I became a baseball fan the summer I turned eleven. My mother was taking classes towards a degree in social work at a college about an hour’s drive from Carmi, and my brother and I would ride along with her a couple of nights a week to the campus. On the drive, we would tune in to the Cardinals, carried at that point on the clear-channel powerhouse of KMOX. The Cardinals were very good that summer, holding off a tough Mets team to win the division and then the pennant before a disappointing World Series performance. Jack Buck and Mike Shannon described it all, and made us fans.
Sometime in the next few years, as my baseball fandom turned into the sort of obsession that only preteen boys, it seems, are capable of, I discovered on an out-of-the-way bookshelf in our house a musty, digest-sized baseball magazine previewing the 1974 season. Opening it, I discovered on the first page a nearly inscrutable scrawl, one bearing no little resemblance to my own:
June 1974–Play Ball, Boy! Love, Col.
It was a gift, given at my birth and no doubt tucked away at the time and forgotten, from my great-grandfather, Grandpa Colonel, about whom I’ve written before. Living his whole life in rural Kansas, he spent a lifetime enjoying baseball–and the Cardinals–the same way I grew up enjoying them: on the radio, far from the ballpark. Jack Buck may be gone–as is Grandpa Colonel–but the radio is still my favorite way to experience the game if I can’t be there, and sound of baseball on the radio is still, for me, the heart of summer.
I never was much of a ballplayer, but I find myself thinking of Grandpa Colonel’s admonition every spring. Last Sunday, I spent the morning playing catch with my nephew at Montrose Beach, throwing until our arms ached. Tonight, Stacey and I open the house to friends–several of whom haven’t visited since October–for chili, brats, cornbread, and beer, all in honor of the return of spring. One of these days, we’ll have to get Jim here for the opener.
It’s the Cardinals and Mets. The last time we saw these two teams, they played one of the most exciting, stressful, and rewarding games I’ve ever seen. Tonight, like every spring, it starts all over again.