The first ballgame I can recall going to was in 1980, a Fourth of July affair at old Mile High Stadium to see the Denver Bears of the American Association. The Bears were the farm club of the Montreal Expos, and featured a 20-year old kid named Tim Raines, and another prospect we knew was headed places, Tim Wallach. I don’t remember a lot about the night, other than the fireworks afterwards, making paper airplanes out of the hot dog wrappers, the Cherry Mash, and a Bears’ outfielder making a jaw-dropping shoestring catch. I don’t even remember who won. But I know we had three generations of family there; my grandfather, my dad, and me. They insisted I bring my mitt, which was far too big for my fingers. I thought the Expos hat, which was featured on the program as the parent team, was a swirly “d” and “b,” for Denver Bears.
It wasn’t, it was a cursive M for Montreal. It would be a couple of years before I figured that out.
Yet what stuck was the shoestring catch that happened along the foul line right in the heart of the lazy middle innings. That was the memory. Many hours were spent trying to replicate that catch in the backyard and at the local ballpark. It was that singular play that made me begin to love baseball. A man flying horizontal to the ground, his glove extended, snatching a screaming line drive from curling up the wall. From there the game came to life.
It wasn’t long thereafter that I read the writer John Updike’s famous 1960 ode to Ted Williams and his last game at Fenway, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” and I looked at baseball as a kind of hallowed sport, which was customized for the slow-down period of summer. I remember him saying that Williams was in his youth a “figment of the box scores,” and that coincided with my own obsession of studying the box scores in the Denver Post every morning. “[Williams] radiated, from afar, the hard blue glow of high purpose,” Updike wrote. I would listen to the Bears’ games on the radio and sense that blue glow every time a bat cracked. I was pretty loose with my interpretation.
(I later found out that Updike only ended up at the game after being stood-up for secret tryst with a lover. Baseball lore is rich with happy accidents).
Baseball, I learned quickly, is a game of numbers.
The 6-4-3 double play. The 2.30 ERA. Williams ridiculous .406 batting average in 1941. The No. 3, which the “Bambino” Babe Ruth wore, or 714, the number of home runs he hit in creating the record books, making him the most iconic figure to ever play. No. 42, which Jackie Robinson wore, and which will never be worn by a big league ballplayer again because of what he meant to the game. Or 3,000, the number of hits Roberto Clemente had, before he died at the age 38 in a plane crash. The box score is a whole language of numbers, communicating what happened the day before.
In each era, there’s always a player or two that emits “the hard blue glow of high purpose.”
For my grandfather — whom I can still remember getting angry at the paper airplanes made out of hot dog wrappers flying by his head — it was Ruth, and those fabled Yankees teams he starred on in the Roaring ’20s. Through his eyes, I felt I knew the Babe, whose memory is all over the game. For my father, it was players like Williams, Mickey Mantle and the great Jackie Robinson, the man who broke the color barrier in 1947. There was significant value in learning of Robinson’s bravery in breaking in, finding himself on an island in an all-white league.
My grandfather, born in 1911, was a lifelong fan of baseball. One of his favorite players was Roberto Clemente, the great Puerto Rican outfielder who died two weeks before I was born. He used to wear the old pillbox Pittsburgh Pirates hat of the 1970s, because Clemente was his guy. I knew all about Clemente’s .317 lifetime average by the time I attended that first game in 1980. And it didn’t matter who was playing that night at Mile High, or that it was minor leagues. All that mattered was that we were part of a live tradition.
And through it, the generations connected.
The thing is for me, baseball was — and remains — a portal to times past. A day at the ballpark reaches back to the days of tobacco cards and daguerreotypes -- men in baggy pants, with impossibly small leather gloves, beating back the languid summer afternoon. Baseball was perhaps my first grasp of American history as something truly real, a connection to a bygone day through the simplicity of fresh cut grass and a diamond. It was — and remains — full of details; it invites you to get lost in them. I pined to be old enough to play, to make a shoestring catch to break the happy drowse, and my grandfather felt like a kid again.
If I learned anything that day, it’s that America’s pastime has just such a power of reverie.