Friday, April 4, 2014

The First Game


by Glenn Stout
I don’t remember the score. That’s the funny thing about your first big league game -- the score is usually the least important thing about it.

I grew up outside Columbus, Ohio, at a time when trips to big league towns like Cincinnati or Cleveland were long journeys far beyond the family budget. But Columbus had the Triple-A Columbus Jets of the International League, a farm team of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and that usually made up for it. We’d go a half a dozen or so times a year – if you were under 12 you could buy a “Jet Badge” for $1 that got you in free with an adult, not a bad deal. The Jets were almost always good – I remember seeing Richie Hebner, Fred Patek, Manny Sanguillen, Bob Robertson, Dave Cash, Al Oliver and a host of other players who went on to pretty good major league careers. Johnny Pesky even spent a few years there as manager in the late ‘60s.

We usually sat in general admission seats, but the man who owned the concrete company my Dad worked for, Ralph Anderson, was also president of the Jets. He liked my Dad, and once a year we got to sit in his box on the roof. There was nothing “luxury” about it but the view – lux boxes had yet to be invented. It was a simple wood box with a window covered with chicken wire to keep you safe from foul balls.

Still, it wasn’t the big leagues, and by the time I turned 10 my parents knew that, eventually, they were gonna have to take the kid to a real ballgame.

Back then, most major league teams still barnstormed their way north, playing exhibitions as they travelled. Sometime late that winter an ad appeared in the Columbus Dispatch announcing an exhibition between the Reds and Detroit Tigers just before Opening Day.

To this day, I don’t know exactly how it happened, but somehow my Dad scored four tickets. Not just any four tickets, either, but four tickets in the third row behind the Tigers dugout, enough for the entire family. I almost wore the tickets out, looking at them ahead of time.

It didn’t matter that it was an exhibition game and even then I already hated the Reds – these were major league players whose names I already knew – Rose, Perez, Lee May, and a catcher named Johnny Bench who was the Rookie of the Year in ’68, a team that would soon be known as the Big Red Machine. And the Tigers, my Dad’s favorite team, were Word Series defending champions – Bill Freehan, Dick McAuliffe, Norm Cash, Denny McClain, Mickey Lolich and my Dad’s favorite, Al Kaline.

In a surprise, it was warm that day, and sunny, and for once we went early, hours before the game, to try to get autographs and watch batting practice. I’d never been able to do either before, but damned if some of the Tigers didn’t come out of the dugout to sign, and while roaming under the stands my brother and I kept running into players.

Most were nice, and even when they weren’t, they were memorable. I saw Tony Perez speaking to someone in Spanish, a language I don’t think I had ever heard before. I interrupted, and asked him for his autograph.

He turned and looked at me – a real live major leaguer looking me in the eye. And then he spoke, saying something else I’d never heard before: “Go f***  yourself, kid.” Some language is universal, and I got the message.

It didn’t matter. Everyone was in a good mood. I got to eat as many hot dogs and “Jet Bars” – orange Creamsicles – as I could. Even my mother had fun, laughing herself to tears as an older woman behind us got drunk and spent the whole game thinking the Tigers were the Red.

 I can’t remember who pitched for either team – probably some minor leaguers, because the Reds opened the next day in Cincinnati and Detroit at home a day later. But I do remember Al Kaline hitting a home run – someplace, we have a slide of him slowly running the bases   and at one point in the game Willie Horton came out of the dugout and handed out both parts of a broken bat – some kids on either side both had longer reaches than I did, so I missed out. And after the game, we gathered around the buses carrying member of both teams, passed them our scorecards and both came back covered with signatures, Kaline and Freehan, Cash and McLain, Horton and Lolich, and Bench, Rose, Gary Nolan, Lee May -  even my new language instructor, Tony Perez. 

So who won that day? That’s easy…

I did.

 This column first appeared in Boston Baseball, April 2014