Opening Day 2011: The Prodigal Son returns

2011 March 31
by Don Hammack

Wrigley Field


I was a huge baseball fan growing up. I loved playing it, I loved reading about it, I loved watching it. As a kid, I used to lie down on my stomach on the floor, lay out “The Sporting News” and comb through it, cover to cover, box scores and everything. I was addicted to Bill James before most people had ever heard of him. I was one of those guys, as Tony Kornheiser mocks, who loved the “elegiac symmetry of the emerald chessboard.”

I was an Atlanta Braves fan. That was a thing you were born into in Birmingham, Ala., because it darned sure wasn’t for the quality of baseball the team played. They were the home team, so you pulled for them. Yes, there was Hank Aaron to pull for, and Phil Niekro, but you also got Mike Lum, Paul Casanova and Marty Perez. All heroes to me at the time, but not exactly the 1927 Yankees.

One game I distinctly remember was in the summer after I graduated high school. (My parents remember it for their own reasons, as you’ll see.) I was watching TBS as the Braves play the Mets at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium on July 4. It was truly one of the most bizarre games I’ve ever seen. New York won 16-13 in a leisurely 6 hours, 10 minutes. The Braves trailed 7-4 after 7.5 innings, put up a four-spot but Bruce Sutter couldn’t hold on in the ninth. Howard Johnson hit a two-run homer in the 13th, but with two outs Terry Harper tied it up with a home run of his own. In the 18th, Lenny Dykstra hit a sacrifice fly to give the Mets the lead off Rick Camp. There was nobody left of the Braves bench, so Camp had to hit for himself with two outs. Home run. Rick Camp. Rick Freakin’ Camp.

I seem to remember the ball just squeaking over the wall (although I can’t find it on YouTube), and I remember doing more than squeaking in joy as a result. I can’t remember if Mom or Dad came to the living room to check on my health/sanity after having woken them up at that ungodly hour. Of course, Camp gave up five runs the next inning. He came back up in the bottom of the inning with two on, two outs down 16-13 with a chance to tie the game. Rick Freakin’ Camp did not tie the game.

I drifted away from the game, starting in college when it was easier to play basketball. Then there were a few years spent underwater in the Navy, including the Braves’ worst-to-first season while I was living in Charleston, S.C. The town went nuts over the team, and I actually turned on the team as a result. Did they know who Mike Lum was? Johnny Oates? They weren’t real fans, and an obnoxious chopping motion pilfered from Florida State was the final straw.

Somehow, I’ve come back comfortably into baseball’s bosom following another team that longs just for mediocrity, the Washington Nationals. They’re supposed to play the New York Mets Atlanta Braves (E-blogger) today, although the weather is gonna cause problems. I know the Natinals very well thanks to the power of the internet, but I rarely get to see them play and I’m not as well-versed with the rest of baseball as back in the days of lying on the floor with the Bible of Baseball. Washington is trying to build for the future, but Stephen Strasburg is rehabbing his new elbow and Bryce Harper is three years from buying his first legal beer and probably at least a season from the majors. The Nationals just traded troublesome center fielder Nyjer Morgan to Milwaukee for minor-leaguer Cutter Dykstra, son of Lenny, the man who gave Rick Camp a reason to stick in my mind.

Baseball is back on my mind. It’s Opening Day. Play ball.

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