The Last Ride of Larry Wayne, Part One

I can’t say I know where this is headed, so for those of you that saw your last visit end 15,000 words and two hours later, I won’t blame you for finding the nearest lifeboat.

***

Part One: Hope Springs Eternal in the Happiest Place on Earth
Chipper Jones’ Line: DNP (Did Not Play)

This started with my intent to write about my annual spiritual solo pilgrimage to Champion Stadium, spring home of my beloved Atlanta Braves in the heart of Walt Disney World, and what I saw there, what that trip means to me every March. I planned to write it the day I started this site because I now had a blog and therefore, an inherent obligation to contribute to it, and what better subject than a unique trip to a unique place? Two years ago I shook hands with Phil Niekro. Last year I not only got wonder-prospect Julio Teheran’s autograph but Braves All-Star Martin Prado’s as well. Plus, I got to steal a work SLR and an 80-200 lens and photograph Tommy Hanson pitching on one of the back fields; super cool. So I figured something cool would happen and I could write about it. But then it became something else (and all that happened this year was I got politely yelled at by former Orioles coach Dave Trembley, who I then shot the shit with for a minute. Take what you can get I guess. I did sneak onto the Jumbotron, though. Don’t hate).

The camera can't help but find me.

It became something else when I considered to myself that my childhood hero Chipper Jones may never skip across the third base line chalk again after this season; he’s pretty old by baseball standards and barely keeps coming back each year, so I should do everything in my power to watch him play the game as often as I could while that was still an option. Surely I could chronicle those adventures and discover something profound about Chipper, baseball, childhood idols or myself in the process. I even had a clever name thought up, a tribute to one of the game’s last throwbacks, a Southern cowboy if ever there was one and a legend deserving of a grandiose tale of his trip into the sunset: The Last Ride of Larry Wayne. And if he played in 2013 well, no one reads this blog anyway so I had a feeling not much would come of it.

And then, unexpectedly, I found myself sitting in a large, empty, echoing apartment alone, watching baseball highlights of the miracles of last October late into the morning (thank you, Evan Longoria, Jonathan Papelbon, David Freese. Actually, from Braves everywhere, you’re welcome David Freese). When a very big change takes place in life, if people are anything like me, they doubt the things they do or say or think. And I have to assume people turn to what they know or what has meant a great deal to them in the past, because I certainly did. I watched baseball. I watched baseball when there wasn’t even any baseball to be watching (thanks MLB Network!). And I goofily and existentially thought, why? Kids love baseball because their dads love baseball. My dad cannot stand baseball. Kids love baseball because they live near a ballpark and have that indelible memory of walking up the tunnel and seeing the stadium erupt in front of them. There are no ballparks in southwest Florida (when I was a teenager, an hour and a half journey North suddenly found you at Tropicana Field, home of the Devil Rays! It has various shades of grayish green mismatched carpet, catwalks that interfere with the game and a sting ray petting tank. This is where you will find every fan). And yet I have always loved baseball. I gave up playing tennis as a kid (I was damn good at that!) because it conflicted with baseball season. I have always needed baseball. I have self-medicated by watching The Sandlot an appalling number of times. So, when I really started to think about why this boring, three-hour standing contest is so great, the answer was complicated to think about, but at least it had a ready-made answer; my hero, Chipper Jones, plays baseball. And I could not wait to get to Spring Training this year more than most; I needed the smell of the clay, number 10 standing at third and I needed baseball.

Two weeks ago tomorrow I was standing above the third-base dugout in Champions Stadium feebly holding a baseball I bought at Wal-Mart and a Sharpie marker, surrounded by wide-eyed eight-year-olds and a couple overzealous autograph junkies holding bound catalogs full of what they hoped were a few hurried swirls of ink from being eBay merchandise by the end of the day. I watched my childhood hero surface from the first-base dugout and trot to his usual territory about eight steps away diagonally from the third-base bag. I watched him field grounders and recycle them into Freddie Freeman’s first baseman’s glove like clockwork. I watched him laughingly joke with third base prospect Joe Terdoslavich and our twin baby shortstop options, Tyler Pastornicky and Andrelton Simmons (none of those three men were born when Chipper Jones first came to Walt Disney World for spring training). I watched his customary enormous dip strain the capacity of his lower lip. I watched him casually deposit baseballs 400 feet away onto front office personnel car rooftops from the left side of the plate and I watched him just as casually place them 400 feet away onto the left field berm from the right side. I watched him accomplish all these feats laughing, making them look easier than I ever could by miles. This is how it has always been since I was a kid and how it should always be, damn it. It was wonderful and it was reassuring and I was grateful. I probably smiled a big, idiotic smile that made those eight-year-olds assume something was wrong with me.

