by Karl Jacobsen
Opening Day! Just saying those two words creates a glimmer of hope that one of my two teams will wind up playing in Yankee Stadium come October. Why Yankee Stadium? Because everyone who knows the current state of baseball realizes that the World Series is an annual New York event—or so it seems. Am I upset about recent, and past, Yankee championships? Not in the least. Remember, New York fostered the beginnings of the game over a hundred and fifty years ago, and much of traditional baseball history has revolved around New York teams. Don't get me wrong, if Hell had a baseball team, I'd root for Hell against the Yankees, but for an old traditionalist like me, there is something right about seeing the American League pennant waving over Yankee Stadium.
My two teams, the Brewers and the Braves, approach the season with different expectations, in addition to significantly different payrolls. The Brewers face the daunting task of being competitive, while the Braves gear up for another run hoping that their pitching can once again be dominant.
How, you might ask, can I follow two teams with such different pedigrees? It's simple. I grew up with one, and I'm growing old with the other.
I still remember my first major league baseball game. My father took me to Milwaukee County Stadium, when I was around ten years old, to see the Braves play the Cardinals. I can't remember who won the game, but I remember seeing Warren Spahn, Eddie Mathews, and Hank Aaron play for the Braves, while Stan "The Man" Musial covered first base for the Cardinals. My first baseball game, and I saw four members of the Hall of Fame. As I look back on it, that might have been one of the best days of my life. Think of it from a kid's perspective: My dad worked every weekday and most Saturdays, so to have him to myself all afternoon at a major league baseball game, seeing the players that I had only heard about on the radio, was a time to remember.
My love affair with the Braves continued through the early Sixties. I recall spending many nights in bed listening to late Braves broadcasts on my old transistor radio while the rest of my family was sleeping. My mother would have been upset if she had known. My dad wouldn't have been.
And then they left.
The Braves moving to Atlanta was like your girlfriend dumping you. Only worse. My friends and I felt like we were betrayed. We couldn't understand how they could just leave? After all, they were our team. Most of my friends shifted their allegiance to Chicago, but I couldn't stoop to listen to the Cubs games. I had standards. So, like an old boyfriend who just can't let go, I continued to follow Aaron, Mathews, and the rest of my team even after their hats were emblazoned with that infamous letter—reminiscent of the same letter that Hester Prynne was forced to wear on her clothing after a similar indiscretion.
The years passed, and in 1974 my company transferred me to Atlanta where I was once again able to follow my team on a daily basis. Only this time the Braves were arguably one of the worst teams in the major leagues. Like I did as a boy, I spent many nights in bed following Aaron and the guys on their frequent West Coast road trips. This time, however, my wife was sleeping by my side—having been put to sleep by Ernie Johnson's voice.
The Nineties rolled around, and my wife, son, and I moved back to Wisconsin. We built a home in the country, a few miles away from a small town, so it was natural that I began watching the Brewers: a small market team trying to compete with the big boys. I was overjoyed when the franchise switched to the National League, for there is no place in professional or amateur baseball for the designated hitter. Basic baseball managerial strategy is alive and well in the National League. Like years past, I listen to games late in the evening. This time it's the Brewers, and this time my wife is awake. After all, who could possibly sleep through Brewers announcer Bob Uecker? For those of you who might not be familiar with "Mr. Baseball," as he's known around here, go to the video store and rent "Major League." What a great movie!
April and Opening Day came again, and, unlike previous years, I missed the first game for both of my teams. I didn't attend, watch on television, or listen to the radio broadcasts. This year I spent the first half of April at my company's manufacturing facility sitting in on a series of training sessions and business meetings. Confused? Let me explain. The company that I work for is headquartered near Rotterdam, Holland, and in Holland the big sports are speed skating, soccer, and cycling. So forget about getting baseball scores from TV or the newspapers. For that matter, forget about CNN. CNN International sports reports were much more concerned about cycling results, and the New Zealand rugby team traveling to Cardiff for their much-anticipated match with the Welch national team, than baseball.
Being that I had the weekend free while in Holland, Saturday morning I walked from my hotel to the Rotterdam train station and boarded a train for the hour-long trip to Amsterdam. Amsterdam is a beautiful old European city, and I planned to take a walking tour and see a few of the many museums that are in or near the center of the city.
I was feeling a bit lonely and was not in the best of moods as I sat by the window looking at the passing countryside. The train had stopped at a number of cities along the route by the time it slowed and stopped at the Leiden train station. Passengers boarded the train and filled the aisle as the train slowly pulled away from the station. Looking off to the right, about a quarter of a mile from the station, I saw something that caused me to straighten up in my seat and turn my head back towards the now rapidly disappearing scene. I couldn't believe eyes.
A moment later the conductor walked through the aisle announcing the next stop. What happened next was more of an involuntary reflex action than one of conscious thought as I stood, stepped into the aisle, moved to the door, and exited the train at the next stop. I jogged, as much as a "slightly" overweight middle-aged man can jog, to the other set of tracks for the return trip to Leiden. Sure enough, less than ten minutes later I boarded the train. The trip was a short one. I wasted no time in getting off the train when it pulled into the station, and I headed across the tracks towards the park I had seen from my window seat.
I may have been thousands of miles from home, but it was April, and I was sitting on the grass watching a baseball game. Perhaps it was only a Dutch little league game, and perhaps I didn't understand the language that everyone spoke, but the game was being played, and I felt at home.
It's winter now, and as I look forward to spring training, I sit and daydream about what kind of miracle it would take for my Brewers to be playing in Yankee stadium this October. Remember the musical "Damn Yankees?" Does anyone know how to get in touch with Mr. Applegate? Just remember, if the Brewers opening day lineup includes a great young prospect that goes by the name of Joe Hardy, you can bet that the Brewers will win the World Series. And if Joe Hardy does indeed wind up with the Brewers, please do me a favor. Send my wife some roses—she'll be lonely.
Karl Jacobsen has a strong interest in 19th century baseball and has written a historical piece for Elysian Fields Quarterly. Other than baseball, his interests include canoeing, fishing, and writing.