I’m trying to prepare myself for post-season baseball. As a lifelong Braves fan, this is an experiment in psychological finesse. You have to tell yourself that there is a chance we could go all the way. You also have to accept the possibility that we could go three and out in the first round.
I have had the air let out of my October balloon more times than I can count.
One of the best ways to get ready for this time of year is to watch The Sandlot. I borrowed the DVD from my daughter. The fact that she even owns this movie makes my eyes water. A Papa can be proud for a lot of reasons. A shared love of baseball is one of them.
I put on my flannel comfy pants, kick back in the recliner and I watch this movie over and over until I have relived every moment of my own baseball career which ended at 13 years of age. The entire sandlot team is the romantic version of some of the best baseball I’ve ever played. It’s so painful to watch Smalls try to throw the ball when he first learns the game. Squints, with the black horned-rim glasses, is constantly yanking his glasses off his face trying to see through the sweat and fog. Benny the Jet is as smooth as butter and better at the game than any kid has a right to be.
About a month ago my buddy, Pete, sent me a photo of the 1969 Hampton All Star Team. He was my first baseman on the Hampton Hawks. Anthony Echols is in the picture. He played second base. I’m kneeling in the front row with my glove over my right knee. Stirrup socks. Full uniforms made of wool-orlon fabric. Steel cleats that clip-clop on the concrete floor of the dugout. Louisville Slugger bats made of maple.
I was almost in shock when that picture came through over my phone. Pete’s dad had taken the photo as a Kodak slide, which is evidently the perfect way to preserve an old photo and go digital. This is not your old grainy instamatic shot. This thing looks like a Hollywood screen shot. Crisp. Clear. Every detail looks like we posed on the baseball field yesterday. I plan to make an 8×10 of it and hang it on the wall.
I played shortstop and pitched. Those were the only two things that kept me in the game, because I stunk at the plate. I couldn’t hit a watermelon if you tossed it to me underhanded. Bill Durden caught behind the plate. He had a quick temper. If I threw a low one in the dirt, he would fire it back to the mound as hard as he could. It was his way of telling me to tighten up. A few times, he threw it into centerfield, which made him even more mad.
I still have my glove from those days. The one sitting on my knee in the picture is sitting on the shelf in my manly room at the house. A lot of things from my childhood got away from me when Mama cleaned out my stuff for a yard sale while I was away at college. Thank God she didn’t get rid of my glove.
What I like about The Sandlot is the pure joy of the game. The timeless nature of play that doesn’t pay attention to keeping score and is only limited by the setting of the sun.
“Gheez, Mom! Do we have to come in? We can still see the ball just fine.”
The game is never defined by innings. Home run balls are lost in the weeds. The game picks up the next Saturday where it left off the weekend before. The magic is something you carry with you for the rest of your life.
I think the most magical Braves moment for me was the Sid Bream Slide in game 7 of the 92 NLCS against the Pittsburgh Pirates. We had lost the World Series the year before in game 7. This NLCS game 7 was not looking like it would go our way. But in the 9th inning, the Braves finally got a few baserunners. Sid was on 2nd and hobbling around like he had a wooden leg. Knee surgery will do that to a guy.
You can’t make this up. Every sandlot player who has ever played the game dreams of moments like this. Bottom of the 9th. Two outs. Bases loaded. The tying run is on third. Sid, the winning run, is on 2nd. The entire future of the season in on the line. Redemption lives or dies on what happens next.
Francisco Cabrera comes to the plate to pinch hit. He’s a good hitter but he had spent most of the season in the minors. It was a nail-bitter to think that our hopes rested on a utility player without a lot of post-season experience. That the guy standing on second base had 5 knee surgeries behind him and was the slowest runner in baseball. We’d have to pull off the impossible.
Cabrera drives a single to left field. Some say that Barry Bonds was out of position. Sid is being waved around 3rd. Hobbling. Lunging. The whole thing was in slow motion. He went into the slide like a sack of rocks. The ball came in too far to the right, and the tag was late. We did it.
So, in order to get ready for some October baseball, I like to go back and watch the video. I keep replaying it. I can’t watch it enough. I never get tired of hearing Skip Carey yelling, “Braves Win. Braves Win. Braves Win.”
Probably 15 to 20 years ago, I heard Sid Bream tell this story himself. I went to a Wild Game Dinner at Griffin Highschool. I’ve eaten wild boar, moose and alligator before at these things. I went because Sid was going to be there to tell in his own words one of the greatest Braves baseball stories ever.
I don’t know if I’ll ever see a repeat of anything like it. It was the one and only time I remember Beth coming up off the couch and giving me a high-five over a ballgame. We lost to Toronto in the World Series that year, but we still talk about old Sid.
Baseball does that to you. The smell and feel of a leather glove. The crack of a bat against a 95mph fastball. Some folks say it’s a slow game. Not enough going on to keep a person interested. I tell them they have no class. They have no appreciation for the anticipation of great moments in sports.
That’s October. That’s the greatest game ever played.
Gotta go. I’ve got a few more nights before the Braves take the field again. Time to watch The Sandlot a few more times, too. I’m pulling for Squints to kiss the girl again.
Gosh, I love this game.