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. Read More