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Take Me Out to The Ballpark

by on July 31, 2014 6:00 AM

In the front seat drink holder in my SUV there's a toy cloth baseball bearing the logo from the 2006 All-Star game in Pittsburgh.

Even after eight years, I have no plans to get rid of it.

It commemorates the first Major League game I shared with my oldest son. It's there to remind me of the first game my own father took me to in 1979 at Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium.

I saw two baseball games with my father; 1979 in Pittsburgh and in 1983 in San Francisco. In the summer of 2008 my friend Mike Hammond and I took my sons to Boston to see a game in Fenway Park.

Six years after that trip with my sons I still smell the ballpark, feel the heat of that early July night and hear the crowd chanting "Manny, Manny, Manny" when Boston's Manny Rodriguez approached the plate. Late in a scoreless game with a runner in scoring position, he delivered a hit and a 1-0 win.

Mostly I remember my son's excited eyes as we walked down bustling Yawkey Way and entered the park. There is something in seeing that through your child's eyes, seeing it a way that you left behind so many years before.

Across the years I've gone to see games at a few more places, usually to see the Red Sox. I've seen them play in Detroit, Cleveland, Baltimore and New York. A day in any ballpark is always better than being responsible.

I've seen minor league games in Richmond, Scranton, New Haven, Altoona and State College. I've also been to Pittsburgh's PNC Park, US Cellular Field on Chicago's South Side, Old and New Yankee Stadiums and Wrigley Field. As an aside -- Detroit's Comerica Park is underrated, Pittsburgh's PNC Park is terrific and Camden Yards remains the gold standard of the retro parks.

But Fenway and Wrigley remain the authentic originals standing across the decades, each over a century old.

In the summer of 1992 I took the train to Wrigley on a sunny Friday afternoon. From Chicago's Loop to the park people dressed in Cubs gear boarded at every stop. The closer we got to the park the more Old Style beer the fans seemed to have consumed.

The train's vibe? Adults acting like school-aged kids happily playing hooky. The game was skipping-school good, all the way through Harry Caray's 7th-inning stretch rendition of "Take Me Out to The Ballgame". Almost two decades later I took in another Wrigley game in the third row just off the on-deck circle. Harry Caray was gone, but George Will was a few seats away in the front row and Ernie Banks walked past us and said hello.

The game always brings you back to your youth ... always.

I love baseball. I played it and was a decent hitter possessing very little power hitting mostly singles and doubles. Neither I nor my brothers had any delusions about ever wearing a Major League uniform.

But one of us did make it into a big-league uniform for a day.

Dodgers' manager Tommy Lasorda invited us to a game in Pittsburgh in the summer of 1990. I drove down to the game with a friend and my brother Scott. In the dugout before the game Lasorda decided that Scott, a few months shy of his eighteenth birthday and a big kid, would be the bat boy. Scott was hesitant to be the bat boy but there was no telling Tommy Lasorda no.

Naturally a 17-year-old wouldn't fit into the bat boy gear so Scott wore an extra uniform for Dodgers' catcher Mike Scioscia. When he came out he looked like an overgrown kid and it was kind of funny. Kirk Gibson could not stop laughing.

My friend and I headed to our seats and after the Dodgers' leadoff batter got a hit out came the bat boy. Scott had a great day, a long day as the two teams combined for over twenty runs and lots of pitching changes.

Memories linger ... the thought of that day, now over two decades ago remain.

The great thing about the ballpark is that it always follows you home. Even today in my home office I have three baseball hats that I was given in three dugouts. A 1979 Pirates hat from manager Chuck Tanner, a 1983 Giants hat from San Francisco manager Frank Robinson and a 1990 Dodgers hat from Tommy Lasorda.

When I see those hats I think of my father, my brothers, my friends and now my sons. I think of the sounds of the ballpark; the crack of the bat, the snap of a fastball hitting the leather of the catcher's glove. My first baseball glove sits on my shelf — a Yankee Clipper Joe DiMaggio model with my name written in black marker (the J and P in my name facing the wrong way).

As I listen to a game, or watch a game or walk into a ballpark it is always the same; sounds, sights and the aromas remain unchanged across the decades even though so much about me has changed.

For a moment, an afternoon or an evening, I'm a boy filled with the awe only a child can feel, the wonder not yet savaged by the cynicism of adulthood.

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State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JayPaterno
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