Yesterday my children allowed me to do something that I’d dreamed about for years. Simply because they exist, I was allowed to walk through the right field gate of Turner Field, out onto the turf of the Braves field, and stand in the bright afternoon sun. Suprisingly, it was everything I thought it could be. Up close, the grass was greener than on television, the dirt somehow browner, and the smells…
Well, let’s just say we’re not missing anything by NOT having smell-o-vision.
We were on the field because someone, some genius in the Braves organization, realized that it cost the organization absolutely nothing and garnered them all kinds of goodwill by allowing kids in attendance on Sunday afternoons to run the bases after the game was over. Why no one thought of this back when I was a kid baffles me; perhaps it was because Atlanta Braves baseball wasn’t quite the destination/event back then. If you remember the old Launching Pad (Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium) then you know what I’m talking about. If you don’t remember FulCo, then take the ugliest abomination of American architecture that you can think of and infest it with more ugliness. Then multiply it by five.
Congratulations! You’ve now come up with the genius design that dominated the American sports landscape in the 60s, 70s, and early 80s – the dull, lifeless, repeatable round stadium that appeared in such sports crazy cities as Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Cincinatti. Or, basically every mid-sized American city who couldn’t afford to build something better.
To be fair, this was back before people realized that aesthetics matter when it comes to sports. I don’t know why, but the idea during the latter 20th century seemed to be that space was purely functional; that how the space made you feel, or appeared, was of no consequence. In some places that idea was born out by the play of the teams – Pittsburgh, for example, destroyed people in Three River Stadium. But here in Atlanta, the connection between human consciousness and environmental effect was writ large: FulCo killed the players’ will to win.
Heck, on some nights, it killed the fans’ will to live.
But I still dreamed of patrolling the ground there. I was small, couldn’t hit a ball much beyond second base, but I was fast and quick and the best fielder in my Little League. My aunt and uncle had season tickets back in those days (so you know my family LOVED baseball), which meant that I got to go to my fair share of games. I remember vividly seeing Dale Murphy and Claudell Washington cover the outfield. Because I played second base, Glenn Hubbard became my hero; I loved him so much that I switched jersey numbers from Murph’s iconic 3 to Hubb’s 17.
Even after a summer on the All-Star team killed my love for playing (it was 1986; we won the Dixie League State Title that year) I still loved going to the games and dreaming of being on the field. Other kids got to walk the grounds because of their youth group, or ball team, or because their parents somehow possessed a special kind of magic that allowed them access to people and places denied us mortals, and I always felt the burn of jealousy deep within. It seemed unfair.
It wasn’t, of course, but try telling that to a young boy. And of course, the fact that I’d never walked the field in my life made yesterday that much greater. The first time I stepped onto the field of my childhood dreams, I did so with Ella and Jon and Rachel, not to mention my brother and nephew, and my dad. We all walked – simply walked – the warning track from right field to just past the Braves dugout, at which point the parents were diverted into the stands as the kids were directed towards homeplate.
Given how some of us adults were talking in the line, that was a good move Turner Field. Watching some over-exuberant adult wipeout a couple of tots with a head-first slide into homeplate would’ve been sad, and watching the security guards escort him off to jail would’ve been sadder.
Plus, I don’t think my wife would’ve bailed me out.
I watched as my nephew, Joey, rounded the bases, followed by his cousins, Aidan, Parker, Jon and Ella, plus several of his friends from church. The whole game experience (including pre-game lunch at the Varsity) was for his sixth birthday. I think I can safely say it was a magical experience for him, because it certainly was for me. It reminded me of some of the most powerful and magical things from my own childhood, and that I still connect strongly with some of those things even in my adult life.
But greater than that was re-learning that there are some things better experienced through your children. Seeing Ella and Jon run those bases was a treat for me; I recorded it on my iPhone, and it will be a video that I sneak a peak at from time to time as a subtle callback to the wonder of childhood joy. And when they came off the field and up the aisle, holding certificates and t-shirts that said “I ran the bases at Turner Field!”, there was no missing the expression on their faces.
It was one of the best days I’ve had in a very long time. I think I took around 200 pictures, of everything from the grass to the kids to the seats to the benches in the dugout, and only posted half of them to Facebook. Guess I just wanted everyone to share in how special the day truly was to me. Not only did we get to celebrate my nephew, but we got to spend time together as a family and update a vivid memory from my childhood: parents and children enjoying a ballgame, laughing and sharing and loving every minute. It was Childhood 2.0.
And it was a blessing.