove onto his right hand as soon as he can toddle then pray that he takes after his maternal grandfather and makes 6′ 2″ tall. That’s pretty much my retirement plan because if you know anything about baseball, you know the Majors are woefully short on southpaw pitchers.

Watching the boys play tonight reminded me of the two fitful seasons I attempted to be a baseball player. It was not a pleasant recollection. First of all, I was short, but I made up for it by being fat. Plus, I ran slower than a three legged turtle crossing a glacier in January. Finally, I had the hand-eye coordination of a blind rhesus monkey with cerebral palsy. In short, I was the model tee-ball right fielder. For those of you who don’t know, no one in tee-ball hits to right field. You have to be left handed and get the ball past the first baseman. Both are rarities in tee-ball leagues. Right field is pretty much the Vice-Presidency of a tee-ball team. If a little league coach is faced with where to play a complete non-athlete, right field is first choice every time.

It was so bad, I was known to not come in for our side’s at bats. I’d often just stay out in right field with the opposing team’s short, dumpy, clumsy clone of me. Made a lot of friends that way. Picked a lot of dandelions too. Once, while I was in the midst of a daydream, I even got hit in the head with a fly ball. I was so excited to actually be so close to an actual ball that I picked it up and chucked it into the infield. That’s when I found out it was foul ball from the adjacent field.

I hung up my glove and cleats after tee-ball though. I wasn’t nearly brave enough to stand at the plate with nothing between me and that hurtling ball but my skill with a bat. I was a coward, but I was an unbruised coward.

Tonight’s game, however, was a bloodless affair. Only one batsman was hit by a pitch. Both pitchers were fairly capable and overall, it was a fun event to watch. Of course, one of the most precious moments was watching both right fielders. Both were paragons of intensity, coiled steel waiting to unleash their skills on the first ball to come their way. I couldn’t help but smile and think, “It’s okay, kid. I saw a lefty or two in the batting order. Just be patient.”

Love y’all. Keep those feet clean!