Episode 41 — Chapter 47
A full moon brightens the horizon on my homeward trek. I turn the corner and the moon’s glare is obscured by my house. A bright haze rises from the roof, or is it just the moon’s glow. Walking up the concrete sidewalk that leads to the porch, I realize it is not a haze or glow, but billows of smoke leaping from the roof. Suddenly, I hear an explosion and see flames bursting through a roof window.
I try to sprint towards the house, but my legs are weak and the ground is a grassy swamp. Still, I press on, with all my might.
There are flames in every window; the dwelling will soon be nothing but ashes. I pray I am not too late. Finally reaching the porch, I climb the steps to the front door. Lightly touching the door knob, I am surprised by its cool touch. I fling the door open, but the flames have mysteriously vanished, though the interior is blackened and burned.
Muffled screams assault my ears, coming from above. I leap up the stairs, no longer restrained by weakened legs. I race down the corridor into the upstairs bedroom where the screams sound. Approaching the canopied bed, I see the outline of a personage under a smoldering blanket. My hands trembling, I grab the blanket and in one swift move, yank it from the bed. I scream in agony as I recognize the charred remains.
Oh my God!
It was a beautiful spring day in SunTrust Park—ideal weather for the inaugural game of the championship season. With the temperature in the mid-sixties and a gentle breeze, fans began streaming through the turnstiles for the dawning of a new year. Inoculated with spring optimism, spectators hoped this would be the year that the planets would line up, that veterans would have career-seasons and unknown rookies would emerge as stars.
Cobb awakened in a melancholy mood, though he didn’t know why. On the drive from South Carolina to Atlanta, Calvin and Savannah sensed Cobb’s somber mood and little was spoken. The three arrived at the parking area thirty minutes before game time. Calvin’s special parking pass permitted the trio to pass through the mass of commuters and obtain a spot near the stadium entrance. As they approached SunTrust Park, Cobb angled his head through the car window, in awe at the magnificent structure; the sight was so breathtaking that Cobb could barely contain his excitement and wonder.
Cobb followed the Cains through the turnstiles, then the concrete corridors, and finally the opening that led to their seats. As he peered at the field for the first time, he involuntarily declared, “This must all be a dream!”
Most of the crowd had already arrived, filling in much of the stadium. Cobb scanned the burgeoning crowd, marveling at the multi-leveled expanse of seats that surrounded the playing area. “I never would have imagined that baseball would be played in such a place.”
They sat down and Cobb continued, “I remember when I first set foot in Bennett Park. I thought that was the most magnificent stadium I had ever seen. Compared to this, that was tumbledown shack.”
Savannah turned to Cobb. “How many fans did Bennett Park hold?”
“Maybe twelve, fourteen thousand. But we rarely had a full house.”
“Well, the game’s come a long way since 1911. As you’ll soon see, fans are still insanely in love with the game and their team.”
“But where the hell are all the hats?”
Savannah looked at Cobb quizzically, “The hats…?”
“No one’s wearing a hat,” Cobb responded.
“There’s plenty of baseball caps, but I guess you’re referring to those old top hats that men used to wear.”
“Where I come from, all the men wear hats to games, and ladies, too.”
Savannah nodded. “I remember seeing some of those old photographs. Well, I guess styles have changed an awful lot during the past hundred years.”
The cheers from the fans crescendoed as the starting lineups were announced. A sea of screaming, stomping fans flooded the arena with noise so loud it was nearly impossible to be heard. Cobb was mesmerized by the digital scoreboard, showing videos of past highlights and pictures of players displayed on a massive scale. The magnificent architectural shrine where the national pastime was worshiped and the frenzied chanting of forty-two thousand fans bore testimony that the game had, indeed, fared well through time.
With the opening pitch, Calvin smiled at the excitement on his friend’s face. Though the intervening hundred-plus years had brought significant changes, it was still baseball: three strikes to an out; three outs to an inning; nine innings to a game.
“Sure a lot of bearded ballplayers,” Cobb remarked casually.
“Seems like every year the beards get longer, too,” Calvin noted. “I never had one.”
“Me neither,” Cobb put his hand to his chin. “A lot of the old-timers did though, back in the 90’s.”
The Nationals scored a run in the first inning and the Braves came to the plate in the bottom half. “Gonna be a tough one for the Braves, today,” Calvin spoke between mouthfuls of popcorn. “Facing the best pitcher in the National League, Heat Minton.”
“Strange to see the Nationals in the other league,” Cobb shook his head.
Calvin looked quizzically. “I thought the Washington team was called the Senators back in the day.”
Cain wondered if that was true.
The game began and Washington came to bat in the first inning. As the second batter of the inning stepped out of the box between pitches, Cobb remarked to Calvin, “What’s he doin’ down there? After every pitch?”
“That’s the way it is. Today’s batters seem to need to readjust their gloves or body armor between every pitch. It is downright annoying.”
“It’s sure slowing things down. We wouldn’t put up with that where I come from. That batter would be lying face down in the dust!”
