Sunday, July 05, 2009

Day 11 – Celebrating the 4th of July

This Saturday felt like a Sunday because of the 4th of July holiday and not much was happening. Everyone in my sister’s house, here in Riverside, slept late and breakfast morphed into brunch.

My sister, Vicki, had dug out two boxes of old photos of my late father and I spent some time examining them. Most of them I remembered; a few I had never seen (including one of my grandfather from 1907) and others of my son, Robert, sent to Dad when Robert was a small child.

Tucked in between the Kodachrome prints were old newspaper clippings of my early works as sports editor in Conroe, Texas (for the Conroe Daily Courier), which began in June, 1976. I must have arranged for a subscription of the paper to be sent to him, although 33 years is a long time to remember small details like that. The fact that he kept certain articles was pretty startling and I will never know why he chose what he chose.

I had been on the new job for about three weeks and my daily offering of opinions were simply called “column.” Imagine the marketing time it took to derive that name. They used the photo shot of me after the 36-hour bus ride from Detroit to Conroe, which was equivalent to a deer in the crosshairs.

In 1976, the 4th of July fell on a Sunday and I penned a piece about America based on one of the few subjects I knew well: baseball. I have returned to that topic often over the ensuing 33 years in Texas, even though things and circumstances of employment have changed. I am retired and the hair I had on top of my head back then has retreated to oblivion.

On this 4th of July, I also returned to my favorite subject, attending a sold-out California League Class A game at San Bernardino between the Lancaster JetHawks (who had Roger Clemens’ son, Koby, playing at catcher) and the hometown Inland Empire 66ers.

The game lasted three hours and was won by the Sixers on a two-out drag bunt with the winning run on third for a 4-3 victory. We then sat back and enjoyed a rousing fireworks display in the cool High Desert night, with Sousa marches and other patriotic music blaring over the public address system.

It WAS a feel good night as it should be every Independence Day holiday – fireworks, family and baseball.

So when I found this particular “column,” I wanted to share it with people reading this blog; something my father found worthy of keeping. This is what I wrote 33 years ago (my writing needed much polishing and I was a tad naïve about the world):

“In 1967, many people gathered in the streets of Detroit. The flames of destruction leaped higher into the sky as the nights wore on. The city and its reputation burned beyond recognition.

In 1968, people again gathered in the streets of Detroit. This time, flames were replaced by a joyful spirit which grew higher in the night. Blacks and whites were not at each other’s throats as before. Instead they roamed arm-in-arm; the Detroit Tigers had won the 1968 World Series. A baseball team had united a battle-torn city like never before.

I guess there are more patriotic people than me. I have rather deep convictions about what can be done to make the United States better. Many involve changes that some people may not want. But I’m proud to be an American. Not better than anyone else, but proud, nevertheless.

I feel American sports are unlike any others in the world. Perhaps other countries have surpassed the U.S. in talent but the type of games played here are unique. Nowhere on this earth can you find the enthusiasm generated by football, basketball and most of all, the American pastime – baseball.

Football symbolizes the ruggedness of the nation. I hear in Texas it is an experience all its own. The beauty of movement, which is the essence of basketball, is also American. Basketball appeals to the underdog spirit, as a poor man can become a success overnight with nothing but sneakers and talent.

But everything this country is, was or will be is wrapped up in the game of baseball. Nothing can set a city on fire like a pennant contender, or a single player, as when 50,000 fans showed up in Detroit’s Tiger Stadium to see gangling 21-year-old Mark Fidrych, nicknamed “The Bird,” pitch. Only in such a country can the imagination and hearts of the people be captured by an individual.

So much of the language which is truly American is baseball-oriented. Think about it. He who fails “strikes out,” yet a “pitch” that a salesman uses hopefully will “hit.” A fellow under a handicap has “two strikes against him,” but someone who cooperates is “willing to play ball.”

A screwball, blooper, caught in a squeeze play, touching all the bases, teamwork … all can be associated with an institution in the U.S. other than baseball, which originated them all.

Culturally, baseball has meant more to great American authors than any other sport. Men like Damon Runyon, William Faulkner and Mark Twain all wrote about the game. Great literary critics like Alexander Woolcott could often be found with celebrities like Groucho Marx at a Yankee or Dodger game.

A place like Brooklyn became immortal because of Ebbets Field and “Da Darlin’ Bums.” Every World War II picture has someone who dreamed of the centerfield bleachers in the New York borough. The hot dog, the staple of the baseball fun, became an American institution. As Peanuts’ creator Charles Schulz said, “A hot dog doesn’t taste the same without a ball game in front of it.”

History has recorded the names in its Hall of Fame like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. And what sport had, until a short time ago, the President of the United States officially open its season?

Youth. The key to this country and the key to baseball. Kids playing the game in all forms. They play stickball, sewerball, hardball, T-ball, slowpitch, fastpitch, Little League, American Legion, Babe Ruth, Pony and Pee Wee. It’s all the same game.

It is an intellectual game full of “ifs” for the armchair manager to dwell upon. It is a team game; it is an individual game; it is man against man; it is man against himself.

It is America.

As I said, my work needed lots of Turtle Wax; but I was just 24 and still reeling from finding my first professional writing job. I was eager and easy to please.

Oddly, the last game I saw in Detroit involved Mark Fidrych, who, like my father, is enjoying his favorite pastime in heaven.

But for some reason, my father chose to keep this particular piece of fading newsprint with him until he passed away. So I carried thoughts of my Dad to the game in San Bernardino.


Much to the satisfaction of my wife, Jodie, Sunday night will be the last ballgame for me/us. In fact, she isn’t going to Lake Elsinore to see the Storm face the Quakes from Rancho Cucamonga in the dreaded cross I-215/15/10/5 rivalry (honestly, the huge number of freeways and names would drive most traffic reporters nuts and certainly can’t be good for the sanity of Southern California motorists who rival Texans in their display of poor driving habits).

I will be the adult chaperone for Alissa (our niece) and two of her male-type friends. And it will be lots of loud AC/DC to and from the ballpark. It will demonstrate that I am hip and relevant; of which I am neither (but I DO like my rock and roll).

Until then … after the “Storm” and when we arrive Monday in Tuscon … Shalom!

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