Baseball Fireworks with Dad

Could be Anywhere, U.S.A. However, this was in Altoona, Pa at a minor league baseball game. Our “Curve” ran the bases five times more than the Binghamton Ponies, so that’s a win by any measure. Fireworks – combined with a “wrestling” theme ticket stamp (that never materialized into anything) – and perfect weather swung the evening’s five hour carve-out of life without an error.

Yes, a minor league game, but a major win for fun, relaxation, and connection … to dad.

He and I weren’t the typical dad/son baseball team. I didn’t enjoy the usual, “get-out there and do it, son”, kind of encouragements most young boys got. Music was my juice, not sports. One miraculous diving catch from a half-asleep pre-teen who went on to a hit-less career in little league did not produce any proud dad moments. Gladly did I hand in my uniform and cleats after my team won the local championship with no help from a useless bat so unproductively, and awkwardly, swung from the ends of my sportily unrhythmic arms. Piano, yes. Getting to first base, no.

So, sitting with dad at a semi-professional baseball game wasn’t going to re-live any remember moments between us. Frankly, I doubt either one of us, to this day, would know how to fill in a score sheet or analyze a game beyond the usual “ground rule double” or “balk rule”. He was a wrestling coach, primarily, focused on grunts and sweats in closed, hot, winter season practice rooms – not open, fresh air sports like baseball. My first – and only – mitt came via a great-uncle, not dad. See, we just don’t have that traditional baseball dad-son thing going on here.

What we did have Sunday evening, though, was time. Time to spend together … forty-five years of life experiences after a son stood ankle deep in outfield weeds praying a baseball didn’t arcfully whiz up in his direction. Decades after a dad was frustratingly finding ways to supplement a measley teacher’s salary, we sat,… together.

I understand, now, my age. In baseball years, I’m older than my dad was when he insisted it was better to look at the ball in order to hit it. Pick your methodology, “blind squirrel” theory, I believed was the best approach at the time. Even a tightly closed, shuttering little man at the plate was hopeful one blind swing at the right time – combined with that perfect pitch – would manufacture a hit. Alas, not to be.

I do believe this may be the regret on dad’s face in the above picture. He may be having flashbacks. Either that, or handing over a twenty-spot and getting no change back for one burger, a dip of ice cream, and a lemonade may be stinging his financial consciousness. Hey, he offered, and nobody says, “no” to a dad who wants to pony up for goodies at the ballpark. After all, the tickets were complimentary – and quite a nice surprise along the bottom tier behind our home team dugout. So, there was no problem giving him the pleasure of paying for a delicious $10.50 Curve burger w/jalapeno cheese, ketchup, mayo, and tomato. Don’t know about the ice cream and lemonade … suppose they were fine, too.

We talked over the usual words he’s familiar with – long hair under hats and too-high salaries. 2021 fashion and cell phone usage among the visitors at the ball-park was an occasional attention radar blip as is almost always the case in public when dad and I go out. The what’s and how’s don’t mean much to dad. He’s not so much fascinated or intrigued by life as I am. His contentment is in routine, stability, and helping others. At his age, these are the good ole’ reliables, I suppose.

And so, we watched the final out together then waited for the fireworks. The announcer began a ten-digit countdown with three-thousand remaining loyal waiters sitting, standing, and reclining so patiently within the comforting park … Ten, nine, eight …

I sat back behind dad. A few spritzes, little sparkles, and all different colors of artificial stars lit up a clear black sky for fifteen minutes.

The finale wasn’t your big city, New York, kind-of million dollar bang, for sure. We’re a little city. This was a “wrestling” theme ticket night with nary a Hulkster or hint of what they meant in sight. At least fireworks were advertised and delivered. The last of the bangers didn’t disappoint me, but not for the reason you’d expect.

That first picture sums up a lot of what baseball, and life, with dad means to me. It’s the end of something wonderful even though most of it wasn’t that impressive.

Most of our life together was, well, hitless. No need for details. It’s just enough to say music, sports, personalities, etc … didn’t run the bases together very well.

That was then, as they say.

We’ve come through the relational minor leagues together and have been on the same team for some time now. Up and downs? Sure. Disagreements and missed calls at home plate? Absolutely!! We are currently two very independent, strong-willed men who aren’t afraid to speak our minds when necessary … and sometimes when not.

This is all part of the experience. I watched dad watch the finale. At a baseball game we were. Both of us living weird, different life experiences now – neither thinking, a few years ago, we’d be inside our individual situations. Thing is, we are where we are together, too. This is, simply, a nice place to be.

We can’t choose some life things, right? I didn’t choose my inability to connect a bat to a ball, nor do I think I had a hand in playing simple Chopin at the age of six. Dad didn’t choose his personality or later-in-life challenges. We chose to go to a ballgame Sunday evening. The tickets were complimentary and the food was deliciously expensive, of course. His dime, so extra-good as far as I was concerned.

A special evening to think about what was – and to watch dad watch a finale in a place that wasn’t Anywhere, U.S.A. It was home base for a dad and a son.

“I’m Feeling it Bounce off My Face”

1975, #660. My favorite picture on any baseball card featuring the true homerun king of any generation.