And then batting practice ended and I watched my hero Chipper Jones descend into the tunnel, waving to the pleading fans. A while later I watched him appear on the center-field Jumbotron and I watched the tears issue down his face. In a time of sudden change and an uncertain future I could not have foreseen any number of springs before this one, I watched my hero retire from the game of baseball and take my entire childhood along with him.

Crap. Well, at least that clever blog title sounds a lot smarter now.

***

If there is some deep lesson to be learned about starting a new life somehow, somewhere, while the symbol of my old one slowly fades away over the course of the next 162 games, I don’t know it yet. It seems too close and Chipper didn’t even play that day (he brought out the lineup card to a wild ovation). So I’m going to go North to Braves country in April and see what I find then, cheer as loud as I can. And I’ll follow him over to that historic baseball cathedral the Trop in May and see what I find then too, and he might actually hear me in there. And after that, who knows? A game in the new Miami spaceship sometime this Summer? His actual swan song in my native PNC Park in Pittsburgh? Some unforeseen trip elsewhere across this great country? All would be welcome. Hopefully whatever I have to say after those journeys will be more cohesive than this bloated foolishness.

For now, it is the 2012 Major League Baseball season’s second opening day, and it isn’t even opening day yet; the first games that counted happened days ago in Japan and tonight marks the opening of the lime-green fish tank that is the new Marlins park. But tomorrow is the traditional opening day, when the sun will shine on abused turnstiles and beer vendors alike as it has always been meant to. I sit in that same over-sized, quiet living room which has been made much less depressing by a visit from my parents, moving furniture, opening boxes of books and hanging old and new pieces of art (before we were going on Dane’s definition of art. Now we’re going on the real one!). It is the seventh inning of the first stateside baseball game of the season and Kyle Lohse just lost an opening-day no hit bid to a Jose Reyes single. I could care less about either of these teams, other than a marginal Cardinals rooting interest as the Fish are in the Braves division, and you know what? This is bliss. I need baseball. And when I tried to think on why baseball is so great, it became clearer comparing it to my local nemesis: the NBA.

I live in Orlando. This city is incredibly devoid of character or culture of its own; we steal from the cultures that visit here and outsiders identify us with the Mouse down South, though that is miles outside of Orlando (and reality to be honest). But what we do have is the Orlando Magic, and this is a “basketball town.” When I say that this is a basketball town, what I’m saying is that the only professional athletic team that calls this city home plays basketball, not that the citizens here love it like Cardinals fans make St. Louis a baseball town, like Packers fans make Green Bay a football town, like Red Wing fans make Detroit Hockeytown USA. But living in a “basketball town” is what truly illuminated the things I love the most about the game I love the most.

In basketball, scoring is easy. It’s not only easy, but it’s expected. It is common. At times, it’s completely unexciting. This is ridiculous. Scoring in sports should be momentous, celebratory, a cause for exultant and unbridled joy (see: international soccer). Scoring should be rare and difficult. It is that on the diamond.

In basketball, the final two minutes of the game are a mockery of everything that has come before it. When the game should be tightening like a vice grip, it is instead decided by free-throw shooting and play-acting fouls. A sporting event should not develop into some idiotic circus, it should always be high drama, raising your blood pressure the longer it goes on. This happens out on the diamond.

Perhaps most importantly is that basketball lacks what I believe makes baseball truly great; history, superheros even, mysticism, gravitas. Go to an NBA game. There are court-side dancers. There are arrogant egos swollen larger than any stadium can contain. Usher music plays during the game. It has all the emotional tension of mowing your lawn. But even in the insufferable Summer doldrums you will find the 7,000 Rays fans in St. Petersburg, on their feet, screaming wildly into the late innings for what would seem like a meaningless game amongst 161 others. Even in terrible blowouts or non-marquee matchups, no hitters may surface, perfect games, batters hitting for the cycle. There is always drama, even if it comes in the quickest, easily missable bursts. There just seems to be more at work during any given baseball game; there are stadiums across the country where patrons will swear the ghosts of the game walk the bases, pace the dugouts or simply watch the game they loved.

Baseball defenders are quick to say the game has decades of statistics and history that foster its mysticism, the ability to compare to Honus Wagner to Troy Tulowitzki far easier than Jim Brown to Arian Foster or Oscar Robertson to Tim Duncan. Yet it’s more than that. Baseball has heirlooms that live through generations, magic talismans on display every night for 80 years, like change-up grips taught by Josh Gibson to Tug McGraw, shown again to Orel Hershiser, thrown now by Clayton Kershaw. Randy Johnson’s slider. Jonny Venters’ sinker, each something more magical than the next. There are superstitious lunacies and rituals that seem larger than the game and also synonymous with it; Wade Boggs’ fried chicken, batting helmets slathered in pine tar so thoroughly you’re no longer sure what team is batting. Where else can you get the fun, the anguish, the fan community engendered by the curses of the Bambino, the Black Sox or the Billy Goat (I will always maintain my theory that Red Sox fans were happier before 2004)? Where else will you find a construction worker rumored to have buried a David Ortiz jersey in the foundations of new Yankee Stadium and a team owner that would spend millions to dig it up? Where else can you find little kids in their backyards imitating their heroes, be it Jeff Bagwell’s stance or Tom Glavine’s mechanics?

