Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Boys of Summer

Writing about baseball is not as much fun as watching baseball. For one thing, you can't write with a dog in one hand and a beer in the other.

There is something to be said about retirement and being able to sit in a ballpark on a weekday afternoon.  I recently attended a couple early season baseball games . . . the hometown Washington Nationals’ final pre-season game against the Red Sox (there is something to be said about retirement and being able to sit in a ballpark on a weekday afternoon) followed by a regular season game in the home opener series against the Cincinnati Reds.  The Nats won 4-1 behind a brilliant two-hitter by Edwin Jackson.  So the season is off to a pretty good start for the Nats ( I only wish I could say the same for Boston).  The “Boys of Summer” have returned to their respective hometown ballparks for another long slog till October.

This boy has been around for a few years and has cheered along various crews as whim and fancy dictated.  Of course, there are my hometown favorites - the Cubbies at Wrigley Field, on the North Side, since 1916, and the White Sox, at Comiskey Park, on the South Side (1910-1990 at the original stadium, and at its replacement since then).  As a kid, even though I was born on the South Side, and lived briefly as a tyke on the North Side, I was too young to really give a hoot which of the local teams won.  I wasn’t really into baseball yet.  There has always been a crosstown rivalry even though the teams are in different leagues and rarely play one another.  Between the teams meeting in the 1906 World Series, which the White Sox won, and the beginning of inter-league play in 1997, the Cubbies and Sox routinely meet during spring training, and during exhibition games.  These games - usually dubbed the “Windy City Showdown” - do not count except for local bragging rights.  Since inter-league play began, however, the local teams have met annually for six games, two three-game series played at Wrigley Field and at Comiskey. The Sox currently lead this series.  If you ask me, I will admit I favor the Cubbies when push comes to shove.  

I grew up hearing my dad tell of when he and my uncle took me to a game at the old Comiskey Park, in the summer of 1952 (you do the math), but I must confess that I have no memory of who played the Sox and who won.  Dad and my uncle are gone now and so this will remain a mystery.  I do remember Dad telling me the game went into several extra innings and my Mom was beside herself with worry when we finally arrived home.  No cell phones back then.

I guess the first team I really rooted for was the Detroit Tigers.  In the mid 1950s I was living with my grandparents on their farm in southwestern Michigan.  I became a Detroit fan almost by osmosis; just about everyone in Michigan supported the Tigers back in those days. Add to this the fact that my folks and I lived briefly off Six Mile Road, in Detroit, when I was a wee tyke. The Tigers are a venerable charter American League franchise, one of eight major league teams. Tiger Stadium, its home turf, was opened in 1912 and would host the team until its final season there, in 1999 (at that time tied with Fenway Park, which opened the same day, as the oldest major league ballpark).  I saw my only Tigers game in 1958, when Dad and I drove from Toledo, Ohio, where we were living at the time, to the original Tiger Stadium to watch the hometown boys play the New York Yankees. You know, I can’t remember who won that game, but I do remember Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford each hitting homers, and Al Kaline putting one out of the park over the distant left field fence.  Regardless of the intervening years and occasional shifting alliances as I moved around the country, the Tigers have always had a soft spot in my heart.

One of these alliance shifts was to the Milwaukee Braves when we were living in southern Wisconsin in 1956-1957 (see the above photo).  The Braves, who moved from Boston to Milwaukee in 1953, won the 1957 National League pennant against the Cardinals (I was at that game), and went on to beat the Yankees in seven games in the World Series that year.  The Braves won the pennant again in 1958, but this time around the Yankees bested them in the World Series.  I cheered for the Braves and players like Eddie Matthews, Hank Aaron, and Warren Spahn, and my family attended a few games at nearby County Stadium.  Even after we moved to northern Ohio (and closer to Detroit), I was still pulling for the Braves, in the National League, while never truly abandoning the Tigers and American League baseball.   And the Tigers’ Smokey Maxwell remained one of my all time favorite players as he lead the American League in fielding percentages in 1957 and again in 1960, when he made only one error in each of those seasons.

When we moved to Cincinnati in late 1958, my fealty to the Braves quickly faded and I became a big fan of the National League’s Cincinnati Reds and would remain so through most of the 1960s.  I was really into baseball back then as were most of my buddies. After our dads got home from work we would frequently walk up to the nearby Cincinnati Gardens to catch a bus down to Crosley Field to watch the Reds and some of my earliest sports heroes - Roy McMillan, Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, Smoky Burgess, Orlando Pena and so many others - play ball. In fact, some of the Reds resided in Swifton Village, the same apartment complex where my family lived, and I would occasionally see one or the other during our playtime forays throughout the neighborhood.  We later lived in nearby Richmond, Indiana, in 1966-1967, and I managed to see a few Reds games.  The names of the players had changed, but they were still my team.

