Baseball was my first love.
Second was having someone clean my diaper. Third was Donna Hopper.
Wait, I met Donna Hopper in second grade, so she was my first love, then baseball, then having someone clean my diaper.
Or maybe it was... well, never mind, the point is: I loved baseball at an early age.
My first sports hero was Hank Aaron, whom I had the pleasure of meeting, and speaking to/babbling incoherently to many years later. I saw him play many a game as a Brave in Atlanta Stadium.
I was also at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in 1978 when Gene Garber struck out Pete Rose to end his 44-game winning streak — the night before.
I was at a lot of Atlanta Braves’ games from 1974-1980 where something monumental happened the game before, usually a no-hitter by the opposing pitcher. Mostly, I was at Atlanta Braves’ games from 1974-1980 where myself, my father, and about 682 people watched J.R. Richard of the Houston Astros strike out 13 Braves or so. Perhaps it was because J.R. was 6-foot-8, but my memories are of him pitching in about half the games I went to during that time period.
I distinctly remember one game where J.R. Richard didn’t pitch. The Braves were playing the Dodgers on a balmy Saturday afternoon. The year was 1977. I was 9 years old and knew every player on both team’s batting averages, where they were born and their birthdates. Braves infielder Rob Belloir and I shared the same birthday. He was born in Germany.
The Dodgers were in first place in the division, on their way to a World Series appearance in October; the Braves were 37 games out of first, on their way to an appearance at a Doraville Oldsmobile dealership in October.
But on this day, the stadium was full (Bat Day) and hope eternal that the Braves would pull off an upset win and Chief Nocahoma’s tent wouldn’t catch aflame.
The Dodgers’ starting pitcher was their ace, Don Sutton. The Braves’ starting pitcher was their ace, Phil Niekro.
Early in the game, the Dodgers got off to a solid start, up 5-0 after two innings. That’s when the Dodger fan in our midst started taunting the Braves’ fans in our section. He would not shut up.
Around the fourth inning, after the Braves had cut the lead to 5-2, my father, usually a genteel sort, had enough.
“Why don’t you sit down, be quiet, and let us watch the game,” my dad told Obnoxio the Clown.
“Aww, you’re just mad cause your team’s gettin’ beat,” replied the stranger in blue.
“How about this,” my father countered. “I’ll bet you $20 the Braves win, but you’ve got to sit down, shut up, and watch the game.”
Obnoxio agreed to those terms, sat down, and the crowd behind us lightly applauded. Game back on.
The Braves then started chipping away at the Dodger advantage. They were behind 5-3, then 6-3, then 6-5, then in the seventh inning, had a four-run rally, and led 9-6 going into the final two innings.
Suddenly, we looked around and our friendly Dodger was nowhere to be found.
The Braves got through the eighth inning unscathed. Still 9-6. Braves reliever Mike Marshall got the first two outs in the top of the ninth. Then Davey Lopes got a single. A Bill Russell single put Dodgers on first and third. Marshall then walked Reggie Smith, loading the bases for clean-up hitter Ron Cey.
My dad leaned down to me. “Hey, why don’t we go ahead and leave? So we can beat the traffic,” he said.
“What?” I replied. “We can’t miss the end of the game.”
“OK,” he said.
Then Ron Cey hit one into the second deck. Grand slam.
Before the ball got in the stands (and it was travelling at a high rate of speed), I heard our favorite Dodger fan leaping down the aisle, screaming “I want my $20, loser!”
Moments later, as my father handed the guy $20, he shook his head and whispered, “The dang Braves.”
He might not have said “dang.”
As baseball season starts, hope is still eternal.
Len Robbins is editor and publisher of The Clinch County News in Homerville. His column appears weekly.