In a press box the size of a restroom, we sat. Dreary conditions made a late-April minor league baseball game even more dreadful than usual. I had no intentions of staying and will never regret attending.
Innings moved along full of no-goods and not-quites. A game comprising errors and players who were destined to remain semi-professionals. Watching the game wasn’t my idea. My self-centered ways didn’t allow me to pay a lick of attention.
Sometime near the seventh-inning stretch, the purpose of sitting in the dark box – filled with turkey wraps likely left over from the night before – became evident. It was here where I was meant to find out the meaning of baseball. As with the most important lessons in life, it happened when – and where – I least expected.
The wise old men always find us. They fill up our cups with their knowledge, whether we’re thirsty or not. Sometimes, they find us in a dusty, old concrete stadium.
My editor pitched the story. A local native moved up the ranks of minor league baseball, into the general manager position in Richmond. Once a city owned by the Braves’ AAA club, he sought to win it over with his AA San Francisco affiliate.
On a Saturday, I made the voyage to the state capitol. Arrangements were made for me and my best friend to attend the game. The plan was simple. Richmond played in the mid-afternoon. I would ask the questions; he would hold the camera.
We arrived close to noon. I peppered any question on my mind to our main character. He explained the business of the minors – how wins came after family fun. Promotions and discounted rates for groups helped feed success. A tour of the miserable stadium showed big league hopefuls swinging in the cages. The vendors popped their corn and stocked their coolers. A couple hours of marching and asking and writing were finally complete.
Baseball isn’t my passion. It doesn’t move me the way it did when I was a child. I grew out of the game in many ways. Staying for first pitch didn’t sound inviting. Nonetheless, my best friend adores the game. He digests Orioles games like a fine cuisine. He never gets his fill. No matter how it tastes, he knows his critiques.
My compadre bristled at the idea of departure. Let’s stay for the game, he said. After a shrug and understanding the press box was wifi-compatible, I agreed. Not because I wanted to, but because everyone deserves a fun field trip.
In the box, we were in our elements. I typed away on a number of stories. He watched the game and chatted with the man next to him. My inclination to zone out remained. Normally, the men in the box are scouts or writers. Neither has provided stimulation through conversation worth recall.
I don’t remember what he said or how he said it. In an instant, my ears perked up and my curiosity opened. He was a scout, but no ordinary scout. A senior advisor to the Giants, he played in the majors for nine seasons.
He played with Willie Mays and Willie McCovey. He remembered Barry Bonds as a child, running about the San Francisco clubhouse. He remembered Barry as a phenom – the best hitter to ever live, he said. We asked and he answered. Some former players feel bothered at the endless barrage of questions. Our new friend seemed overjoyed.
A quick internet search of our pal brought me to baseball-reference.com. His first at-bat in 1962 with the Los Angeles Angels was a pinch-hit walk-off single. It doesn’t get much better than that, I mused.
With a grin he shot back, “My first big league home run came at Dodger Stadium off Sandy Koufax.” He only hit 22 over the fence in nine years. But a shot off Koufax is a career in itself. The scout bounced from the bigs to the minors in his playing career.
After his time on the diamond ended, he managed all over the semi-pro circuit for the Angels, Astros, Cubs and Giants. He recalled coaching at an old ballpark with a tree in left field. He may have stretched the truth, but baseball has been known to tell a lie or two.
We followed his journey as he spoke, with the edges of our chairs warm from interest. He pointed out a prospect who could “hit a gnat’s ass” with a fastball but couldn’t hit 90 consistently enough for a call-up. The wisdom oozed, and we saved every drop we could remember.
On that dreary night, we enjoyed the company of a man who played with the Say Hey Kid. A lifer with more than 50 years spent at a diamond who mentioned nothing resembling regret. Like a child who refuses a dinner call for one last pop fly, he could never get enough.
Whether it’s the sound of the ball hitting the trademark or the sugar-infused snuff, the sweetness of baseball keeps ’em coming back. Jim Leyland preferred cigarettes, but nevertheless, he stayed until he couldn’t stay anymore.
When Leyland touched home plate this week, the thought of lifers and their importance hit home.
Our own Matt Whitener explained the phenomenon aptly.
“It’s a very fickle game,” Whitener said of baseball. “There are lots of different levels to it. I remember when Leyland’s Pirates would come in here when I was 8 or 9 and they’d give the Cardinals hell.
“Think about how much of your life you give up to chase a dream. You’ve got to give up a lot to be a lifer in anything. It’s all they’ve ever known – they’re baseball sociopaths.”
