A baseball story... of sorts. (Part 1)
Like Long Ago
David L. White
For Tracy, who lost her father far too soon... and for Dad
Welcome! I’m honored to have your time and attention. You’ve come to hear a story and I’m here to tell you one. But first, I want be clear about something: this tale is about baseball… and fathers and sons, and playing pitch and catch. Cliched? Hackneyed? You bet it is! So if that’s not for you, I won’t take any more of your time. But if you want to hear about the most exciting event in my youth, the most memorable moments during my pre-teen years, the day when I felt the earth SHAKE (twice) then please join me. We’re journeying back to the 70's.
Before we depart, though, I should tell you what's prompted me to climb this soapbox and tell my story. Basically, it’s because I’m… well… lazy. You see, I surf the internet excessively. I make regular rounds of the sites that I visit, losing all comprehension of time and responsibility. I should be fixing things around the house; just ask my wife, Tracy. Should be calling family members and friends to catch up. Maybe I should be working out, or volunteering my time. Or reading more. Instead, I surf!
I usually start at Yahoo Finance to check out the closing share price and comments about the retail company that I work for. Check my personal e-mail. Check my work e-mail from home. Then I drop in on YouTube where I spend hours listening to amateurs who’ve uploaded videos of themselves playing and singing cover songs. I’m constantly amazed at the talent I find; people who perform as well as any celebrity professional you’ll ever hear… from their living rooms or dorm rooms without fancy-schmancy recording equipment no less! I also stop by some of the national sports sites like ESPN for scores and highlights and standings and stories about millionaire athletes and their antics. And I visit Ebay.
Ebay is an auction site for sellers, bidders, and buyers. Almost any item you can think of is available on Ebay. Just type anything... anything, that comes to mind, into the search bar and within seconds you'll get a full listing of articles up for sale or bidding. Many people use Ebay to find replacement parts for things like cars and computers. Some use it for tickets to concerts or sporting events. For arts and crafts supplies. Or for used motorcycles or boats. For books, for music. You name it and it's out there. But some of us use Ebay to look for lost treasures. Things that we owned and cherished at one time, but were lost somehow along the way in life. Often, things that we owned during childhood and have fond memories of. Quirky things. Worthless, meaningless things to some, but full of nostalgia and meaning to others. Items that make us smile and remember simpler, youthful times. So Ebay is either the largest flea market on the planet or a magic time machine, or maybe both.
Thanks to Ebay, I own an ornate, chrome gas cap from a 1976 Gremlin (my first car) displayed proudly on a plate stand in my man-cave at home. A Gremlin keychain, and wall clock. A collection of logo stickers and guitar picks of my favorite band, Blues Traveler, showing a sketched cool cat smoking a cigarette. A pin-on button that proclaims the Louisville Cardinals as the 1980 national college basketball champions. Baseball cards from the 60's and 70's. Music from those same decades. I've also used Ebay for some practical purchases. I've bid and won tickets to shows and events. I even bought a used laptop computer on Ebay once. Purchased it for a great price and got about three years of service out of that unit… for more surfing!
But while on Ebay recently, perusing for lost treasures--like people do when canvasing an area with a metal detector--I found something most special of all souvenirs of memories to me. I was doing my usual searches of some of my favorite things in life like the Indianapolis Colts, Indiana Pacers, Cincinnati Reds, Louisville Cardinals, Blues Traveler, Electric Light Orchestra, American Motors Gremlin, Horrible Hamilton (a Christmas toy I desired as a tot that broke in minutes… another story for another day), electric guitars, harmonicas, and on and on… then I discovered something that made the hair on the back of my neck reach for the sky. It made my eyes well up immediately and took me soaring back in time over 37 years. I ran into it purely by chance. Wasn't looking for it, specifically. Just entered Cincinnati Reds into the search bar and, at the top of the page, it appeared. It was a poster, up for auction, showing one of my two heroes when I was age twelve: Johnny Bench.
