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Hammerin’ Hank

On April 8, 1974 when Hank Aaron hit the Al Downing fastball over the outfield fence at Atlanta-Fulton County stadium and broke Babe Ruth’s Major League Baseball home run record, I was too young to remember or understand the significance of the milestone. It’d be six years or so before I even showed any interest in baseball beyond swatting rocks with a stick in my backyard, but that shot, imprinted in my brain through years of nostalgic replay, captures the beauty and essence of the greatest game. Baseball means more to me than just the game itself. Much more.

When I was growing up, my parents rarely took us anywhere. Vacations were largely foreign to me other than the two or three times in my childhood when my dad took us to the mountains in Tennessee or North Carolina. Even then, it was only for two or so days before we scooted back home. Dad was a notorious homebody who’d rather spend his vacation time napping or loafing around the community than doing anything else. Consequently, TV became our primary form of escape from the monotony and boredom of our lives.

Growing up in rural North Georgia before cable made its way into the rolling foothills of the Appalachian mountains meant we relied on a rickety antenna attached to the roof of our house to capture fleeting TV signals. Even with a good antenna, we only had three or four channels to choose from and were beholden to the ridiculously rigid schedule of network programming. Most of the time, there was nothing worthwhile on TV once the daily cartoons were done or reruns of Gilligan’s Island had finished. Soaps and melodramatic news programs filled the gaps before the prime time schedule started. Then, our favorite shows came on, but new episodes only ran in the fall and spring. The barren landscape of the summer TV schedule left little for us to watch except for baseball.

Dad mostly ignored our TV programs. He’d watch sometimes, but he remained largely disinterested. He’d much rather take another nap than spend time watching TV, but when baseball was on, he’d watch on the weekends when he didn’t have to work. Back then, TBS (Turner Broadcasting System, a national TV channel) aired every Atlanta Braves game. I didn’t take much interest in watching baseball at first. It’s a slow game that requires a level of appreciation and patience to enjoy, both of which are largely absent from young boys, but getting the chance to spend a few hours with Dad gave me the incentive to pay attention.

It was during those moments, which were largely quiet save for a few exclamations of disappointment (the Braves were a really bad team back then), that I learned the intricacies of the game. Dad never had much patience, but he explained the game to me as the action unfolded on TV like he was teacher supreme, and once I understood, we’d just sit and watch the games with few words between us. Dad would occasionally comment on the play, but mostly, he just sighed or groaned depending on the outcome. If I had a question, I’d ask, and if Dad didn’t know the answer, we’d wait for Skip Caray, Pete Van Wieren, or Ernie Johnson, Sr. to provide an answer. I fell in love with baseball, but mostly, I loved those moments between my Dad and me.

The Braves were mostly dreadful in my formative years save for the 1982 season. It was during that magical year when they opened with 13 straight wins that Dad and I watched every game we could together. To this day, I still remember the lineup for that team even more so than many of the championship teams that ruled the 1990s. Nothing makes me nostalgic more than hearing the names of the great players from that team – Murphy, Horner, Ramirez, Hubbard, Chambliss, Benedict, etc. Those guys were my early childhood heroes. I’d never seen Dad get too enthusiastic about much, but he brimmed with excitement that year as the Braves rallied to their first Division Championship in Atlanta.

To add to the excitement, Dad took me to my first game during the Braves’ magical season. I had received some free tickets through a school reading program, so Dad partnered with one of his old friends and took me and a small group of boys to a game at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. The seats were in the nose-bleed section – Dale Murphy looked three inches tall from where I sat, but I didn’t care. I was at a baseball game watching my newly-beloved Braves with my Dad. The crack of the bat, the smell of the grass, and the zip of the ball into the stands mesmerized me. One foul ball even managed to make it up to our section, which was in the top level behind home plate. The guy in front of me caught it before it made it into my hands (it’d be another 32 years before I’d finally catch a foul ball in the stands at a game with my own son).

That experience cemented my love of the game and made me a life-long baseball fan. Nothing takes me back to my boyhood like going to a baseball game. Every time I step into a stadium, I remember going to the game with my Dad. I remember watching all those games on TV with him during the sweltering summers of my childhood. I remember Dad sitting there with me making the occasional comment or explaining some aspect of the game. For that moment at least, we were just father and son, nothing more. He forgot the pressures of his life, the surges of self-doubt and depression, and just enjoyed the time with me. I never felt more connected to him than during those ephemeral moments.

Many years later, when even the seemingly-ageless Hammerin’ Hank started to show his age and my brothers and I were adults, we pried Dad out of his recliner and took him to baseball games when I’d return home for visits. Dad hated leaving his house and really disliked venturing into the crowd and traffic of Atlanta after spending three decades traversing the city for his commute to work, but he couldn’t refuse the opportunity to go to a baseball game with his sons, a fading chance to relive our childhoods with the man who made it memorable.

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