This isn’t a perfect card with sharp corners, red and yellow contrasts beyond reproach, and a face without blemishes. Imperfection and moderate use is apparent. We would say, “collected and enjoyed” in the hobby, perhaps … as most cards were before collecting as an investment took hold. Opening wax packs after a busy school day, or fun Saturday morning, were toyful, joyful events full of exciting what-ifs. What if I finally got my favorite player in the pack? What if I had enough cards to slip over to a buddy’s house for a game of flip? Preserving corners and colors were as far off as considering IRA investing, career choices, and first-born child names.

If I needed to consider names for anything at the time, however – my high handlebar bike or favorite stuffed bear – Hank or Aaron would have been tops on the list. Topps #660, to be more precise.

Magical, Hammerin’-Hank. Twenty-three seasons in the major leagues with 755 homeruns … the stat. A four-base record surpassed in 2007 by Barry Bonds, but not forgotten as the player who broke Babe Ruth’s record of 714. On April 18th, 1974, he caressed his 715th at the Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta where over 53,000 folks sat … witnessing a small 5 ounce ball carry the delight of history over a fence into the Brave’s bullpen in left-center field.

This is where the story gets interesting to me, especially. Tom House, a relief pitcher, caught the ball on the fly and was immediately asked to turn over the ball by Bill Buckner, the Dodger’s left fielder. Interesting to me. Buckner scaled the fence – with cleats – to prevent the homerun … to watch, perhaps, the most important ball in history fall into his mitt instead of the history books. Not to be, of course. Tom wound his way through players, coaches, and our wonders to personally hand that ball to Hank at home plate. In his words, “So, the ball was worth (almost) twice what I was making at the time,” House said. “But I’ll guarantee, if you asked anyone on the field that day, if they would have caught the home run they would have done exactly what I did.” Class. pure class.

“I remember thinking to myself, I’m not hearing the noise,” House said. “I’m feeling it bounce off of my face.” when asked about the craziness on the field in those moments after the homerun.

Vin Scully is quoted as saying, “What a marvelous moment for baseball, what a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia, what a marvelous moment for the country and the world,”.

Indeed it was. When asked about his record, he replied, “I’m not trying to make anyone forget the Babe; but only to remember Hank Aaron”.

I believe we will. On January 22nd, we lost this American icon. There are better historians and sports writers .. well, let me digress. I’m neither. Suffice to say there are other folks imminently more qualified to write of his legacy than I. This part-time key-tapper remembers Hammerin’ Hank as a cardboard warrior. A player I never saw in person, met at a sport’s show … or had occasion to call. He was always a 2-dimensional man in a boy’s life and, at present, appears on baseball cards I see from 1954 to 1976.

This 1954 Gem Mint 10 PSA rookie – priced at over $350,000 – shows the respect and value collectors place on Aaron’s life and career. Granted, finding any 66-year old card in this condition would be tough and highly sought after, but his rookie card ranks easily in the top tier of values.

I don’t own one even close to this condition. My collecting years were later. Porch pirates were my friends and I … pitching, trading, throwing, twisting … beating the colors and corners out of every card we had. Not so much my sister, though. Taking great care … by boxing up her cards in neat little piles, she attempted to ward off the perils of time and temptation. Few times … very few, did we cardboard together. I was tempestuously drawn to the destruction of cardboard images. She wasn’t inclined to allow me the privilege. Unfortunately for her, however, in an effort to mark the cards as hers back then, she ran a red marker across the top edges of almost all the neatly sorted cards in the box. This long red line, over time, bled down into really cool half-moons on the front faces of all the cards. We laughed about it later – as adults. Well, laughed may not be the proper term here …

Years later, when going through boxes, she asked about her favorite card(s). I did find her Clemente #309 from 1972. A favorite of mine as well. I’m torn between the 1975 and 1972 Topps sets as to which one is my favorite. This 1972 Topps #299 isn’t a crowd favorite in my memory, but the overall set is beautiful. His head shots from 1954 and 1975 allow for more imagination and intrigue than this standard batting stance pose.

I don’t know how many of my childhood flipper friends still collect as I do. Most of them are within reach, I suppose. We don’t connect anymore. Motivations are different and life is 45 years removed from youthful exuberance. The simple act of getting up from the floor could be challenging – let alone finding wax packs for a dime. These days, the hobby isn’t about the gum or clothes-pinning ballplayers faces in the spokes of our bikes. It’s big money to those few who actually buy packs, boxes, and cases of cards searching for that rare autograph or short-printed card they can possibly sell on-line. “Flip-it” in the newest sense of the phrase, not like we used to do.

Not like the pre-teen who heard of a guy breaking the homerun record of a legend. A myth 50 years removed from any normal life I knew at the time. Babe Ruth was more a candy bar name than a person of interest in my everyday life. Seven-hundred fourteen? Irrelevant until that April day in 1974.

I became aware of Hank Aaron’s death as I looked down upon the following text from my brother that day: “I bet your Hank Aaron cards are worth more now?” … I felt the sorrow bounce off my face.

Our lives were worth more having this man at the plate. All of us should catch his legacy, run as as fast as we can toward home, and hand over the ball saying, “Keep on swinging … in a world of what-if’s … we’ve got this.”

Rest in peace, our true Homerun King.