You always remember your first.
The first day of school.
The first kiss.
The first day without training wheels.
Or that first heartbreak, when she let you know that “we should just be friends.”
The first baseball game.
I was 10. August 6, 1988. Baltimore, Maryland. Orioles versus Brewers.
The rain fell in fits throughout the day. I watched the sky anxiously, nervously. I prayed to the gods of baseball, weather, and childhood. “Please don’t rain out the game. Please, please, please.” It was late in the season. And unless the rains came in torrential, biblical sermons, the game would be played. I watched the sky, and continued my pleading. The day wore on. I passed the time with wiffle ball and trip to the local card shop where I purchased a Ted Williams replica card and a Vernon Law rookie card (I still have them both), that I’d later hand to Vernon himself, and watch him sign. I was visiting my cousins that summer. We’d driven up and down the states of Maryland and Virginia visiting historical sites—various Smithsonian museums, and D.C. monuments, Arlington National Cemetery, Civil War battlefields, and even the Catholic elementary school in Richmond where my mom spent most of her childhood in mortal fear of Nuns and their rulers. But what I remember in most vivid detail was that baseball game, played in the aging Memorial Stadium on that gloomy August night.
Our seats were somewhere along the third base line. There before me on the field, was my baseball card collection in the flesh. Eddie Murray, Paul Molitor, Robin Yount, and of course, Cal Ripken Jr. Four players that were later all elected into the Hall of Fame.
I left the game with a plastic Orioles batting helmet.
Memorial Stadium is gone. None of the players on the field that day are still playing. But I remember. The hot dogs, and the people and the dimly lit field. I remember a rookie outfielder named Brady Anderson, who hit his first Major League home run that night. In 1996 he hit 50, more than double his career high. I think he must have known the same people Rafael Palmiero and Sammy Sosa (and everyone else) knew. I remember feeling sad when the game ended. I did not want to leave. I loved the ballpark then, and I still do today. The bright green grass, the smell of people and beer and food. The heckling and the boos and the cheers. And best of all, the crack of the bat. There is no other sound quite like it. Not in any sport. Not anywhere. Old ball players are known to describe in vivid detail the crack of a Babe Ruth or Josh Gibson home runs. A shocking, startling sound that echoed into the ages. An audible signature.
Buck O’Neil liked to to say that all boys remember their first Major League Baseball games, and that someone famous always hits a home run in those games.
I remember mine.
And Eddie Murray hit a home run.
Baseball is great game. But it is not a perfect game. Ask Jim Joyce. Or Armando Galarraga. But then, that is the beauty of baseball. Of sport. That it is played by men. Men who flail and fail and falter. Men who cheat and lie and bluster into microphones, fueled on greenies and emotion and revenge. Men who overcome insurmountable difficulties, or who cower in despair. Men who are mortal, despite our insistent demand that they be otherwise.
Sports give those men—and us—a second chance. A day without a broken chain or an upset stomach or heavy, acid laden legs that simply wont turn over pedals. Baseball offered Jim Joyce redemption, just 24 hours after he stole immortality from an otherwise unknown Venezuelan pitcher. And best of all, that pitcher smiled, and shook the hand of the man who robbed him of that honor and glory.
And someplace in the bleachers was a boy, attending his first Major League Baseball game… Buck O’Neil was right:
Miguel Cabrera hit a home run.