Friday, June 10, 2016


I wish I had the score card. But I don't.
So I don't know exactly which team I watched from the center field stands the summer Busch Stadium II opened. I think the Cardinals won; it was a day game; it was really hot; and I have a vague feeling the opposing team wore red too. We attended the game with my mother's parents, who had driven over from Jeff City in their air conditioned 1964 Dodge with the push button automatic transmission, a car that filled me with wonder. We drove over early to avoid the heat in our 1964 teal blue "un"-air-conditioned Dodge Dart. It was an exciting day; the new Busch Stadium had only been open a month or so, joining the Gateway Arch, a monument that managed to be imposing and soaring simultaneously, in downtown St. Louis,

Like many important moments in life, the facts of the contest fade from memory, but the impression, the feeling, the sights, sounds, smell, and taste remain. I sat, stuck to my red seat, in the sun and the heat of June/July and watched players I'd never heard of from high above the biggest crowd I'd ever seen play a game I recognized, but had not yet learned. I wasn't a fan that day...yet.
The Cardinals won last night..I know because I listened to part of the game on KMA on my way to the HyVee; I checked the scores on my phone while I was working in the garden; and I saw the last inning and a half on Fox Sports Midwest on my television. But in 1967, I did what millions of other baseball fans did: I opened the sports page of the Chicago Tribune (after my father had finished!) and checked the box scores, the standings, and the top ten in batting average. Even if I could have pulled in every game on my AM radio, I was certainly too young to stay up until the bottom of the ninth!

My sister Laura and I scoured the racks of the local five and dime each week to see if a new shipment of baseball cards had arrived. We were avid if eccentric collectors during the late '60s and early '70s. Famous players like Hank Aaron or Brooks Robinson, Juan Marichal or Johnny Bench were always valued, but we were just as likely to trade cards between us based on whether we arbitrarily decided we liked the guy's personality based on one photo. Players with their hats blacked out were assumed to have been traded...or on their way out...and earned our sympathy based on those traits. Pathetic the hapless Chicago White Sox of 1970 who lost 106 games....touched our soft hearts and we adopted players like Walter 'No Neck' Williams (5'6"...maybe) and catcher Ed Hermann (11 years, .244 avg.) and Wilbur Wood (a knuckle baller who was the last pitcher to start both ends of a doubleheader) to root for from the stands of Comiskey Park when we attended our one game a year with free tickets the White Sox gave away for good grades.

Summer has a sound track, and like generations before, ours has always been baseball. Jack Buck was a welcome guest in our home every evening; I remember listening to Mike Shannon's first attempts in the radio booth and grimacing...while giving him an affectionate benefit of the doubt. I am flabbergasted to discover that has now been more than forty years ago. Baseball on the big screen is good TV. Baseball live with a crowd humming with anticipation, moths in the lights and all the ballet of the game spread before you is a symphony. But baseball on the radio ties the announcers to the fans in a way no other sport ever has. Our grandparents listened to baseball on their front porches...just like we do. Our parents listened on KMOX in their cars...just like we do. When Mike Shannon salutes the listeners in Mt. Vernon, Illinois, Fort Smith, Arkansas, or Shenandoah, Iowa, I know I'm at home, part of a past and present of fireflies, heat lightning, and home runs.

Baseball is our common denominator; a bridge between generations, politics, an ice breaker and conversation starter more reliable than the weather. Politics and religion are subjects verboten and deep rivalries can make for awkward small talk. Don't even bring up the designated hitter. But there is no friction or tension that can't be smoothed over at least temporarily by the universal disdain afforded a decision to sacrifice bunt with men on first and second. On that subject, all concur.
Baseball is indeed long...measured by the calendar and not the clock. There's time enough to believe your team will turn things around after the All Star break and get a streak going. Winning three in a row...or losing four in a row... is neither a ticket to the playoffs nor a reason to rend your jersey . Even though the season is long, we pine for the beginning of spring training games, yearning for the background noise of the crowd's chatter and the hawking of the beer vendors, sounding near enough to be wandering down the aisle of the greenhouse to hand us a cold Bud. And harvest nights on the combine are not so long and tedious when there's baseball to listen to after dark whether your team is post season bound or just playing out the string. But........ summer IS summer when the grill is smoking, the sprinkler is swooshing over the garden, and Blake and I are on the porch....listening to a baseball game on the radio.

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