“You’re damn right. It shouldn’t be allowed here either,” Calvin nodded.
After a few innings, Cobb could no longer hold his peace. “These guys can’t hit a lick! I’ve never seen so many strikeouts.”
“That’s for sure,” Savannah responded. “They occur three times more often than they did in your day.”
“They have no shame. It’s downright humiliatin’… striking out.”
“Not in today’s game. Doesn’t seem to faze ‘em at all.”
“What a waste! How do you move base runners over if every batter is striking out?”
As the game continued, Cobb expressed his firm belief to the Cains that he could still play the game, and not just perform, but excel at the major league level.
“I didn’t realize how much I’ve missed the game,” Cobb mused. “I’d give my eye teeth to be down there with ‘em.”
“Won’t be long before you’re taking a lead off first, getting ready to swipe second…”
Calvin droned on with his narrative, oblivious to the fact that his guest was only paying passing attention. “…The problem with the Braves is they have no speed now that Fleming is out for the year. They’ve got maybe the best pure power hitter in the game in DeMarcus Gates. He’s averaged 40 home runs a year for the past three or four seasons now. And their catcher might hit 50 if he could avoid those nagging trips to the disabled list. Ham Permak is just too fragile. Last year he missed nearly half a season and still clubbed 26 long balls.
“They need a rabbit or two at the top of the order. Finished next to last in steals last year…” Cobb stuffed another handful of popcorn into his mouth. He told Calvin the modern-day popcorn was tastier than the popcorn from his era—saltier with a welcome butter taste.
When Cobb accepted Calvin’s offer for a second bag, Savannah asked him, “Ty, is it really true you took a bag of popcorn to the outfield in the minors and muffed a fly ball because you didn’t want to drop it?”
Cobb’s face turned red. “How in tarnation would you know that?!” he exclaimed, fumbling playfully with the bag, as kernels sprayed in all directions. “But it wasn’t popcorn, it was peanut taffy.”
Savannah laughed long and hard, prompting her friend to toss what remained of the popcorn onto her lap.
After six complete innings, the Nationals led 6 to 2. Minton gave way to a relief pitcher, prompting Calvin to suggest that “Maybe they have a chance now.”
“His arm hurt?” Cobb asked.
“What d’you mean?”
“He was pitching well. Why’d he leave?”
“Well, today, you hardly ever see a pitcher go the distance. After six or seven innings, in come the 100 mile-an-hour relief specialists.”
“Really? Pitchers always took a lot of pride in finishing games they started.”
“I certainly did,” Calvin admitted. “Had a lot more complete games early in my career, but the game’s changed.”
A loud chorus of cheers greeted Gates, as he walked to the plate with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning. Cobb commented on Gates’s size and physique, but also asked Savannah matter-of-factly, “When’d they start allowin’ colored folk to play?”
“Back in the 1940’s. Actually we refer to them as African-Americans now, or ‘blacks.’—you rarely even hear them called Negroes anymore. I don’t think we ever discussed the civil rights movement and its aftermath. America’s come a long ways toward equality of the races in the last hundred years.”
“I’m not sure I’m too keen playing alongside ‘em.”
It was the first time Savannah had observed any hint of racism in her friend and it disturbed her. Maybe Cobb’s legacy of racism was on point. Savannah delved deeper. “So you feel they should still be slaves?”
“No,” Cobb felt her searing eyes. “Not at all. Fact is, my dad and grandpa fought against segregation. It’s just that the ones I knew were poor, uneducated folk, although I did play against some mighty good Negro teams in exhibition games. But, it’s hard to imagine them on equal terms.”
“Well, if you play in the majors, you’re going to have to treat them with respect.”
Cobb nodded, but Savannah could tell it didn’t sit well with him.
“It’s actually a shame. The number of blacks in the majors is shrinking. Used to be about a third of the players were African-American; now it’s less than ten percent; they seem more interested in football and basketball. The Braves only have a few black players: Gates, of course, Hadley—he’s an infielder and Concade. But, there’s a lot of Latin American players in the big leagues now.”
On a three-and-two count, Gates singled to center, driving in two runs. Calvin and Savannah cheered, but Cobb remained quiet and kept his arms folded.
Calvin continued his narrative, “…their pitching is suspect. Top winner last year was Blake Fournier with just eleven wins—hopefully we’ll see a better performance from him on his next outing. Coupl’a times the Braves have been burned in the free agent market…”
Cobb commented on some of the changes he observed in the game: players no longer left their gloves in the field of play between innings; overflow crowds no longer poured onto the outfield, restricting the outfield dimensions and foul area; players seemed less intense and almost casual in their play; there was no hazing, baiting, hollering or waving at opponents from the dugout or the base paths.
After nine innings of play, the Braves ended up on the short end of a 7 to 5 score. The Nationals had twelve hits to the Braves’ eight. More maddening was the Nationals’ theft of three bases whereas the Braves hadn’t attempted a single steal.