It wasn’t just any poster of Johnny Bench of the Cincinnati Reds baseball team, though, it was the poster. The instant I saw it, I knew I’d had one of the same as a child. The poster was headed at the top with huge, white bold letters that spell out simply BENCH. Below that was an action shot of Johnny Bench at the completion of a swing of the bat, looking skyward toward right field (I'll get back to that detail later) at one of his hundreds of home runs. And there was a one-line caption on the bottom of the poster. I couldn’t see the line on the Ebay photo, but I knew it was there and I knew it by heart: Johnny Bench homers to tie final championship series game in ninth inning.
Johnny Bench played the position of catcher for the Reds from the late 60’s into the 80’s spanning a superstar career. When he began playing Major League Baseball he was touted as, potentially, the greatest defensive catcher ever. He was like a brick wall behind home plate. The ball just never got past him. And his throws were like canon fire. He was a giant of a man to me, a hulking country boy from the great state of Oklahoma. He had huge hands! There's a famous photo of Johnny Bench holding seven baseballs in his right hand. Seven! Try holding just two baseballs in your hand and see how that goes for you. Heck, try to hold onto seven of anything, like grapes, or paper clips for that matter. And Bench was a humble hero... with Elvis sideburns. He was the coach on the field. He’d often stand and point to players in the field, to re-position them according to the situation. As the catcher, he signaled to the pitcher with direction for every throw. He was the leader of the team. And I haven’t even talked about his hitting yet!
Johnny Bench swung at baseballs like King Kong swats at fighter planes, with power and force. He misses sometimes (yes, as Reds fans, we had some Mudville moments) but when he connects… well… again, just think King Kong! When his career ended, Bench had hit more home runs than any other catcher in the history of Major League Baseball. Among them, he hit some very memorable and dramatic ones like the shot captured photographically on the poster.
You see, this poster and that home run helped me remember a day, well actually an afternoon, or more correctly, just a portion of a late afternoon that I spent with my other hero back then... my dad. The memories came rushing back to me of the moments that Dad and I spent together that day witnessing the most exciting thing I’d ever seen and heard in my youth. I bet you have a memory like that from childhood, too. One that never really leaves you, although it may be smothered under schedules, and phone calls, and errands, and responsibilities, and… life in general. Something that gave you great joy. It was probably something simple. Just watch children closely and see how mundane things, to us, can just light them up with smiles and glee. And it was probably time spent with a parent or other important adult in your life. Think about it and I’m sure you’ll agree. So now I find that there’s a souvenir out there in the world, from an on-line time machine, to take me back to that joy and innocence again.
I see that the opening bid for the poster should start at 99 cents or more but I put in 15-something… I don’t know, maybe it was $15, or maybe $1500. I just know that no one else is getting that poster. I checked on it for days but no one else had yet bid. Then I checked on it the day the auction would conclude and still no bids but mine. Thank goodness, no one else has found this absolute treasure! Finally, my wife, who shares the Ebay account with me, says “Oh, you won some poster that you need to pay for.” I already knew. So I paid the 99 cents plus a few bucks shipping as fast as I could and I waited. And I waited... for days! Finally, I got an e-mail from the guy who I bought the poster from and he apologized for the delay in getting it out. He told me that it was on its way. Something important had delayed him. More important than the greatest freakin' day of my childhood?
Tracy walks into the living room with the mail a couple days later and hands me a shipping tube. It’s the poster! I tried to act calm and mature. I put the tube on the couch and left it for a while as if it was nothing important. Next time Tracy left the room, I grabbed the tube and dashed into my man-cave and shut the door. The poster was sealed in there securely with more tape than necessary; it was like breaking into Fort Knox trying to get into the tube with my hands trembling all the while. Finally I’m in and I remove the poster. I unrolled it slowly on my desktop and moved my eyes first to the top, to the dominant lettering that spells BENCH. Then I scanned slowly down the poster soaking it in and remembering every detail of the same as it hung on my bedroom wall for years when I was a child. As my eyes moved to the bottom of the poster, I couldn’t help but be drawn to the right corner that was torn, a flaw that the seller had already informed me of on his Ebay posting. But the tear stopped just short of interfering with the small printed line of information on the bottom of the poster. The line that reads Johnny Bench homers to tie final championship series game in ninth inning. But there was more. More information on that caption than I had remembered as a child. And it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up once again. As one of my tears hit the poster at Bench’s feet, I was engulfed in emotion and swept outside myself, back through time to
... southern Indiana, 1972.