Take me out to the ball game!
Preface: The day after I originally wrote this baseball lost one of the greats. Yogi Berra passed away at the age of 90 on September 22, 2015. Yogi was baseball. It didn't matter what kind of fan you were, you knew Yogi and you love Yogi. Even a baseball fan from Boston in love with the Red Sox (Yogi was a life long Yankee) loved Yogi Berra. He was a great ambassador for the sport and one of the greatest players of all time. Safe journey, Yogi. You will be missed.
There was a time when baseball was America’s pastime. Today it is football and the Kardashians. Believe me, I get it. Unless you are a big fan of all the intricacies of a professional baseball game it can get rather boring. It is a more subtle game than football, basketball, or hockey. In every single play of football mountains of men are smashing into each other at full speed and we in America love to see things crash into each other. Hockey is a constant pursuit to slam the guy with the puck into the boards as hard as possible. Even in a “less” physical sport like basketball most of the game is spent pushing other players around to grab a rebound or to “throw it down” in someone’s face (can’t you tell how “white” I am based on that sentence?). Baseball can be a slow, methodical, calculated game one minute and then an exciting, fast paced, thrilling game the next.
I spent my formative baseball years in Martinez, Georgia. I know that I have told nearly everyone I know that I’m from Augusta, Georgia. It is one of those things that just make it easier so you don’t have to explain it later. To give some context, at least to my friends from Northern Virginia, it is like meeting someone from California and telling them you are from Washington, D.C. instead of Herndon, Virginia because if you told them Herndon they would have no idea what you are talking about. I grew up playing little league baseball as long as I can remember and taking trips often to watch the Augusta Pirates (the minor league team) play. I was a redneck kid with a nice mullet that would hang out of the back of my catcher’s helmet. I played catcher often because the only real requirement to be a catcher at the age of 8 was that you didn’t blink every time someone swung the bat. I remember catching double headers in 100 degree heat, being completely exhausted at the end of the day, and wanting to do it all over again the next day. I remember Dad going to the field with me and hitting ground balls until it got dark. He built a pitcher mound in the back yard so I could practice pitching. He would throw to me to practice hitting until, I’m sure, his arm felt like rubber. I played until high school when I broke my leg playing, of all things, basketball and wasn’t able to try out for the high school team. It was at that point that I joined the track team and started throwing discus and stopped playing baseball. But I never lost my love of the game.
I not only loved playing the game but I love watching the game. Living in Augusta allowed me to go on a fairly regular basis to the Augusta Pirates minor league game. I remember one season in particular because that was the year I got to play catch with Moises Alou. Hardcore fans around my age (35) will most definitely recognize the name, casual fans around my age will probably have the “I think I may know that name but maybe not” kind of thought about Moises Alou, and non-fans will have no idea about Moises Alou. Moises Alou played in the majors from 1990 to 2008 with six teams, probably most notably with the Montreal Expos. He was a 6 time All-Star, 2 time Silver Slugger Award winner, and has 1 World Series ring. If I’m trying to be unbiased (which you will know why is difficult in a moment) I’d say Moises Alou was a good, but not a great, player. He probably isn’t someone you will see in the Hall of Fame but, with an 18-year career and a lifetime average of .303, he isn’t just a mediocre player either.
In 1988, Moises Alou was playing A ball for the Augusta Pirates. That year, Augusta thought it would be a good idea for each player to warm up with a local little league player. My parents (thanks Mom and Dad) signed me up and I got to play catch with Moises Alou before multiple games. I was so excited to be out on a professional baseball field (even if it was only A) and play catch with a professional baseball player. I remember Moises Alou being some nice to me, shaking my hand, and thanking me for the catch each time. That experience never left me and when he broke into the majors for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1990 I wrote him a letter and sent it with a baseball card asking for him to sign it. My Dad warned me that I was sending the letter to the baseball club, that it may never get answered, and not to feel bad if I never heard back. Can you imagine the joy on a 10-year-old Wesley’s face when not only did I get a reply but I got a personal reply from Moises Alou?
The card I had sent to him was one I had purchased at a baseball card show (more on those later) and it turned out it was a card that Moises Alou didn’t have. He wrote me a note saying he remembered playing catch with me in Augusta and thanking me for the letter. He went on to say that he didn’t have the card I sent so he kept it and in return sent me two other cards that he had signed. I was elated! Not only did this major league baseball player remember who I was but he had sent me two signed cards for the price of one! It wasn’t until many years later when I learned the value of baseball cards (and money) that the card I sent him was probably pretty rare and worth a few dollars. Moises Alou had probably ripped me off, monetarily at least, by taking my card. But, I didn’t care then and I don’t care now because I have that memory of a major league player taking the time out to respond to a nobody kid from Georgia and to this day it makes me smile.