What goes around, comes around, and in 1967, my family moved back to the Chicago area during my last two years of high school.  Once again I found myself cheering for Ernie Banks and the Cubbies.  Having neither an interest in the White Sox nor a desire to make the longer trip to the South Side and Comiskey Park, I instead frequented the friendly confines of Wrigley Field over the next couple of seasons, sitting in the bleachers beyond the ivy-covered outfield wall and below one of the last hand-turned scoreboards.  No Jumbo-Trons in those days.  Nor were there stadium lights, which were not installed for another twenty years, in 1988.  Games were still called on account of darkness . . . just like the old days!  So my Cubs games were limited to Saturdays and Sundays . . . and an occasional late spring weekday.

Many of you are probably familiar with the iconic 1986 film “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” in which a young Matthew Broderick, in the title role, masterminds a day on which he and two friends skip classes at their suburban high school and head for a day of sun and fun in downtown Chicago, including a Cub’s game at Wrigley Field.  Ferris and company sit in the outfield stands and cheer the home team (“Heeeeeey batter, batter, batter . . . soo-wing batter!”), and being that everything seems to go right for Ferris on his day off, he even catches a foul ball sent his way.  Perhaps my most memorable Cub games are the few I attended in the spring of 1969 when I skipped classes just days before my own graduation from high school.  I never caught a foul ball, nor was my name flashed across the big red marquee which has hung over the main entrance since 1934.  Otherwise, my days at Wrigley watching the Cubs play the Braves and the Reds were very much like Mr. Bueller’s.  And the Cubs were doing well that season, leading their division until they choked in September and came in second, eight games behind the Mets.

I attended college in Lakeland, Florida in the early 1970s and at that time there were no major league teams in the Sunshine State.  In the meantime, my family had left Chicago for Milwaukee where I would spend my holidays and summer vacations.  Being the fickle fan that I am, my baseball allegiance shifted once again to Milwaukee and the Brewers (even though the Tigers held spring training in Lakeland).  Gone were the Braves who fled to Atlanta for the 1965 season and beyond.  I never forgave the Braves for abandoning a great sports town and leaving its fans with no heroes for whom to cheer.  The Brewers, on the other hand, played the 1969 season as the Seattle Pilots before going into bankruptcy and moving to Milwaukee where the American League franchise was christened the Brewers for the 1970 season.  Unfortunately they were cellar dwellers for most of the 1970s, but baseball had returned to Milwaukee, and the fans returned to County Stadium to cheer on their new boys of summer.  My visits home provided ample opportunity to take in a few games, watching Bernie the Brewer decked out in lederhosen slide down into a large beer stein below the scoreboard every time a Brewer hit a dinger.  Oh yeah, and don’t forget “Beer in a Bucket” sold during the game!   And then there were the tailgaters before and after the games.

Tucson was home in the mid-1970s when I was attending graduate school at the University of Arizona.  The Diamondbacks had yet to arrive in Phoenix and so I continued to pull for the Brewers.  They became a respectable team with a winning record, in 1978, and in 1982, despite a slow start, they ended the season with the best record (95-67) and in first place in their division.  They went on to beat the Angels in the American League Championship Series and defeat the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games in the World Series.  They looked good again in the 1983, but faded late in the season.

Having resided in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC since 1976, it only makes sense that my team allegiance would gradually shift to the Baltimore Orioles.  Washington had been without a team since the Senators left town, first to Minnesota in 1961 to become the Twins, and again in 1971, when the expansion franchise that replaced the original team moved to Texas to become the Rangers.  Since I was a kid I had always hated the Senators.  I can’t tell you why for certain; I just didn’t like them.  Senator baseball cards are what I attached to the spokes of my Schwinn with clothespins to make it sound like a motorcycle when I cruised the neighborhood streets.  The fact that Washington had no team did not bother me much.  Besides, the O’s and Memorial Stadium were just a short drive away, and once the team moved to the new stadium at Camden Yards, not far from Babe Ruth’s birthplace in the Pigtown neighborhood, there was regular light rail service to watch the Birds play.  Not that many folks missed the Senators.  I, for one, was happy to go the extra distance.  Orioles games also introduced my son Ian to baseball and he got into the spirit of it all, even in 1988 when the Os hit bottom and went 0-21 at the beginning of the season and fans were wearing bags on their heads.  But Baltimore backed its Birds until management showed more interest in a buck than the game.  There have been many long, dry seasons over the past two decades.
The Nationals brought baseball back to Washington in 2005 after the franchise left Montréal where it had played since 1969 and took a new name.  But like the Senators before them, I have never developed a strong feeling for them.  I still favored the American League.  It was also around this time that I finally lost interest in the Orioles.  It was no longer the hometown team it use to be.  Cal Ripken and all the familiar names were gone or leaving, replaced by a string of unknown and unimpressive players and countless losing seasons. 

Today my team allegiance has fallen to the Red Sox.  I can’t really explain why, but when I go to a Sox game I feel like I use to when the game really meant something.  Still, I go to Nats games when I can, especially when the Red Sox come to town.  There is something about sitting in the stands on a summer day, a beer in one hand and a dog in the other, and watching the Boys of Summer remind us of our love of the game.

1 comment:

  1. I remember those 57,58 Braves for beating my Dodgers, as well. Those were the glory years of baseball with the REAL pros in the game. Thanks for the memories. No I have, alas, the Mariners, the closest team to Alaska. Sigh.