When Baseball Captured You Series: The Moments Mattered

The MCB staff is going on a journey looking back respectively to the times where the grand ol’game took an unshakable foothold in our hearts and minds. No two stories are ever alike. Here is mine:

It’s truly impossible to give an exact moment where I knew baseball was always going to rank first in my heart when it comes to sports in my life. Some others might know the very second. That’s fantastic. For me, however, it’s not a made-for-TV movie moment where the kid gets the big hit to win the game. It’s not exactly like “The Sandlot”…though I love The Sandlot it wasn’t just about one great summer.

Rather it’s a thousand little moments that built up on top of each other. Each one carving out more room inside the mind for our great game. It’s hard to even pinpoint the first one. Certainly, there are too many to recount here.

I remember my gloves. I remember the thrill of getting them. My dad gave me his old glove to start me off. It was small. It was worn. It was dried out until he took some “bear grease” and rubbed it down turning it from an ugly gray tone to a dark brown nearly black color. It was the glove he used in the 1950s. Any company logo was long since worn off…no clue who made it. It was paper-thin in spots and hurt like hell if you got one in the palm.

My father was a really good pitcher on the local level in “The Twilight League”. He was known for having pinpoint control…so much so that his nickname was the 100 percent tongue-in-cheek “Wildball”. I always kidded him for my reputation eventually as a first-ball hitter because when he threw batting practice to me I rarely had to take a pitch. He used that glove and I cherished it immediately. I still have it. Then I remember him telling me I needed “a man-sized glove” on my 12th birthday and him handing me a Mizuno glove that served me well for years. That’s still here too!

I remember the Montreal Expos. As a lifelong Detroit Tigers fan, it’s odd to think about the Expos. But in the Western U.P. of Michigan in the 1970’s we didn’t get the Tigers on television. The Tigers meant Paul Carey and Ernie Harwell on the radio. Televised baseball for me during the week meant the Montreal Expos on Canadian TV and then NBC’s Game of the Week on Saturday. Steve Rogers, Pepe Frias, Woody Fryman, Ellis Valentine, Andre Dawson, and Warren Cromartie meant a lot to me in those days. The Expos were then joined by the expansion Toronto Blue Jays in 1976 meaning the Tigers would suddenly be on a handful of times each year.

Ahhh…1976. The Summer of the Bird. Mark “The Bird” Fidrych. Taking the baseball world by storm. Starting the ‘76 All-Star Game. Leading the American League in ERA. The Monday Night Baseball Classic over the Yankees. The anticipation of each start. Watching him talk to the ball and hand-manicure the mound. Listening on the radio and then devouring each word written about it in the next day’s local paper. The biggest thrill? My dad showing up after work in the backyard with a bright yellow Fidrych t-shirt. I wore it nearly every day for the rest of that summer.

I remember the Sunday paper being important. You could see the stats of every player in the majors. First, check out each Tiger. Then look at the leaders. Then your favorite players from elsewhere. Who needed Baseball Reference?

Subscribing to The Sporting News was huge. It was a baseball lovefest mailed to you every week and I read every word.

Baseball cards. Oh my gosh…they meant the world. Waiting for the packs to arrive in stores. Dividing the cards up into teams, playing games with a handheld baseball game and keeping the stats for all the fake teams. This activity helped while away the long U.P. winters in the time of no internet and seven TV channels. Good God, the gum in each pack sucked though.

”The Kid from Tomkinsville” book series. If you don’t know it, get it for your sons and daughters. Dozens of other books that looked like they’d been leafed through a hundred times because they were. A mom who would buy any baseball or Civil War book I wanted helped. Thanks, mom! The works of Bill James and “The Baseball Abstract”. “The Boys of Summer”. “The Summer of ‘49”.  I read everything.

Unforgettable moments. Reggie Jackson swatting three homers in Game 6 against the Dodgers in three swings. Remembering they were off Burt Hooten, Elias Sosa, and Charlie Hough without thinking twice about it.

There was a time in 1980 where even as an eleven-year-old, it clicked that Sparky Anderson had a group of guys for the Tigers who were going to win it all someday. Sweet Lou, Tram, Gibby, Morris and Parrish. It had to happen. Expectations are a helluva thing.

