Thursday, July 19, 2012

Milestones: Whether baseball or Glorieta, they're really about people

Fifty years ago this week, Daddy took me to my first major league baseball game.

It seems a little strange, I must admit, to write the words "fifty years ago." A half-century! It doesn't seem so long ago that the phrase "fifty years ago" would bring to my mind an image akin to the phrase "back in Bible times." You know, ancient history . . . chariot races . . . people dressed in fig leaves, loincloths, or togas . . . and so on.

But no longer. Now 50 years ago is well within my memory, and I tend to remember dates that are significant to me, though obscure to those around me. Twenty-some years ago, I heard a sermon preached at Glorieta Baptist Assembly/Conference Center on the importance of marking milestones in our lives. How appropriate - Glorieta has been significant in the lives of thousands of Baptists through the years, the site of critical milestones for many.

But back to the events of 50 years ago. In April 1962, Daddy had moved from Dallas Baptist Association to Kansas City, Missouri, Baptist Association, and Mother and I followed in July, after school was out.

Baseball wasn't yet on my radar screen. Oh, Daddy had taken me to a minor league game or two in Dallas - I think it was the Dallas-Fort Worth Spurs back then, if memory serves, and I had watched an occasional Saturday afternoon Game of the Week on our black-and-white Westinghouse, with play-by-play from Pee Wee Reese and Dizzy Dean (I still remember Ol' Diz occasionally belting out a chorus of "The Wabash Cannonball"), but baseball had yet to really capture my imagination.

Then we moved to Kansas City, which had major league baseball. In reality, the old Kansas City A's were a poor imitation of a big league team, but at least you could go see some real-live big league players come to town with the visiting team. On July 16, the Yankees came to town, and Daddy took me to see Whitey Ford pitch.

One result was predictable: Whitey Ford mowed down the hapless A's; and the Yankees - with Mantle, Maris, Richardson, Boyer, and company - beat the A's, 3-1. But the other result, if you will, came straight out of left field - for it was that day, as an 11-year-old boy getting his first taste of major league baseball, that I fell in love with the game.

I don't remember a lot about that day, other than how much bigger the baseball field looked in person and Daddy occasionally expressing his disgust with the prices the A's charged for their concessions. It was "highway robbery," he complained, to charge 25 cents for a bag of peanuts and another 25 cents for a Coke. (After all, those were the days when you could get a bottle of Coke from a machine at the "filling station" for a nickel or, at most, a dime.) In years to come, Daddy and I shared many a laugh over his outrage over those 25-cent prices in 1962, which inflation ultimately made seem like a bargain.

That was just the first of many games to come. Daddy and I went to quite a few A's games over the next few years, until Oakland stole the A's from us following the 1967 season. Sorry, 45 years later and I still haven't gotten over it. The A's might have given us a lot of bad baseball, but a bad day at the ballpark beats a good day just about anywhere else.

So those remain special memories, Daddy and me at the ballgame, and occasionally Mother went with us as well. There was one night that I'll always remember. Municipal Stadium, where the A's played, was a converted minor league ballpark in the middle of a low-income inner-city neighborhood. The parking lot was small, so many people parked in the backyards of the folks who lived around there, most of whom charged $2 to $3 a car. An alley backed up to these houses, so after the game you would often have to wait for traffic to clear before you could get into the alley and on your way home.

One night, as we were waiting in our car, a man - having obviously made a trip to a nearby liquor store and become fully "lubricated" - was stumbling around the yard. He looked at Daddy sitting behind the wheel and said, "You folks wanta get outta here?" Daddy replied, "Sure." Our friendly neighborhood drunk then staggered into the alley, put his hand up, pointed to Mother in the front passenger seat, and said, "Everybody stop and let these folks out. This woman is havin' a baby!" All the folks in those cars turned and looked at Mother, who was well beyond normal childbearing age, and started laughing. So did we. And they stopped and let us go!

Through the years, Daddy and I would reminisce about all of the great times we had at the ballpark and all the great players we saw. The time we saw Mickey Mantle up close - no kidding! In 50 years of going to baseball games, it's the only time I ever saw a player, in uniform, go into the stands, and it's still hard to believe it happened, but I remember it like it was yesterday.

It was another Whitey Ford start - this one in 1964. This time, the Yankees pummeled the A's, 9-1. Mantle wasn't in the lineup and, by the 7th inning, the Yankees' 5-l lead with Ford on the mound made it obvious that he wouldn't be needed. Mantle's knees had been a problem ever since he had tripped over a drainpipe and wrenched a knee early in his career, so managers took every opportunity to give the Mick a rest. We were seated down the 3rd base/leftfield line, near the Yankees' bullpen, and there was a gate in the chain-link fence, opening up to the aisle just next to us.

So, late in the game, here came Mickey Mantle, big as life, opening that gate and walking up the steps. Everyone around us was waving at him and yelling for his attention, but he kept walking, looking straight ahead. Just before Mantle passed our row, 7 or 8 rows up, one of the pitchers in the bullpen yelled, "Hey, Mick, where you goin'?" Mantle yelled back, "To get the beer and pretzels," then turned around and continued to the concession stand. Unbelievable that they wouldn't have everything they needed in the Yankees' clubhouse, but this was 1964, and that's what happened. I've never - before or since - seen anything like that.

Lots of good memories. I was away from major league baseball for a few years, as Joanna and I lived in Denver through the late '70s and most of the '80s. But we moved to the Dallas area in August 1987. By that time, the Spurs were long gone, and the Texas Rangers - such as they were - had brought major league baseball to Arlington. Our family had grown to four, with Alison, 5-1/2, and Travis 1-1/2. Mother and Daddy were living in Austin by this time.

So the next year, we started a new family baseball tradition. For the next few years, Daddy came up once a year to go with Travis and me to see the Rangers play his beloved Kansas City Royals. We called ourselves - and our new tradition - "the three Jasons," because all three of us have Jason as our middle name. Travis and I still treasure those memories of going to the ballpark with Daddy.

Of course, Travis and I have gone to many games through the years, repeating the experiences I had with Daddy when I was growing up - even to the point of seeing a lot of REALLY BAD baseball, because the Rangers for many of those years weren't a whole lot better than the A's of my youth. (I've probably watched more bad baseball than any fan in history.)

So now it's 50 years since that first game. Mantle, Maris, and Boyer have been gone for many years, and Ford, Richardson, and Berra long-since retired. But the memory lingers.

This week, I commemorated that memory by taking my son-in-law, Adam, to see the Frisco Rough Riders, because the Rangers weren't in town. True to tradition, the home team lost, 7-4 (our God is gracious, but the "baseball gods" can be cruel). Travis would have gone with us but for one complication - he's a little preoccupied awaiting the birth of his first child, a daughter - who was due that same day - and decided he'd better stay home and wait with Christy.

You see, baseball is important to us guys, but we do know what's most important. (most of the time, anyway)

Well, this has been about baseball, but it's really about more than that. It's about marking milestones in our lives, and it's about what makes those milestones special, and that's people. Whether it's family or friends, it's the people in our lives who make for special memories.

I fell in love with baseball on that day in July 1962, but baseball wouldn't have been nearly as much fun over the years if it didn't mean going to games with my family and friends; calling Daddy up to talk about the players we used to see; taking Travis, when he was a kid, to baseball card shows; or arguing with my best friend, Bob, over the years over which league is the best, American or National (Bob's a Cardinals fan, you see).

Well, here it is Thursday already and we're still waiting for that new granddaughter to make her first appearance, and that brings a passel of other memories and milestones to mind, which will have to wait for another day (maybe next week).

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