It’s possible I saw games in earlier years and never saved the tickets. Still, absent any firm evidence to the contrary, I’m gonna declare this summer my 30th anniversary of watching baseball in person.
If the booze and the rat race don’t get me first, I’m shooting for 60. Or, maybe, even 75 …
There was a time when I went to baseball games for the starpower of the players involved.
In my minor-league hometown, I would focus a little more intently on the players who had been up to the Show before, or the ones who were reported to be on their way up. There were quite a few of them — names like Mike Boddicker, Billy Ripken and Mike Mussina. (Not to mention visiting players like Chipper Jones, Ryan Klesko, Tony Fernandez, and a .240-hitting 22-year-old named Jorge Posada.)
And when I graduated to the majors myself, I enjoyed seeing the aces ply their trade.
I’ll always remember Ken Griffey Jr. turning to the Boston bleacher loudmouths and acknowledging a chant of “JU-NIOR! JU-NIOR!” with a boyish smile and a wave — earning himself an ovation and several thousand new fans. He went deep, too.
I also remember sitting in the best seats I ever had at Fenway Park, right behind home plate, and being treated to Pedro Martinez, lithe and strong and focused, setting down the Texas Rangers.
The seats were originally purchased by a friend who passed them along after his would-be date turned him down. I’m still sad he got rejected — he was a nice guy … but man, those were great seats.
As the years go on, I get less interested in the pedigree of the players involved. I go to mostly minor-league and college-level games nowadays, with no regard to the players’ chances of future success, and sometimes even with little knowledge of their names.
When I make a major-league game, I’m most likely to focus on fringe players, for reasons unrelated to their actual skills. The last big-league game I saw was Dodgers vs. Nationals in DC, and the guys I particularly remember are Trent Oeltjen, ’cause he’s Australian and a bit player and has a weird name; and Tony Gwynn Jr. and Stephen Lombardozzi, ’cause I have multiple cards of each of their fathers.
And, y’know, as I look back through what remains of my memories, it’s usually the bit players I remember:
John “T-Bone” Shelby, then a speedy young outfielder in Rochester, parlaying a bunt all the way around the bases as various members of the Syracuse Chiefs flung the ball wildly around the yard.
Tim Derryberry, a light-hitting catcher who never made the majors, getting married at home plate under an arch of bats before a game in Rochester.
Chris Turner, a backup catcher with California, having the game of his life against Boston on my 21st birthday, going 5-for-5 with two doubles, two ribbies and — most remarkable of all — a stolen base.
Joe Hudson, a reliever remembered only by the most diehard Red Sox trivia buffs, making his major-league debut (one of very few MLB debuts I have ever personally seen.)
Dan Plesac, knockaround lefty reliever, making the 1,064th and last appearance of his 18-year career to face the final visiting batter in the last game ever at Veterans Stadium. The batter was Ryan Langerhans of Atlanta, and he looked at a third strike. Sitting up in Section 636, I thought to myself, “Gotta swing, kid. They ain’t giving you any calls in a situation like that.”
Abe Alvarez, another obscure Red Sox reliever best known for being legally blind in one eye, making the fourth and final appearance of his big league career against the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park.
And finally, Ryan Gerber, of the Limeport Bulls of the local amateur Tri-County League, pitching the only no-hitter I have ever seen at any level. (This was in May 2008 at the charming Limeport Stadium.)
The game got called off after six innings because of the mercy rule. And before it ended, the other team brought in their emergency pitcher — their beefy left-handed first baseman, who threw the wildest, least controlled knuckleball I’ve ever seen.
To this day, that guy probably gets together with his old buddies and says, “Man, you remember that night when they let me pitch? That was some crazy shit.”
It’s not always the grand slams and the shutouts that get remembered, even when you’re watching from the dugout.
Last weekend I renewed the dance for a 30th year.
Before I went to El Paso on vacation, I looked up the local college baseball schedules, figuring I could find something to watch.
UTEP, to my surprise, doesn’t have a baseball team. But New Mexico State University, 40 miles up the highway, does. And they were in town all weekend playing Kent State.
So on Sunday, after I had fulfilled all obligations related to the wedding that brought me there, I went to NMSU and caught most of a game at a charming little park with mountains looming in the distance.
NMSU won 12-6, and the game was full of weirdness — arguments from both managers; a kid striking out on a pitch that hit him; and one of Kent State’s pitchers air-mailing a routine throw to first, allowing the NMSU batter to get all the way over to third. (Shades of T-Bone Shelby.)
It was a beautiful spring day with a warm breeze. One of those days when you get lost in the rhythm of the balls and strikes, and the baseball space-time continuum starts to warp, and you find yourself thinking for a moment you might still be at Camden Yards in 1993, or Charleston in 1998, or City of Palms Park in 2003, or Geneva in 2006, or Moravian College in 2009.
My kids don’t care that much about baseball. And that’s fine: When they get old enough to be left by themselves, I’ll leave them to their books or their girls or their guitars or whatever they choose to fill their time with.
If they want the old man they’ll know where to find him.