Baseball even has everything that makes the other professional sports beloved; hits (ask Pete Rose), speed and athleticism (ask Ricky Henderson), over-sized personalities (ask Nyjer Morgan, aka T-Plush), collisions (ask Ray Fosse), fights (ask Don Zimmer) and acrobatics (well, just watch this. And he’s almost 40). Even the stadiums are characters unto themselves. Some are new-age spaceships (Miami), some are ancient monoliths taking slow, rattling breaths (Oakland). Some have city icons cooking famous barbecue in right field (Baltimore), some have mascots flying down slides into vats of beer (Milwaukee). Some are new-school retro (Pittsburgh, Washington, New York) and some are just plain old-school, essentially a religious experience just to descend their steps towards the grass (Wrigley, Fenway, Dodger Stadium). Football fields, basketball stadiums and hockey arenas have all the fun character of my cable bill.

I think I just make baseball out to be more than it actually is, see its profundity when maybe I’m just horribly bias. The white leather and its 108 red stitches itself is like a precious gem, the sports version of the Pink Panther. The defense sends its finest dark wizard to spin his magic, make the ball dance to his dominion against the laws of common sense and gravity, protect it from ever contacting the offense’s marauding maple weapons or possibly shatter them entirely. Behind him stand his eight bodyguards, charged with keeping that precious diamond inside of their immaculately manicured green an orange one. Meanwhile, up, striding to the plate are mythic gods, the hands of Evan Longoria, the stature of Mike Giancarlo Stanton, the preternatural gift given to Albert Pujols to send baseballs flying into the ether. And is there a greater feeling than to see exactly that? To watch Josh Hamilton do what god put him on this planet to do, send twenty-eight baseballs careening into parts of Yankee Stadium previously thought untouchable by mortal man, places surely only the Babe could have reached? Towering home runs, some of which simply never come down as far as the fans can see, are the ultimate testament to baseball’s most wonderful feature: it is limitless. Nolan Ryan once shocked the world by throwing a registered pitch 100 miles per hour. And then Justin Verlander started throwing ’em that fast into the ninth inning. And then Aroldis Chapman threw one 105. Home runs leave the very playing field itself. Think about that. When else does a game routinely exceed its own boundaries to the delight of the very fans the game has shifted into the hands of? While they were and are reprehensible cheaters, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa once saved the game as we know it, sending baseballs into apartment complexes across Waveland Avenue and onto the Massachusetts Turnpike in the summer of 1998. Every pitch and every at bat is a war of unknown attrition. Games can last for days until they are resolved on the field, and they have.

I’d wager I could ramble on for another 2500 words constituted entirely of easily refutable and completely contradictory things I love about the game, but perhaps one of its greater qualities is its fickle nature. The Cardinals just spoiled the Marlins’ first game in their new ballpark, but they’ll both play 161 more games because on any given night, the Royals can beat the Yankees. The Pirates can beat the Phillies. The Rays can come back from 11 games behind in September and 7 runs down in game 162 and end up in the playoffs. Anything can happen and always does, and always will. Records are set and are broken every day to our amazement. Our heroes for years bring us to our feet with screams in our lungs and later, respectful tears in our eyes as they leave us behind. But life goes on just the same. Baseball always arrives, just as Winter has come and gone, and baseball will always be the same. Come what may in life there will always be the game, just when you need it the most. Every spring the litany of baseball writers love to announce that for every team or player, no matter what has happened or what uncertainties their future may hold, hope springs eternal.

I couldn’t be happier to agree with them.

And if Chipper should hit a few home runs that disappear into the night skies over these next few months, I won’t complain.

"Tomorrow, the sun will rise..."

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One thought on “The Last Ride of Larry Wayne, Part One

  1. Scott Trippler says:

    You just reminded me of my entire childhood growing up from tee ball all they way through school. There was something pretty magical about the summer tournament teams and all star games that you just couldn’t beat… And furthermore you didn’t mention the passion of card collecting, and what a thrill it was and still is to get a b@d@$$ card in a pack! I have to Admit I look forward to being a Dad so I can be a coach and spit seeds all over the field And make a 8 year old that doesn’t run very fast into a clean up monster that will spend his baseball career gunnin down runners from third and trotting the bases at his own pace due to a strike out or home run because in big boy world that’s all we know! Cheers, now pass me some nachos and a beer

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