Then in ‘84, it did happen. The Roar of ‘84. The 35-5 thrill ride start to the season. Jack Morris twirling a no-hitter on NBC. Juan Berenguer pitching a dandy in August in Baltimore just when they needed it. Senôr Smoke and Willie Hernandez holding down the fort every night. Marty Castillo bouncing into a double-play but it pushed in a run against KC in the ALCS. In the World Series  Trammell’s two 2-run homers against the Padres. Morris won twice. Lopez nailed a home plate umpire in the nuts. Goose Gossage wouldn’t walk Gibson. Larry Herndon squeezing the last out in shallow left field to become the Champs.

The game took deeper root with me when WTBS hit our airwaves. “The Superstation” meant Atlanta Braves baseball every single day. It wasn’t the Tigers. But we watched. Dale Murphy became a hero on the same level of any Tiger for me. Glenn Hubbard’s beard was glorious. More Rick Mahler starts were watched than was probably healthy. The ‘82 Braves had the 13-0 start leading to an improbable playoff run. It was fun and my dad and I watched them all.

Yes…there was Little League. Then American Legion baseball. Some great memories. Some bad. A few good wins…tons of losses. A game-saving game-ending diving catch in my only game played in CF to upset Tamarack City. Best play of my life. But also the memory of a summer in legion ball where I had the yips and kept dropping pop-ups in the infield. My coach fixed the problem eventually (no, not by benching me!)…thanks Red.

Laying in bed at 8 am on a Saturday when I was 15. I hear the phone ring. Suddenly my mom tells me I need to rush down to the Little League Field. A coach was calling, he also worked with my dad, because the umpire had no-showed. So I throw on a hat, eat a piece of bread, and jump on my ten-speed for the two-mile ride to the field. They have some awful old equipment for me to use. I didn’t even own a cup then. I’m calling balls-n-strikes for the first time in my life after laying in bed not 20-minutes before. I LOVED it. Worked three games. I ended up umpiring every Saturday for the rest of the year. It’s part of why I still umpire now here in Iowa.

I could go on. The TV movie about Ron LeFlore of the Tigers. The Bad News Bears. Bull Durham eventually. Magnum P.I. wearing a Tigers hat. Being too young to completely understand the catcher played by DeNiro was dying and why they had to hide it in “Bang the Drum Slowly”.

George Brett. Robin Yount. Rod Carew. The “We Are Family” Pittsburgh Pirates in ‘79. Lefty Carlton. The Mad Hungarian. Michael Jack Schmidt. The freakin’ Big Red Machine. Watching the Machine operate was something you don’t forget. Le’ Grande Orange, Rusty Staub. Ron Guidry going 25-3. Pete Rose’s 44 game hitting streak. Getting pissed off over the Tigers trading Jason Thompson. The Padres ugly yet wonderful brown and yellow uniforms.

Then there was, lest we never forget, the utter perfection that was “This Week in Baseball” (TWIB). The weekly highlight show rounding up all the best action from around the sport with a beautiful Mel Allen narration. Before ESPN you needed TWIB to see more of the sport. It was an electric fast-paced show. Great catches, perfect throws, collisions at home, manager tantrums at umpires, and walk-off hits being celebrated. Pump it into my veins!!

Those formative years. Thinking about it now, I’m glad it wasn’t all about the Tigers. They’re always first in line for me. But watching TWIB, the Braves and the Expos all those years opened me up to the rest of the league. Probably why I’ve followed the Tampa Bay Rays closely since 2006. It’s been a blast reading about the sport’s past and watching the important baseball movies of our time. I was also profoundly lucky to need Carey and Harwell to be my conduit to the Tigers. My life following the sport would be less without them.

All those times put me on the path to today. A long time MLB.tv subscriber. Still looking for a good book or movie on baseball. I have a beautiful Labrador retriever named “Sweet Lou”. I wear too many MLB t-shirts. Working as a high school and 14U umpire and loving being on the field. Taking my daughter to Kansas City to catch a Tigers game. Helping coach my son’s Miracle League baseball team and rejoicing in each smile on those kids’ faces. I’m married to a great lady who “tolerates” the baseball obsession. Thank you, my love.

I fell in love with baseball well before I was even 8-yrs old and I’m lucky I still am. Mostly I’m lucky my dad is still watching baseball back in the U.P. Plenty of this revolves around his love of the game. Thanks, Dad!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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