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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 61 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

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Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Baseball and My Childhood Memories

Copyright © 2013 by Ralph Couey
Written content only.
Pictures culled from the Internet, mostly MLB, Topps, and various media outlets.

My memories of childhood, now five decades in the rear-view mirror, have become a jumble of disjointed snippets; moments of one day or another that for some reason stubbornly remain locked in some seldom-used cluster of neurons.  Looking back, I catch glimpses of the American west going by outside the windows of a 1964 Ford Falcon.  At some point, we must have had a picnic or two, although I don't think I could tell you where they happened.  It's frustrating that so many of those good memories seem to exist only in partial images, the edges heavily pixilated, while others seem to have disappeared for good.

But the memories that remain most vivid are those which revolved around baseball.

I left the game for a number of years for various reasons.  My favorite team, the Royals, haven't been competitive in almost 30 years.  Players around the league jumped teams so often that it was hard to keep rosters straight in my mind.  Baseball became, at least in my mind, a business instead of a game.
In the last couple of years, however, I find that more and more, I'm coming back.  I'm much more apt to look for a game on TV and watch, even if only for a few innings.

But the game has changed, of that there can be no denying.  The basics are still there, as "Nuke" LaLoosh from "Bull Durham" once opined, "It's a simple game,  You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball.  Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.  Sometimes, it rains."

The change I see the most is the uniforms, at least how they're worn.  In the 1960's the players wore flannel, instead of cool, ventilated double-knits.  I don't care how tough the modern ballplayer thinks he is, but if you trotted out onto the field under a blazing sun and in oppressive humidity in St. Louis in July and played a double header wearing those flannel suits, you were the man.  The other thing I miss is the old white socks and stirrups.  Today, of course, players mostly wear the pants long and baggy, with the back of the cuff hooked on one of the heel spikes.  I'm sorry, call me an old fud, but that looks way too...well...sloppy to me.

But what I remember the most are the teams, and the players who called those cities home for nearly their entire careers.  There was stability on those teams. You could turn on the game, or go to the stadium knowing who was going to be on the field.  Of course it was the oppressive nature of the infamous Reserve Clause that created that stability -- and also vastly limited the same professional mobility for players that anybody else in private industry had.  Salaries were much lower.  I remember being surprised at the number of players who had to take part-time jobs in the off-season just to make ends meet.  So with the good, there was also some (invisible to me) bad.

In the early to mid-'60's, we lived in the Kansas City area, which meant suffering through season after miserable season with the Athletics.  Dressed vividly in Kelly green and gold uniforms, they consistantly finished at the bottom of the American League pile (no divisions back then).  Still, the team had players I enjoyed watching, like Dick Green, the marvelously smooth and wide-ranging second basemen.  Third basemen Ed Charles, centerfielder Rocky Colavito (at least for the one season he was there), first basemen Ken "Hawk" Harrelson, my favorite nickname, and Mike Hershberger, the right fielder with a cannon-like right arm. 
        The Rock...     
     
   ...and The Hawk

Even though the A's were awful, the rest of the AL had to come to Kansas City to play them.  So I still got to see Micky Mantle, Roger Maris, Harmon Killebrew (who I saw hit the longest home run I ever witnessed, Bo Jackson notwithstanding), big Frank Howard, and the pitchers, Whitey Ford, Jim Kaat, Dean Chance, and fireballing Cleveland Indian "Sudden" Sam McDowell.

 


 Mantle's majestic swing.
I especially enjoyed it when the Detroit Tigers came to town.  Now, that was a lineup.  Norm Cash, Gates Brown, Willie Horton, Al Kaline, and Jim Northrup.  That was not a roster, per se.  It was several boxcars full of beef.  Even their names sounded powerful.  Dad, having no patience for baseball, left it to my mother to take me to those games at old Municipal Stadium just west of Downtown.    Talk about different times.  Today, to expect a young woman with a grade school boy to go alone into downtown anywhere, park in a vacant lot and walk three blocks to a game and back again in the dark afterwards is a risk almost no one would be willing to take.  Back then, it was just what you did. 

During those years, NBC ran their "Game of the Week" on Saturday afternoons. That was appointment TV for me.  On that small and (by today's standards) blurry screen, I was able to watch all the other great players.  Willie Mays and Willie McCovey in San Francisco.  Drysdale and Koufax in LA.  Aaron, Clemente, Wills, Marichal, Roseboro, and Eddie Mathews in Milwaukee.  On the days that our cross-state team, the Cardinals were playing, I'd get to watch the fearsome Bob Gibson, Ken Boyer, and in 1963, the curtain call for Stan Musial.  The coverage was different.  Now, when a reliever comes in the game, they cut away for several commercials while the guy throws his warmup pitches.  Back then, Curt Gowdy and either Pee Wee Reese or Tony Kubek would fill the time with a long penetrating discussion of the reliever's stats, and how he stacked up historically against the next three hitters.

 Spahn and Sain had nothin' on these guys.            Say Hey!
That was my game back then, and the stars who populated my particular universe.  I just didn't watch them, I took them to heart, rooting hard and cheering when they prevailed, and feeling sad when they lost. 

But time does on terrible thing to children.  It causes them to grow up, and old.  I began to drift away from the game in my mid-20's.  The breaking point for me were the three seasons, 1976, 1977, and 1978 when the Royals and Yankees met in the playoffs.  For me, and about a hundred thousand other Royals' fans, they were heart-breaking losses.  It was joyful when the team finally broke through the playoffs into the World Series in 1980, this time sweeping the Yanks in three straight games, topped off by George Brett's towering blast off Goose Gossage that sealed the deal.  That the Royals lost to the Phillies really didn't matter to me.  They had beat the Yankees.  And that was all that mattered to me. 

THE Moment:  Brett v. Gossage
"Na na na na, Na na na na, Hey hey, GOODBYE!!!"
After that, life, in the shape of a wife and kids and the attendant responsibilities thereof, intervened.  I simply didn't have the time to watch any more.  In the intervening years, even when I had the time, I found that I had lost the passion I used to have for the game.  But it seems to be coming back now, even with those uniforms.  The game has gotten better, and I'm beginning to re-learn the players' names again.

They say when a man grows older, he begins to turn back into a child.  If that means reconnecting with a game that defined my youth, and rediscovering that joy and passion once again, I guess that's not so bad.
At least I'll go happy.
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