Leyland fixed lineup cards and made pitching decisions. He did it for what seems like 100 years. Baseball will age a man, but the aged man is sometimes best suited for the game. There are similarities between Leyland and my friend from last year.
Both laced up their shoes for their adult lives knowing the office was at the ballpark. There are lifers in plumbing and lifers in medicine, those who teach well beyond their pension dates and some who retire when dead. To do it in a game that seems so tedious yet so unpredictable seems extremely valuable. The kid lives deep down in baseball lifers, or else they’d have found somewhere else to go.
Leyland will live out his life as he pleases – which is deserved. But, you can’t help but wonder if next October, he’ll miss his cleats and his cap, feeling naked as the fresh-fallen snow without them. He’ll light up another Marlboro in his recliner or outside, likely missing that sweet crack of the bat and the 6-4-3 double plays.
In two beautiful ballparks, the World Series will take place. Freshly groomed grounds free of misplaced grass blades will serve as the season’s final stage. The infield dirt will be perfect, the nights crisp enough to make August seem like a thing of the past and Halloween a thing of next week.
We’ll hear Tim McCarver’s routine diatribes about Bob Gibson. At this point, McCarver will likely reduce the famous pitcher’s rest to 16 minutes.
“And, here was Gibson … taking the ball … just moments after we showered at Fenway …”
Old men must tell tales and let us decipher how much is true. It’s a generational game, with ghosts at every base and heroes in every memory. Baseball gives us what we can’t give ourselves anymore – a recollection of the past as if it was today.
On the paths, the two famous franchises will encounter small games that add up to a bigger one. The grandest best-of-seven series awards the gritty and simply has no use for those whom buckle under pressure. It could all come down to a swing and a miss or a crossed sign somehow fizzled on its way to the mound. We don’t know if the sweep or full series is at hand – but we’ll watch, because it’s what our fathers did. And their fathers too.
It doesn’t take a player or coach to be a baseball lifer. There are many of us around, especially when the temperature falls.
If you’ve ever driven past Richmond, you’ve seen The Diamond. It sits on North Boulevard, next to the highway.
Its mammoth façade behind home plate provides two decks. The upper level is normally closed to visitors. It doesn’t fill up like it once did. An empty top half isn’t the lone reminder of the stadium’s downward spiral.
The concourse is cold and empty. It’s simply a place-filler, like many other minor league parks. Maybe the size is what makes it seem worse. It takes one glance to feel its age. A quick look as you drive past could convince someone that it’s vacant. Much of Richmond is based on history, but usually it builds up the past rather than making you feel it should be torn down.
Built in 1984, The Diamond is too young to be vintage and too old to be comfortable. It serves as a reminder of semi-professional sports as second-class citizens of the sports world, where winning comes second to T-shirt giveaway nights.
Aside from the length of base paths, no one would confuse the ramshackle park for Busch Stadium or Fenway Park.
The game wound down that night. Parents had already taken their children home. Some drunks and company parties still sat and hollered. The weather never improved, and the sun had long since said goodbye for the night.
We sat in the box with our friend. All bases about his life and career had been touched. The only place left to go was home. He had one more night in Richmond, and then he was off to another town, this one of the Podunk variety.
He’d watch and scout a few players and return home until his second-half evaluations of the season were necessary. With another night at a hotel ahead of him, he looked up at the empty half of the cement stands.
“This is a beautiful park,” he said.
After immediately thinking how incorrect his statement was, I understood the lesson.
“You never get tired of this, do you?” I asked.
“Kid, I’m one of the lucky ones,” the scout said as he continued his gaze.
I realized no matter how far off the map he was, the lifer would find every park as beautiful as this eyesore. From Fenway to Springdale, there wasn’t an ugly place to watch baseball. Sometimes, you find the beauty in life and realize there’s no other way to spend it.
Our friend realized it somewhere between playing catch as a child, rounding the bases on Koufax and a tree in left field. When the World Series starts, it will be worth the reminder to look at the baselines in their perfect straightness and admit that there’s nothing as beautiful.
The lesson I learned from the lifer didn’t sway my love towards baseball. I still rarely keep tabs until the playoffs. Instead, it taught me that one of the most important things in life is being exactly where you are at the precise moment you were meant to be there – even if it’s before they play “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” on a miserable Saturday in a booth with no elbow room.
The lifers know their place. The rest of us need to find out where we’re supposed to be long enough to be lucky ones too.
Sports are all I know. Writing came naturally. Sports writer by night & sports writer by night. Philosophy major who thinks the unexamined sport is not worth watching. Always for hire, never for sale. I believe that silence is the virtue of fools and I can't hear you.