PAINTER: When the boys of summer become the boys of spring

Mar 14, 2012

Kahn, who grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., wrote about the 1952-53 Brooklyn Dodgers, the baseball team that he covered as a young reporter for a New York City newspaper. He devoted chapters of the book to some of the key members of the team that won National League pennants during those two years.

The book was fascinating to me because I saw the Dodgers play the Pittsburgh Pirates three times from 1952-53.

While my father was working at a steel mill in Conception, Chile, my mother was taking care of my brother and me in McKeesport, Pa. — a city located about 12 miles south of Pittsburgh. My mother did her best to fulfill dual roles, including taking us to baseball games.

The first time we saw the Pirates play the Dodgers was in 1952, and the Pirates won 7-1. I still remember Duke Snider and Roy Campanella hitting back-to-back doubles.

A year later, my mother took us to a doubleheader between the Pirates and Dodgers. All I remember is that the Pirates won the opener and the Dodgers won the second game.

While I was a Pirates’ fan, I can still remember every player who was in the lineup for the Dodgers. I don’t remember all the Pirates who played that day. Perhaps it had something to do with the Pirates being so awful in the 1950s, while the Dodgers were so good.

The Dodgers back then were “America’s team.” Their games were broadcast nationally.

Baseball has always played a major role in my life. As a youngster growing up in Pennsylvania, I lived for the game. We’d play pickup games almost every day during the summer months. If our bat broke, we nailed it back together. If the cover came off the baseball, we’d tape it.

After my father returned from Chile, we moved to Southgate, Mich. — where I played Little League, Babe Ruth League and high school baseball.

My love of the game didn’t stop on the ball field. When I was in high school, I managed to get a job selling peanuts at the old Tiger Stadium so that I could see more baseball games. I got to go to every home game from 1962-63. Before I had to work, I had my eyes glued on watching the Detroit Tigers and their opponents take batting practice.

As spring nears, my love of the game reaches fever pitch. I love spring training because every team starts with a fresh attitude. And it’s fun trying to figure out who is going to be the next Major League phenom.

When I worked for the Arizona Daily Sun in Flagstaff, Ariz., I had the good fortunate to be asked to cover several Chicago Cubs spring training games in Phoenix.
We had a local interest. Billy Hatcher, who grew up in Williams, Ariz. — which was part of our coverage area — was a Cubs’ draft pick who was trying to make the team in 1985. I got an interview with Hatcher.  I still can remember how pleasant he was to talk to about his future.

Hatcher made the Cubs that season. He may be best-known to baseball fans for getting suspended 10 games for using a corked bat as a member of the Houston Astros. But he also set a World Series record for batting average for a four-game series when he hit .750 as a member of the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds swept the Oakland A’s in 1980.

It has always been my dream to spend a week in Florida and attend a spring training game each day. There is something about sitting in the sunshine and watching a game that is very appealing.

The games themselves aren’t that interesting, especially in early March when the lineups are stocked with minor leaguers trying to prove themselves to their managers.

The real appeal is the laid-back attitude on the players. This is one time when you’ll find it easy to engage the players in conversations. I know it was that way in Arizona.

I’m not sure if I’ll ever get to fulfill my dream, but there is no harm in wishing.

Play ball.

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