The unthinkable happened. I turned my back on baseball.
I never played baseball. Spending every afternoon and Saturday at the local park playing organized ball had no appeal. I was, however, a devoted Dodger fan, collecting baseball cards and watching games while doing homework. I even learned to hate the Yankees who spoiled so many of our championship dreams. On a trip to California in 1985, I finally watched a game in Dodger Stadium while eating a Dodger dog,
My youthful idealism was spoiled and my faith in the game lost. Rumors of performance enhancing drugs circulated but it seemed few cared if it brought viewers. Through the 80’s and 90’s, animosity between owners and players flared up into occasional player strikes or threats of lockouts. Soon the commissioner, players, owners and congress were arguing and accusing. Like a kid who leaves home to escape fighting parents, I just walked away from the game.
Like a lukewarm parent taking the kids to church because they need religion, I took my young children to see the Birmingham Barons at the Hoover Met. I explained the game to my son and enjoyed the family memories, but I didn’t feel that old passion. Was it betrayal? The loss of innocence? Was it just a childish fad?
Regions Field rose in the heart of Birmingham but a couple of seasons passed I attended a game, invited by our bank to their corporate box. Last season, my wife and I had free tickets and sat along left field in the cool April evening. Something stirred. I noticed something I’d missed for a long time.
There is a magic to minor league ball. Our team, the Birmingham Barons, are low on the Chicago White Sox farm system. Championships, which the Barons have won, are not the goal; it is player development. We are a stepping stone to the “bigs” or a trip down for those needing help. When you sense your place in the world, and are content with it, your perspective changes. Players, coaches, and fans are competitive. We want to win. It’s part of the game. But in the minor leagues, winning must yield to the greater good.
Here the love of the game is on display in its purity. Young men hope to be hero for a night until they are called up to the majors. Neighborhood kids take the field with the players before the game. Autographs are freely given. Players joke with fans over the fence on a cool humid night as the smell of hot dogs and popcorn waft along a gentle breeze. The crack of a bat breaks monotony of the traffic humming downtown.
I came back often, sometimes alone when my family had other plans, and felt both ten year-old excitement and fifty year-old contentment. I would listen to the sonorous Curt Bloom bringing the game to life on the radio on nights when I could not attend. The game at all levels, from the minor league parks to major league palaces, and its rich history again stirred my heart.
Few American institutions can escape blind competition and monetary temptation. Owners and players can allow business to intrude on the game but cynicism can blind fans to baseball’s existential joy. I’d love the Barons to win games and hang championship pennants, but my greater love is a grandstand filled with laughing families, old men keeping box scores, and kids with gloves hoping for a foul ball enjoying this one night. I accepted professional baseball with its weaknesses. I could see its beauty in imperfection that I missed with youthful idealistic eyes. I even loathed the Yankees again.
The last night of the closing series, as the crowds filtered out of the stadium, I lingered then slowly walked to the third base gate. I paused before exiting, turning back for one last look at the lush green outfield framed with city lights. Baseball was as beautiful as I’d always remembered. Though I would miss her over the winter, in the spring I would return. I had come home.