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Play Ball!

[This chapter is dedicated to my paternal grandfather, Merrill Abbott.]

So, the “boys of summer” are back.  There is something very assuring about traditions – that the same things happen, year in and year out, especially when they are beloved traditions such as baseball in America.

I absolutely LOVED baseball as a young child.  I (barely) played for the Covington Firefighters, the feared local dynasty in “knothole” baseball.  It may not surprise you to learn that like many millions of other 12-year-olds at any given time in America, I was going to be a professional baseball player when I grew up, notwithstanding the annual struggle to “make the cut” and be on the team (it was always dicey).  

The Covington Firefighters could afford to be choosey.  There were years when they were the most feared group of 100-pound, 12-year-old baseball players in the city.  Being a second-string shortstop or utility infielder was good enough, as long as I could make the team and wear that red-and-white, cotton uniform.  Our coach – Lou Brockhoff – was a legend in his own mind who thought nothing of humiliating little kids in pursuit of toughening them up (a certain episode of him making me run the bases repeatedly in front of my teammates, chanting “I’m afraid of the ball” after lifting my head on a grounder and letting it go through my legs into the outfield, comes to mind).  Oh, the stuff I would not put up with any more in my life.  

In the mid-1970’s, what kid in Greater Cincinnati did not want to be a professional baseball player someday?  Within walking distance of the diamond at Glenn O. Swing Elementary school was Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium, home of one of the greatest teams in baseball history – Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine.”  What began with a fateful trade of Lee May to the Houston Astros for Joe Morgan after the end of the 1971 season quickly led to a “Murderer’s Row” lineup of players like Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, George Foster, and others.   Even Dave Concepcion and Cesar Geronimo, who came to the Reds as players who could barely eke out a .200 batting average, became reliable, near .300 hitters, batting seventh or eighth in the lineup.  There was no rest for opposing pitchers when facing the Big Red Machine.  

For a 12-year-old baseball fan from Covington, Kentucky, it was a dream to be able to go to the “big city” of Cincinnati for a Reds game.  My parents worked hard, so the opportunities to go with my parents were limited (although I am happy to say that our entire family was in the stands the night of my 39th birthday, when Pete Rose notched hit #4,192 to surpass Ty Cobb).  

My grandfather - Merrill Abbott - would occasionally take me to a game.  Looking back on it, it was hard for him to do that.  He was not well.  Among other maladies, he had emphysema and struggled to breathe.  I remember the thrill of going to a Reds game being somewhat tempered by what an ordeal it was for him to do so.   I of course had my ball glove with me (necessary equipment to catch a foul ball in the stands) and I was raring to go – ready to run from the parking lot straight to the stadium to watch batting practice.  Every step was a struggle for him, and there were no “handicapped accessible” seats back then.  Ascending the steps into the nosebleed seats was a struggle.  Take two steps and wait.  Take another two steps and wait for Grandpa.   I didn’t really understand it at the time, but I look back on it now and realize what a sacrifice it was for him to take me to do it.  

Over the years, I have lost my zeal for baseball.  My previously mentioned attention span disorder makes it hard for me to devote three hours to a game, 162 times a year.  I find myself more drawn to it this season due to nostalgia and may find myself back in the ballpark more often.  Traditions suddenly feel a bit more important.   

Until next time,



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