Baseball in This American Life

By Bob Socci

Like so many Saturdays in May, far too many to possibly recount, this one included plenty of conversation about the game I’ve loved as long as memory can recall.

Only, unlike all those others, I wasn’t doing the talking.

Most of adulthood – accepting that I’ve actually grown up – spring and summer weekends typically were spent at ballparks around the country. One minor league baseball season to the next, that was life dedicated to the dream of becoming a major league announcer.

From 2003-09, it annually included the 140-plus games of a Triple-A schedule, sandwiched between the college basketball and football campaigns. Every spring, I stuffed my car with clothes and books, and headed out.

Those first three years, I drove three days from Annapolis to Albuquerque to call the start-up Isotopes. The next three, my commute was shortened to three-plus hours, as voice of the Norfolk (Va.) Tides. Around Labor Day, I retraced my tracks just in time for opening kickoff.

Harbor Park in Norfolk, Va. is home of the Baltimore Orioles Triple-A affiliate.

But by April of ’09, I was re-routed, after my wife and I moved to New England. Boston, for us, was the best place to raise a family. Unfortunately, home games – all four of them – occurred only when the Tides visited Pawtucket.

Then, last summer our first child, a boy, was born and my baseball schedule was cut in half. Although games were still almost always away, calling sports year-round, it was great to again experience true home stands. This spring, as our son closes in on his 11th month, my role with the Tides is essentially that of a pinch-hitter.

So, on Saturday, May 7, after returning from Indianapolis and Louisville, I wasn’t needed on air. My weekend free, what did I do? Naturally – though certainly not without the blessing of my wonderful wife – I left the house for a few hours of talking baseball. In this instance, for a change, I was the listener.

The Great Fenway Park Writers Series, a public service of the Red Sox, was holding its next event, an appearance by Texas attorney and published baseball historian Talmage Boston at a coffee-and-croissant reception inside the Hotel Commonwealth.

Ironically, if not for a football writer, I never would have known about it. Months earlier, Sports Illustrated’s Peter King noted the Writers Series in his Monday Morning QB column for SI.com. King’s comment was published between the items reaffirming his “Coffeenerdness” and “Beernerdness.”

Interest piqued, a quick search led me to www.fenwayparkwriters.org, where I learned of Boston’s upcoming visit to The Hub. Since the Series’ calendar coincided with an opening on mine, I reserved my seat.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect upon arrival in Kenmore Square. Part of me hoped Peter would be there too, so I could introduce myself, invite him to the Army-Navy Game – one coffee snob to another, thanking him for his lead about the Writers Series – and recommend Osiris Pale Ale the next time he’s in Indy to cover the Colts.

Alas, if King was there, I didn’t see him. Not that I recognized anyone in the audience, aside from the author. And not that it made an ounce of difference. The only thing that really mattered was easily apparent in everyone around me: why we were all there.

We all shared a passion for baseball. Why else would we devote a beautiful Saturday morning, much less pay to hear a lawyer state his case?

I signed in, received a copy of Boston’s latest book, Baseball and The Baby Boomer, poured a cup of coffee (Peter would have liked it, I think) and took an open seat. The first person I met was Jeff, a very friendly hotel employee enjoying a door man’s holiday. He was a veteran of the Writers Series and assured me that I was in the right place, among the right people – baseball fans all.

Before long, another amiable gentleman, Bob, joined us. Old enough to have seen his first major league game in person at the Polo Grounds, he was sporting a San Francisco Giants cap. It was his homage to Willie Mays, who the day before celebrated his 80th birthday. Say Hey!

Others filled the room, and soon enough the Writers Series chairman George Mitrovich addressed the gathering. Mitrovich presides over similar forums in Denver and San Diego. His bio on the group’s website states that he has a “profound belief in the dialogue of democracy – a dialogue that most assuredly includes the realm of sports.”

Especially the game that Mitrovich reasserts remains our National Pastime. As longtime Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell wrote, “Conversation is the lifeblood of baseball.”

Now, my friends in places like Baltimore or New York might find a bunch of mainly Red Sox fans waxing poetic about baseball, around the corner from Fenway Park, to be absolutely unlistenable. My own travels taught me long ago that devoted fans populate great baseball towns – and in some cases, regions – far from Red Sox Nation.

In college, I interned with the Reds when Pete Rose was a ‘future hall of famer’ and Cincinnati was capital of Reds Land. Years later, off-days for my Peoria Chiefs allowed for sunning in the bleachers at Wrigleyville or joining the Cardinal red sea of fans in St. Louis. I also strolled along Eutaw Street, beside the Warehouse at Camden Yards, when the Orioles were perched atop the AL East.

What’s more, extended time in Triple-A can test your romantic devotion to the game. You’re always bound to encounter somebody displeased about something: mainly that he’s not in the big leagues.

But as Mitrovich concluded his introduction of Boston, prefacing a speech about “Baseball and American Life,” as far as I was concerned, we were in the center of the thinking fan’s universe. Boston opened by quoting the French-born scholar Jacques Barzun, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.”

Talmage Boston's latest book, published in 2009 by bright sky press.

For the better part of the next hour or so, Boston filled the room full of mostly middle-aged men and women with anecdotes to back up his premise that, “Baseball is a hard game played by hard men, who throw hard and hit hard.” Naturally, as with the best yarns about baseball, they spun off a few laughs.

Boston also demonstrated how this hard game can touch a soft spot. He told the story of former Pennsylvania governor and U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh. Suffering great personal loss in 1960, Thornburgh credited the miraculous World Series triumph of his beloved Pittsburgh Pirates for lifting him out of the doldrums. For Thornburgh, baseball was a healing agent.

Hearing Boston, I couldn’t help but think about September 2001, and how baseball helped to ease one’s psyche. I’ll never forget the exact moment I began to sense the so-called return to normalcy after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

For a week, I had tensely watched and listened to news reports almost non-stop. But when I turned on the car radio on the evening of Sept. 17, pulling out of a grocery store parking lot in Annapolis, I heard Gary Cohen and Ed Coleman calling the New York Mets vs. the Pirates. Baseball was back. Finally, I could exhale. As the brilliant documentary, Nine Innings From Ground Zero, later illustrated, I wasn’t alone.

Boston also shared some of his fondest memories of his all-time favorites, like Stan Musial, Carl Yastrzemski and Nolan Ryan. With mention of each name, I thought of my own boyhood idols. What was personal for him evoked what was personal for me.

And that, as much as anything, is why I believe the hard game has such a firm hold on this American life. Each of us has experienced, or at least longed for, moments like Kevin Costner having a catch with his dad in Field of Dreams. Memories of the game take us back to the sandlots and diamonds of our youth, if not an Iowa cornfield.

Sometimes, when you find yourself inside the game, you need step back and take stock of those memories. I did. Someday, I look forward to sharing them with my son.

When Boston’s speech ended and the Writers Series adjourned, I walked out onto Commonwealth Avenue, which was teeming with fans on their way to Fenway. In two hours, the Sox would host the Twins.

They streamed one way and I went the opposite. I couldn’t help but feel we were all going in the same direction – to the ballpark.

Bob continues to call Norfolk Tides games, in addition to his roles as the radio voice of Navy football and a freelance television broadcaster. To view and listen to samples of his work, please visit www.bobsocci.com.

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