When I was nine years old, it was my belief that a professional baseball player was the most exalted thing a man could be. Ballplayers rivaled the offspring of Greek gods—only marginally mortal and, if they fell, the results were apocalyptic. Some part of me still thinks so. And yet I seldom go to the ballpark anymore, even though I live just a short bike ride south of Louisville Slugger Field, a jewel of a stadium on the Ohio River housed in the red-brick shell of the old Brinly-Hardy train shed that dates back to 1839. So I was thrilled when Sam Stephenson offered me a press pass to the Durham Bulls’ four-game series against the Louisville Bats earlier this month.
The first time I found myself in the presence of a big-league ballplayer was on a Sunday night in 1968 at the Atlanta airport. The Braves were coming in off a triumphant road trip that culminated in their winning both games of a doubleheader, which was broadcast earlier that day on WSB-TV, channel 2. After he switched off the set, my dad said the most astonishing thing: “Let’s go the airport and see them when they come in.” A jolt shot through me. Can we? Should we? Was such a thing even possible?
Hundreds of other people had the same idea. We watched from behind glass as a staircase was wheeled up to the plane and our heroes descended, tieless in their sport jackets, and crossed the tarmac toward the terminal. (Henry Aaron, who’d gone oh-for-the-day, headed straight for the bus.) We raced downstairs to meet them at the baggage claim, where I came face-to-face with Satchel Paige.
Satchel Paige, children, was the greatest and the most enthralling pitcher the game has yet seen. His simple but brilliant (and apparently unlearnable) “hesitation pitch” could throw any hitter off his stride and enfeeble even the mightiest sluggers. Legend has it that in an exhibition game against a team of major-league all-stars, Satch intentionally walked the bases loaded, then ordered his fielders back into the dugout while he struck out the side. Social custom and Jim Crow laws kept him bouncing around the Negro leagues, and the Mexican and Latin American leagues, for the first twenty-two years of his professional career. He didn’t pitch his first major-league game until 1948, when the Cleveland Indians signed him at age forty-two, the oldest rookie ever. Paige pitched his final game for the Kansas City Athletics at the age of sixty. Braves owner William Bartholomay signed him in 1968, ostensibly as a pitcher, but primarily as a coach, so that Paige could accrue enough time to qualify for a major-league pension.
And so there he stood, glaring down at me through a pair of black-rimmed glasses. Did I speak to him? I did not. I turned to a pillar of salt. Had I been the apostle Paul, I would’ve tumbled off my horse.
To this day, I still get wobbly and even more tongue-tied than usual when speaking to a player in uniform. I felt it again when I cleared my throat before addressing Matt Buschmann. Buschmann had been with the Bulls barely a week, called up from Montgomery, when he started and won the series opener on Saturday. I asked him about the difference between playing in Double-A and Triple-A. I stood poised, ready to scribble down his insights on the pace of the game or the power of the hitters—stuff only a pitcher might know.
“The cities are bigger,” he replied.
In their off-hours, many of the visiting Bulls toured the Louisville Slugger factory and museum on West Main. They availed themselves of the vibrant restaurant and bar scene on Market Street and the brightly festive blocks known as Fourth Street Live, all within walking distance of their lodgings at the Galt House, the same riverfront establishment (if not the same building) that has welcomed the likes of Abe Lincoln and Charles Dickens, and where, in 1864, General Ulysses S. Grant met with William Tecumseh Sherman to plan the latter’s capture of Atlanta and subsequent March to the Sea. Ironically—or perhaps not—the original Galt House burned down the following year.
A feeling of vertigo began to affect my sense of loyalty during Sunday’s game when Leslie Anderson executed back-to-back unassisted put-outs to begin the top of the sixth. The second out was a screaming line drive that left Neftali Soto’s bat destined for the gap in right-center, only to be snatched from the air by Anderson with such grace and aplomb that more than a few Bats fans in my vicinity let out cries of awe and even a smattering of applause before they remembered whose side he was on.
The spectacle of Anderson’s play may have invigorated Bats designated hitter Denis Phipps as well. Following those two quick outs, Bulls pitcher Alex Colome walked Perez and Hessman, setting the stage for Phipps to smack a double off the wall in center, scoring them both and putting the Bats up 3–1. The Bats scored twice more in the eighth, but they already had all they needed, winning it 5–1. I rode my bike home feeling oddly dispirited for having witnessed a solid victory by my home team.
I felt better when the Bulls bounced back the next day, beating the Bats 5–2. Meanwhile, up in Boston, the Rays were in the process of exhausting seven pitchers in the course of a five-and-a-half-hour contest with the Sox, only to come up short in the fourteenth inning. By that time, Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo knew there was no point in going to bed; the Rays would be needing a fresh arm, and his phone would start ringing soon. The call, when it came, was for Jake Odorizzi, the 6’ 2” right-hander Montoyo had scheduled to start against Chad Reineke on Tuesday. Cory Wade would get the start instead.
There was a moment in the sixth inning of Monday’s game, after a drive by Leslie Anderson (my new favorite first baseman, in a line stretching back to Felipe Alou) rattled the Qdoba sign above the grandstand in right, when I seemed to be the sole spectator applauding. As Anderson circled the bases, the whole place was enveloped in an almost ghastly silence. It felt to me like a personal reproach.
I had to wonder: Could the bedrock of my foundation really crumble so quickly, under the mere weight of a Durham Bulls press pass dangling from a lanyard around my neck? If I were thirty years younger I’d be alarmed—ashamed, even—at how effortlessly my allegiance seemed to be shifting away from my hometown team, if only for the duration of a series.
I understand now that I’ll never again give myself in full to any team. It simply isn’t possible. The Atlanta Braves may have been my first crush, but the Detroit Tigers were the love of my life.
My feelings for the Tigers first stirred in 1968, the same year I stood in the hallowed presence of Satchel Paige. I played first base that year for the Tigers in Decatur’s Pee Wee League. We, like our big-league counterparts, won the championship. (I still have my engraved trophy and expect one day to wow my grandchildren with it, provided they never learn about the great Norm Cash.) The Tigers were an American League team, so there was no guilt in rooting for them, especially during the World Series when Willie Horton, Al Kaline, Mickey Lolich, and Denny McLain vanquished Curt Flood, Lou Brock, Orlando Cepeda, and Bob Gibson of the hated St. Louis Cardinals.
The relationship was consummated in the midseventies when our family moved to Rochester, Michigan, just outside of Detroit. In 1984, my last full year as a Michigander, the Tigers won thirty-five of the season’s first forty games. They never once slipped out of first place, and then took the series from San Diego four games to one. I attended perhaps thirty games that year. And then, abruptly, the business of life pulled us apart. I moved to Brooklyn and then to Louisville; the Tigers eventually took up residence in a corporate-named luxury stadium somewhere down near the Renaissance Center. I’ve never been there. No matter how charming or convenient Slugger Field may be, my tell-tale heart is still beating somewhere beneath the rubble at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood where Tiger Stadium once stood.
David Henry is a freelance writer, screenwriter, and producer. His most most recent film project is the forthcoming Pleased to Meet Me, written with director Archie Borders. With his brother—singer-songwriter, recording artist, and Grammy-winning producer Joe Henry—he has written Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him, to be published in November.