Being a kid born in Fort Gordon, Georgia I naturally became a fan of the Atlanta Braves. I’ll admit that for a long time it was easy to be a Braves fan when your team wins the division for 14 straight years. It’s not as easy to be a fan when your team is near or at the bottom of the division like they were when I first became a fan in the late 1980’s and they are now (thank you Phillies for being a worse team so far this year). I believe that your home team should be the team you support. I get that this can be tricky in modern times since it is much easier to move around the country than it was in the 1960s and certainly in the 1920s. If you lived in New York City in the 1920s you were a Yankees fan. If you lived in Boston in the 1960s you were a Red Sox fan. Now, if you are a kid growing up anywhere you become the fan of whoever is winning at the time. I think the result is the loss of the home team identity and a loss of community.
With so much mobility it is easy to become a nomadic sports fan. I’m a perfect example. I lived in Georgia for the first 11 years of my life and for the 24 years since I have lived in Northern Virginia. It would make sense for me to be classified as one of those people who doesn’t support the home team. I guess 24 years is a long time to live away from your home team and still be a fan. It was easier when I was growing up because TBS was on cable throughout the country and showed every Atlanta Braves game. I would come home from school, order a medium cheese pizza from Dominos for $8.45 (I’m sure that didn’t help with my weight gain), and first turn on WGN to catch a Chicago Cubs afternoon game the flip over to TBS to catch the Braves night game. I never missed a beat because the local team on TV was the Atlanta Braves since I could watch them every day, even in Northern Virginia.
I’m still a big advocate of supporting your home team and being a fan of your home team. To a certain extent, the people on the field are your neighbors, your friends, and represent your home. I’m a Braves fan because I was taught that very notion when it counted in Georgia. I hope my daughter will grow up to be a Washington Nationals fan since she was born and is being raised in the Washington, D.C. area. Of course, she is also growing up in a household that has Atlanta Braves games on TV and a dad that does the tomahawk chop in his living room so I wouldn’t be surprised if she grows up to be a Braves fan. I suppose I’ll have to reconsider my stance on home team fandom when that time comes.
The last thing I want to talk about (at least for now) regarding baseball is the world of baseball card collecting. I couldn’t begin to tell you when I started collecting baseball cards. I feel like I have been doing it all my life. My Nana and Pop (grandparents on my Mom’s side) in 1987 gave my cousin and me a complete series of Topps cards. That tradition continued every year with Nana and Pop giving my cousin and me that year’s complete Topps set until they both had passed away. I didn’t want the tradition to die, so I made sure to get the complete set for my cousin in 2014 and my parents got it for me.
To me, baseball cards weren’t something to be collected to appreciate in value and kept sealed. I loved, and love, flipping through each individual card, reading the stats, looking at the photos, learning as much as I could about every player, and making my own unique collections. As I mentioned above, I have one album dedicated to the Alou family. For a long time my favorite player was Will Clark of the San Francisco Giants (because we both had the name W. Clark) so I created an album of all my Will Clark cards. I have another album of my older cards with some of my favorites being my 1971 Hank Aaron, my 1972 Roberto Clemente, and my 1960 Topps Brooks Robinson.
My Dad was kind enough to take me to baseball card shows so I could seek out old cards, unique cards, trade cards, or get some autographs. I remember one card show vividly that we went to and Hoyt Wilhelm was going to be signing cards. I didn’t know who Hoyt Wilhelm was at the time but when I found out he was going to be there I made sure to do lots of research and learn all about him. I learned that he was the first relief pitcher ever elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was the first real “specialist” pitcher being used to close games and to come into games in middle innings to keep the lead. When we got to the card show I made sure to find a Hoyt Wilhelm card to buy. I was able to get a 1968 Topps card for a fairly decent price and Hoyt Wilhelm signed it at the show. I loved being able to meet a Hall of Famer and get his autograph. It was exhilarating.
As a teenager I dabbled in having my own table at baseball card shows to display, sell, and trade my collection. My old friend, Jeremy, and I would go in together to purchase a table and try to make a few dollars selling our older cards. We only did this a few times because I think we both learned that we didn’t really want to sell our cards we just liked the idea of having a big enough collection to fill up an entire table at a baseball card show.
I love baseball. There is nothing more romantic than the smell of the freshly cut grass, the pop of a fastball hitting the catcher’s mitt, or the sound of the bat cracking one over the fence. Baseball is a uniquely American game that can simultaneously divide a country (I absolutely hate the Philadelphia Phillies) and bring a country together (I was giving high fives to a guy I have never met at an Atlanta Braves game because we scored). Baseball was once America’s pastime and I hope that one day it will be again.
P.S. No, I don’t still have the letter from Moises Alou. I wish I would have kept that letter because it would have been an incredible memory. However, I do still have both of the signed baseball cards that he gave me. I keep them in a separate album from all my other baseball cards. I have a separate Alou card album where I keep all my cards for not only Moises Alou, but for his father, Felipe Alou (I used the name Felipe in high school Spanish class because of Felipe Alou), and his uncles Matty Alou and Jesus Alou, all of whom where professional baseball players.
P.P.S. This blog was really just an excuse for me to show off pictures from my trip to a Braves game during a trip to Atlanta. Haha! Made you look!