When I was fifteen years old, I learned to love baseball.
That was the year my father gave up smoking – a habit he had picked up during his college years.
As a child, I remember sitting in the booth at Shoney’s with the plastic red and white checked tablecloth…my sisters and I waiting for Dad to finish his coffee…our stomachs filled with strawberry pie…Dad tapping his cigarette on the ashtray. We didn’t know smoking was bad for you then. To us, it was a nuisance that trapped us in the sticky booth and cut into playtime.
When I was fifteen years old, Dad had the flu and stayed home from work. He didn’t smoke because he didn’t feel like doing much of anything. The next day, he felt a little better but not good enough to smoke. Then the next day, he figured that since he’d gone two days without a cigarette, he probably could go three. Giving up cigarettes was a day-to-day thing for him.
Dad never said anything about quitting and months passed. Mom’s friends all smoked so the ashtrays at home continued to be filled with ashes and cigarette butts, and the house stilled smelled. During a family vacation in the car that summer, Mom finally figured it out when she realized she didn’t need to clean out the ashtray every time we stopped at a filling station.
Without the nicotine, Dad was always on edge. He’d come home from work angry that we hadn’t weeded the garden when he hadn’t told us to do it in the first place. We suddenly had harsher curfews. It was easier to hide in our rooms than to deal with his quick temper.
Dad would calm down after dinner when the Braves game came on television. He’d lay down on his indoor porch swing to see if Dale Murphy would hit a homer that night. I would creep out of my bedroom and join him.
He taught me about baseball. The difference between an ERA and an RBI. We laughed when pitcher Pasqual Perez missed one of his pitching starts because he got lost on the Atlanta Perimeter and never made it to the ball park. That was back when Chief Noc-a-Homa, the Braves Indian mascot, would come out of his teepee above the outfield and do a dance whenever the Braves hit a homer. That mascot was eventually retired in deference to objections from the American Indian population.
The Braves were a losing team back then, but that didn’t matter. Dad and I talked.
Once his mood improved, we made an overnight trip to Atlanta to see the Braves in person.
It was the first time I had seen a real professional baseball game. Fulton County Stadium was so giant that the players looked small on the field. Being in the stands was a blast…stale popcorn…Varsity hotdogs…cheering with fellow fans. It felt so big. Retrospectively, the crowd couldn’t have been that large. At the end of an inning, we could get up and go to the bathroom and stop by the concession stands and still be back in our seats before the next pitch was thrown.
After college, I got a job with CNN in Atlanta. Because Ted Turner owned both CNN and the Braves, we got 20 free tickets every year. I often said I would never have accepted such a low salary if it hadn’t been for those tickets. Of course, during this time, the Braves were so bad that Ted was having a hard time getting fans into the stadium. Hence, the free tickets.
In the 1990s when the Braves became good enough to make the post season, I was able to score tickets to those games. Dad joined me for some very cold and heartbreaking November baseball. For some reason, the Braves never seemed to win when we were in the stadium but that didn’t matter. I went to the World Series with my dad. Did it really matter who won?
My dad died last year of lung cancer…37 years after he gave up smoking. I’ve just had my first baseball season without him. I couldn’t call him when the Braves scored late or came back in the ninth or when Ozzie Albies made a phenomenal catch or Max Fried pitched a beauty. The Braves had a great year in 2019 and Dad would have loved it. Well, except for that last dismal loss to the Cardinals during the NLCS. Giving up ten runs in the first was quite painful. Then again, Dad and I watched some pretty dismal games together back in the 80s and I think we both treasured them.
When I was fifteen years old, my dad gave up smoking and I learned to love baseball.