Baseball stole my heart early on. My dad taught me how to throw and catch, and shared stories of his playing days. He bought my first unused glove, a Rawlings Duke Snider model, at Western Auto in Centreville, Alabama, when I was nine. The experience was so magical I eventually wrote a song about it. I still love spring training and Opening Day. I can watch baseball and discuss the intricacies of the sport all summer long.
But just before air turns cool and leaves change color, I start to crave college football. As an eleven year old I stared at 8X10 glossies of Crimson Tide players in the window of The Little Cookie, a long since closed restaurant on University Boulevard in Tuscaloosa. The next January, standing on the curb in front of the same greasy spoon, I watched the parade celebrating Bear Bryant’s first National Championship. I loved baseball but became addicted to college football.
Each August I shift from the pennant race to kickoffs and spread formations; from the last out to the two minute drill. During the baseball playoffs my attention rises and falls, depending on the teams involved, but my buzz is over until the next spring. At least until this year.
I’ve been tuning in to a little more baseball recently. There’s this guy named Larry who keeps popping up on Braves’ telecasts. No, not that one. This one is older; a weathered Texan who has aged well. He sits quietly, intently in the stands with his lovely wife and watches his son play baseball; something every lucky father on Earth has done. Only he is getting to do it a helluva lot longer than most.
Everyone is aware that Chipper Jones, future Braves Hall of Famer, and Bona Fide Southern Hero, is playing out the string. He has been fun to watch and his team is extending the season at least into the Wildcard elimination game. A lot of attention, rightly so, has been focused on Chipper. He is an original who likely can’t be replaced, at least not easily.
But every time I see Chipper, I usually see his dad, sitting proud and stoic, enjoying one more at bat, one more ovation, one more chill, with a hearty dose of pride. I identify with Larry much more than his son.
I am among those lucky enough to have observed the sports battles of three children. My sons were involved in countless contests in numerous games. I can rewind the hair-raising times and the ones that induce tears, even after so long. My children are in the same age demographic as Larry Jones’ son, but I haven’t watched any of them compete in a couple of decades.
I realize all too well the frivolity of children’s games, even when adults play them. I also realize how difficult and unfulfilling it is to cheer for a closed sales contract, or swell with pride when an electrical blueprint is completed to perfection.
Every parent revels in his child’s accomplishments; we can’t help it. I remember visiting my parents five years after I began to write a weekly newspaper column and discovering my mother’s scrapbook filled with examples of her oldest son’s capabilities; every damn one of them cut out and pasted on pages.
Sports are much easier to quantify. Games are much easier to remember. I can roll back the memory tapes and relive game winning hits, towering home runs, and celebratory dog piles after the last out. I can also sit with three grown men and share experiences, memories, and beer. It is the best of both worlds and I wouldn’t trade places with any parent that’s ever lived.
But Larry Jones is still sitting there watching. I can’t imagine how great it has been for him or what he is thinking as the end of his observations draws near.
I do know he is one lucky devil.