I’ve taken my son to more minor league baseball games than I can remember, but not enough to call it a day yet. We have many more to see. But we’ve only gone to two major league games together.
The first time was when the Society for American Baseball Research held its annual meeting or convention in Atlanta. My pal Lynn “Gus” Sutter was in town. She was a newly minted author, at the time, of a well-reviewed baseball book, Ball, Bat and Bitumen: A History of Coalfield Baseball. She’s since written two more well-reviewed books of baseball history. Another pal, my fellow native Long Islander and Newsday sports department alum and longtime Atlanta sports writer Jack Wilkinson, got us great tickets to a Braves game.
It was Joe, Jane, me, Gus, our friends Susan Percy and Janet Ward (Jack’s better half – Jack was in the press box, working that day). And we had a grand time, all of us. But it wasn’t your typical father-son baseball outing, like the kind I’d been used to with my dad. You know, just you and the old man.
Several years later, in 2013, Joe and I had our father-son outing at the ballyard. But that one wasn’t typical, either. It was both a brutal and lovely experience. It was during a period of Joe’s life when riding in the car for him was an iffy proposition at best. He was like nitroglycerin, ready to explode at any moment. Most of the time, if the trip was longer than 15 minutes or so, he absolutely hated it and he let you know it.
The Braves were hosting the Washington Nationals at Turner Field. My buddy Ron Currens had entered Joe in a contest with Superior Plumbing, one of the Braves’ many sponsors. They were giving away tickets to a few special needs kids for each ballgame, setting them up in the fancy club level section.
Freddie Freeman as a bobblehead
We started the 95-mile trip to Turner Field and the boy was in great form, really excited about going to the game with his old man. The bomb went off when we hit bumper-to-bumper, 10-mph traffic just north of Midtown, and it continued, unrelenting, until just before we reached the parking lot across the street from the ballpark. Joe lost his shit. Wailing, turning red, steam coming out of his ears, the works. It wasn’t pretty.
But the kid has a sixth-sense of direction. Whatever hell takes him, whatever place he’d go to in those moments, he always seemed to be aware of when the trip was almost over. This tantrum was epic, like a big bang without the benefit of a new universe. But as we entered the parking lot, he calmed down. And as we rolled to our seats in the Superior Plumbing Club, he was tranquil.
And then, thank God for Jack Wilkinson again!
I’d given Jack the heads up we were coming. Now the official scorekeeper for the Braves, he stopped by our seats before the game, loaded down with gifts: Braves schedule magnets, various press box handouts (stat sheets, game notes, and blessedly, a scorecard – yes, I’m one of those fans). And a Freddie Freeman bobblehead!
“Hope you like Freddie Freeman,” said Jack, making eye contact with Joe, like always, and giving him a fist bump.
How can you not like Freddie? This was long before his MVP season, long before his amazing division series winning home run. This was a likeable baseball hero. He was particularly likeable on this night, hitting a long home run his first time up, sending millions of decibels of loud through the stadium – resulting in a stunning smile on my son’s face.
He was fully back to being Joe, the tantrum having long ago evaporated. By the time Freddie singled in the Braves’ only other run in a 3-2 loss, Joe was smiling, and making a variety of wild moves and happy sounds.
What began as a hellish ride into the heart of the big city had become a joyful night. We met Jay Cunningham, founder and owner of Superior Plumbing, who said he got more out of the free tickets program than any of the contest winners. Then we spent the last couple of innings strolling around the stadium, out in the bleachers, rolling from foul pole to foul pole.
Loaded down with ‘Bobblehead Fred’ and assorted other ballpark accrual, we left, pleased with the evening’s outcome in spite of the Braves’ loss.
On the way home, I remember what it was like on late-night rides with my dad, and what terrible company I must have been, snoring beside him across long miles. It occurred to me that such terrible company isn’t really so terrible. It can be a blessing, the sound of your child’s peaceful snoring (particularly when you consider the combustible alternative!).
I strapped Joe’s chair into our big green van. He was quiet, tired, worn out after a long day. We pulled out of the parking lot that used to be the ball park where Henry Aaron passed the Babe, looking for the interstate. In the rearview mirror I could see Joe nodding, a Braves hat lilting on his head, his perfect face reflecting city lights as we headed north toward the mountains and dark, twisty night roads. Game over, another one for the books.