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Batter's box



Like a lot of American kids, I was a childhood baseball fan. I sat in front of our massive wood-encased television, watching the Atlanta Braves games. Baseball is America's pastime, and I was an American boy; the diamond shape felt magnetic and natural.

My mother enrolled me in Tee Ball. Every Tuesday and Thursday, I trotted to the back field of the Bill Sapp Recreation Center to learn how to swing a bat and slide into home base. I suited up in my uniform with cleats and stirrup socks to match my shirt, a proud member of some avian squad—the Blue Jays or the Robins, the Cardinals or the Orioles. I soon moved to the "Midget League," where the pitcher was a spinning machine that spit the ball over home plate. I progressed to Little League but stayed only for one season, switching soon to soccer. I haven't played a baseball game since.

But I stuck with baseball off the field: I watched the statistics in the newspaper, looking for arcane patterns. Baseball movies served as the script of my childhood—Bull Durham, Bad News Bears, Field of Dreams, A League of Their Own, Major League—meaning I once knew more about Wesley Snipes' Willie Mays Hayes than his namesake. I dug through my dad's metal ammunition containers, full not of bullets but of baseball cards featuring Mickey Mantle, Pete Rose and Johnny Bench. I attended several minor-league games, from the Hickory Crawdads in the west to the Fayetteville Generals in the east.

I desperately wanted to see a major-league game, so my parents drove me to Atlanta to see the Braves play. But rain cancelled the contest, so we watched Parenthood at the mall.

That was 1989. I can barely name a current player on any court, field or rink these days, but I've wanted to see an MLB baseball game since that rainout. It's the only professional sport I've never witnessed. Last month, my family ventured to Cincinnati for a doctor's appointment for my son, Oliver, a cancer survivor. Our hotel sat three blocks from the Great American Ballpark, where the Reds play. We scouted out seats, attending the first game in a series with rivals the Pittsburgh Pirates.

We indulged ourselves in the experience, buying cotton candy, sno cones, a foam finger and beers. When fireworks exploded after every home run, Oliver exclaimed, "Wow," echoing what he'd said when I presented him with a massive glob of cotton candy on a rolled-up paper stick. The Ohio River glistened beyond the outfield bleachers as boats passed by. A foul ball or two flew our way, falling just short of our seats. "I wanna catch it in my hat like this," Oliver would say, grabbing my hat and holding it out for the errant balls.

As the sun set over the river in the bottom of the 5th, Stacy and Gram took the kids back to the hotel. I stayed for the final innings, listening to the amateur commentators behind me speculate on when the Reds would replace their lagging pitcher. I reckoned that's what I used to sound like.

Being alone in the stadium reminded me of many late childhood nights, spent alone in my room organizing baseball cards into cardboard boxes. Surely, these cards are worth some money now, but possibly more in memories for me and as a sports history lesson for Oliver. I never owned a bobblehead doll as a kid, but since the Reds' game, I've been searching for one of Aroldis Chapman, a Cuban-born pitcher who threw the final strike in the Reds' 4–1 win against the Pirates that night. After all these years, I guess I'm back in the batter's box.

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