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Archive for July, 2013

On the All-Star Game

SteinbachThe very first baseball game I remember watching on television–I mean actually sitting down and WATCHING–was the 1988 All-Star Game, 25 years ago tonight (give or take a week). Sometime during the previous winter, my baseball fandom had shifted from collecting Topps baseball cards and filling my Panini sticker album (Lord, I loved that thing… still have it, in fact) to following the actual goings on of the sport. When my folks resumed taking me to Texas Rangers games that spring (we lived in the Dallas-Fort Worth area at the time, and even though the Rangers were horrible, it was a fun, cheap way to spend an evening), I shifted to watching the game on the field instead of the nearest cotton candy vendor. I stopped picking my favorite teams based on their mascot–the Tigers and Pirates were early faves for just that reason–and started rooting for my team of birthright, the St. Louis Cardinals. (Full disclosure: I was born in Independence, Mo., and my very early fandom was for the Kansas City Royals, who were still a Major League team in those days. But if I don’t have photos it never happened, right?)

That ’88 game was forgettable, by baseball standards. Held in the wholly unremarkable Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati, it wound up being a pretty boring, low-scoring affair. But God, I was excited about that game. I remember we were going to dinner with friends of my parents that night, a farewell dinner, as it turned out (more on that in a minute). It was at one of those authentic-but-cheesy Italian joints where a piano player took requests like “Over the Rainbow” and the booths had shutters for privacy. They served what I remember calling a “spicy-a meatBALL!” At my insistence, my parents recorded the game on our then-state-of-the-art VHS recorder while we were out, but I wasn’t convinced it would work, or that they’d actually let me watch it when we got home. I distinctly remember my dad telling me in the parking lot of the restaurant, in a voice only exasperated fathers can summon to silence a one-track-mind son, that I would, in fact, be able to watch the damn All-Star Game when we got home.

And I did. And how I relished it. I geeked out watching Ozzie Smith on television for the first time ever (televised St. Louis Cardinals games were hard to come by in the Metroplex in the days before ESPN’s contract with MLB). I watched Cal Ripken, Jose Canseco, Don Mattingly, Darryl Strawberry–all the guys I’d only seen in images printed on cardboard–parade across the field. All those helmets and caps, all those jerseys and faces that you NEVER see on TV at the same time. It’s still why I love the All-Star Game, and even if I don’t catch every at-bat, I make sure to catch the 15 minutes of player and lineup introductions. After all, it’s not every day you see that rarest of baseball creature known as the “Toronto Blue Jay.”

Terry Steinbach of the A’s was the MVP, and for a short time I was convinced he must be the greatest player in baseball history (he wasn’t). I’ll bet I didn’t go to bed until 1 a.m., and my parents didn’t say a word (probably because they were parents, and were dead asleep).

If my memory seems particularly vivid, there’s probably a pretty good psychological reason for it. My family was in the process of moving from Texas to Missouri. Those times of great transition in our lives–moving, deaths, graduations, falling in love, divorce (I presume)–seem to add a nuclear reactor to the battery in our memories, don’t they? It doesn’t matter how old we are when they happen–in fact, I think childhood only accentuates the power. These memories are never entirely positive or entirely negative either; just so damn vivid. I remember a disproportionate number of details about that summer and the following fall as I went about making Ozark, Missouri my home. Hell, I remember more about those months than I do about last week.

I digress. But while I was outwardly cool with the idea of moving to southwest Missouri–it was, after all, where all of the rest of my family lived and I visited often–it was years before I realized just how big a deal moving had been for an only child in the third grade who had only ever known one school, one church, and had a little kid-crush on the girl across the street. Baseball is the blanket I wrapped myself in, because God knows we all need one at those times in our lives. I’m sure my parents were relieved it was something normal. Imagine trying to make that kind of change with a 16-year-old. *shudders*

I’ve watched 25 more All-Star Games (including the one that is playing in front of me right now, a convenient DVR having repalced the gigantic VHS of my youth). There was the one I watched at the McSalty’s Pizza bar with a friend in high school, acutely aware that I’d rather be at home watching it with my dad, but not nearly secure enough to admit it. There was the surrealistic tie in ’02, which I watched with my soon-to-be-bride in stunned silence into the wee hours of the morning after getting off the graveyard shift at the News-Leader. (To her credit, she stayed awake… it was that bizarre). Last year my brother-in-law scored family tickets to the Home Run Derby in Kansas City, and being in that All-Star atmosphere live is the coolest sporting spectacle I’ve ever been able to attend. There was Bo’s bomb in ’89, Wrigley’s lights in ’90, Carp starting in ’05, and St. Louis hosting in ’09. Most have been more exciting than that first game. I’m sure I missed or had to work though one or two of them along the way, but most All-Star Games I have watched at home or with friends, in various states of distraction or inebriation, one major life event or another swirling around me as I stopped for a few minutes to try and recapture the magic of that night in ’88. Sometimes I can almost do it.

And now, just like that, as I watch Jason Kipnis grab Pedro Alvarez’s popup to end this ’13 All-Star Game, a 3-0 victory for the American League (aka the bad guys), my second quarter-century of baseball fandom officially begins. I can’t wait for the next 25 All-Star Games. I wonder where I’ll watch them? And what will be going on in my life when I do?

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Categories: Baseball, Navel Gazing