Thrill of Victory

Seeing baseball through the eyes of a kid again

Driving to Greer Stadium for the first time in four years, I was struck by what the place had become. The last time I’ve been to the old ballpark off Chestnut Street, it needed a lot of work. Three million dollars and a whole lot of paint later, it was almost unrecognizable from what I’d remembered – so different, it sent a small chill of happiness up my spine: you don’t grow up in Nashville and care about baseball, and not want to see the Sounds do well.

But the park’s appearance was never what drew me there in the first place. I will never forget my parents taking my brother and I to our first games back in the summer of ’78, because baseball had me at “hello” from the moment I walked into the stadium. The moment I returned, I knew I had to reconnect. So one night last week, I returned – fittingly, on “Throwback Thursday.”

A lot of things seemed the same. The Sounds donned the old, familiar red uniforms from my childhood, complete with the blue hats with the classic Sounds logo. Hits from my formative years by Phil Collins and The Cars played over the public address system. Somewhere underneath the grandstands, the Famous Chicken prepared for his umpteenth appearance in the stadium.

And then the action started. Sounds ace Wily Peralta was dealing, and I had the perfect view behind the left-handed-hitters’ batters’ box. On 15 pitches – all two- and four-seam fastballs – he made the opposing Memphis Redbirds look silly, striking out the side in the first inning with pitches that had to be in the mid-90s.

“He may not give up a hit tonight,” I thought.

“Throwback days” are great, but they never can quite re-create the experience. Ballpark food never tastes the same at 41 as it did at seven. I liked the music, but the way I remember it, the Sounds had a live organist in place of the day’s Top 40 pop hits. Most of all, players who are barely half your age don’t seem like the near-gods they were when you were barely eye-level with their belt buckles.

But you don’t need a Throwback Thursday to bring back the memories. Peralta went to his off-speed stuff the next inning with less effectivness, and by the third, the no-hitter was gone. So was my attention on the field, for the most part. Through the power of imagination, I’d become a kid again.

Ah, the memories. Sometimes, they were of my dad catch foul balls for us.(On the subject of heroes, there’s nothing like seeing your father making a bare-handed stab of a line drive, and then quickly yielding his prize to you.) Sometimes, our family was seated on the warning track behind a rope. Yes, I actually sat on the playing field for a few games, since the grandstands sometimes did not have the seating to contain all the fans in those days.

Moments later, I was watching that 1979 Sounds outfield of Paul Householder, Eddie Milner and Duane Walker again. Dad told me they were all good ballplayers, and sure enough, they all made the Major Leagues later. I remembered Householder at the plate, with me screaming with all the other fans, “Over the wall, Paul!” as loud as I could. There were those games with the hated Memphis Chicks. There were giveaway days – jerseys, bats, hats, batting gloves, you name it, if the Sounds gave it away, my brothers and I had it.

In 1980, Nashville changed is affiliation to the Yankees. I remembered Willie McGee, loping along in center field and catching everything in sight. I remember the Yankees coming to town for an exhibition that spring. We got there early for batting practice; I won a footrace for a foul ball that Oscar Gamble hit under the bleachers, and later got future Hall of Fame reliever Goose Gossage to sign it. Most of all, I remember a big right-handed first baseman stepping to the plate in the summer of ’80 and depositing one baseball after another over the left-field fence; can any Nashvillian ever forget Chuck Morgan telling us that, batting next for the Sounds, was “STEEEEEVE BAAAAALLLLL-BOOOOO-NIIIII?”

About the time my mind stopped racing, Peralta’s night was done – six innings, two runs and 11 strikeouts was worth the price of admission, but by that time, I’d gotten a greater bargain: for a couple of hours, I had my childhood back.

Some things have stayed the same. The Chicken is still hilarious. They still serve ice cream in those little baseball helmets – I think my brother and I bought one of every major league team when we were kids. There are still star players who leave us with memories; Peralta’s performance is one I won’t soon forget.

But some things are different. Whereas Greer of my younger days seemed centered more around the baseball fan, it’s now more about the stadium experience. Gone is the nightly baseball “stumper” trivia question, with the winner getting future Sounds tickets, replaced by pre-game rock concerts and a kids’ “Fun Zone” and picnic areas for parties where I once sat in the bleachers.

The biggest difference is in how people watch. They seem more preoccupied with their friends and mobile devices than with the game itself. Then again, maybe I was too distracted by the game to notice that others weren’t paying attention. After all, I didn’t know any other kids who were answering the “stumper” question and winning prizes. That’s how nuts I was about baseball.

Not that change is all bad. I remember a lot of people sitting around me who’d had one-beer-too-many when I was a kid. The Sounds have made a concerted effort to make it a fan-friendly environment, and I don’t see the drunks any more. Oh, and they now have Icees! I had two of them. Had they only been available at the ballpark when I was a kid, I can’t imagine how many I might have downed.

Growing up happens gradually. We hit those awkward teenage years and nothing is ever the same. We become less-connected to our parents because we don’t know how to talk to them, and they don’t know how to talk to us.

But baseball, along with my parents’ love, was one constant in our family throughout those times. We still enjoyed going to games together, and the ballpark was one place we could still communicate. Even mom, who was not by nature a baseball fan, seemed to love it because we connected as a family, and that was important to her. She even cared enough to know the names of the players because those players were so important to her three boys.

Then came college, and we no longer went to Sounds games as a family. After graduation, The Rest of Life began. There were first bills and jobs and girlfriends, which over time turned to mortgages and careers and wives. Once every summer or two, I’d go back to the Sounds, but I never really kept in touch. Then one day you drive to the ballpark, and realize it had been four years since you even bothered to check on your old friend.

In the meantime, life kept moving on: I’m a parent of a one-year-old now. At the ballpark that evening, I also thought of she and my wife, and what I want our life to be. My wife is not a baseball fan, and my daughter may never be, but this I know: I want the Sounds to be part of our lives, even if we all have different reasons to go to the ballpark. There’s just something about the way trips to the ballpark together build great memories.

Author’s postscript: My mom, after reading the story, reminded me that I forgot to include a key portion. The story goes like this: my parents took us to our first game that summer of ’78, and dad snagged a foul ball. On the way to the ballpark of the next game, I told my dad it would be great to catch another. Dad said not to expect it again, since he went to dozens of games as a kid and never got one.

So what happened that second game? We caught two foul balls, of course. Dad says that’s what hooked us on baseball.