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Monday, July 2, 2012

Memories of the Boys of Summer

As a kid, baseball was my favorite sport. My cousins and I played in large cow pasture. Furrow disks from an old tractor were the bases, and my uncle fashioned a backstop from chicken wire. I watched the Yankees on TV and memorized the lineups.

Later my best friend Doug and I went to many home games of the Montgomery Rebels, the Double-A farm team of the Detroit Tigers. Here are three vignettes from those days.

  • The Perfect Game. One of the rarest achievements in sports is a perfect game in baseball -- not just a no-hitter, but no walks, no errors, no batters hit by pitches, etc. It's as pure as 27 up, 27 down. I saw Chips Swanson pitch a perfect game for Montgomery in 1970. If you've never heard of him, I understand; he was 22 when he pitched the game and played five more seasons in the minors. I'm sure he was disappointed that he never made it to the Major Leagues. But on one summer night in Montgomery, no pitcher in baseball was better.
  • Getting under a player's skin. One particularly flamboyant player on another team in the Southern League was Rafael Batista. He was a good hitter, but he struck out often. Heckling baseball players used to be an art form that was tolerated by mostly empty ballparks. Whenever Batista struck out, Doug and I would stand up and yell "Same old Batista!" One night, Batista reached his limit. As he walked back to the dugout after fanning and hearing us, he flipped us the finger. Admission ticket, 75 cents. Getting under an opposing player's skin, priceless.
  • He won't stay here long! Behind the right field fence at Montgomery's Paterson Field is a cliff of about 50 feet. One night in 1967 the Birmingham A's were in town. An unfamiliar Birmingham player hit a home run that cleared the top of the cliff and kept going. I don't know how far the ball would have gone on level ground; 500 feet is a good guess. As the hitter ran the bases, someone asked "Who's that?" The answer was, "Doesn't matter. He won't stay here long!" Turns out his name was Reggie Jackson. Later that year he was promoted from AA directly to the majors. In the 1971 All-Star game, Jackson hit a monstrous homer whose trajectory was later calculated as 532 feet. I saw it on live TV and wasn't surprised at all.