Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Baseball on the Boulevard

by F. T. Rea

If the Richmond Braves do abandon their current baseball stadium on Richmond’s North Boulevard to play home games in another part of town, or perhaps another city, no doubt, some local fans will grumble. Others will shrug it off and be content to reminisce about favorite memories set at Parker Field (which was demolished in 1984), then The Diamond, which replaced the former in 1985.

Parker Field, which opened in 1954 to serve as home for a new minor league club -- the Richmond Virginians -- once seemed to be no less than a baseball temple to this scribe. At seven I began going to games there with my grandfather. Eagerly, I breathed in the magic in the air, especially stories told about legendary players and discussions on the strategy of the game. When my grandfather and I cheered the clutch hits and acrobatic plays we witnessed, and we rose for the seventh inning stretch, and we always stayed until the final out, I took comfort in being enveloped in the game’s lore and traditions. Naturally, we pulled for the home team, the pinstripe clad Virginians, or V’s, for short.

As I got older I went to Parker Field with my friends. We usually took our baseball gloves with us to the games. I still have my glove from that time -- a Nakona (Don Mossi model), which was purchased at Harris-Flippen (then at 6th and Main).

As the V’s were the New York Yankees’ International League (AAA) farm club, in those days the Bronx Bombers paid Richmond an annual visit in April. Just before Major League Baseball’s opening day Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford and the other great Yankees of that era played an exhibition game -- a dress rehearsal -- at Parker Field vs. the V’s. It was always a standing-room-only affair.

After the 1964 season the V’s left to become Mud Hens (of all things!) in Toledo. Then in 1966 the Richmond Braves arrived. A few seasons before Parker Field’s wooden stands were removed, to allow for the current setup, I attended an evening ballgame with my daughter, Katey. We went as guests of neighbors who had comps from a radio station (WGOE-AM).

To Katey, at seven-years-old, the bright lights were dazzling. The roar of the crowd was exhilarating. Nonetheless, by the middle of the game she was getting tired of sitting still and baseball’s charm was wearing thin. During the sixth inning I tried to entertain her by telling her more about baseball, about seeing the one and only Satchel (“Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you”) Paige pitch from that same mound when I was a kid, not much older than her, and so forth.

It didn’t help. Soon rambunctious Katey was climbing across seats, again, and this time she knocked an unlucky fan’s tub of beer into his lap.

As the visitors began their turn at bat, in the top of the seventh inning, I felt obliged to rein Katey in, so, I got a sudden inspiration and subsequently asked whether she’d like to be in on a magic trick which would move everybody in the stadium.

Of course she did. I pulled her in close to whisper my instructions: The gist of it was that she and I -- using our combined powers of parapsychology -- were going to telepathically will everyone to stand up at the same time.

Katey was thrilled at the mere prospect of such a feat. Next, I told her to face the on-going game, close her eyes, and begin concentrating. After the visiting team made its third out, I cupped my hand to her ear to remind her that we both had to think, over and over, "stand up, stand up…"

As baseball fans know, when the home team comes to bat in the bottom of the seventh inning of every game, the spectators get up from their seats, ostensibly to stretch their legs. It’s a longtime tradition known as "the seventh inning stretch." There’s a mention of the practice in an 1869 report about a game played by baseball’s first professional team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings.

When Katey turned around, and opened her blue eyes to see thousands of people getting on their feet, it was pure magic in her book. Maybe baseball was boring but magic wasn't! No one in the group gave me away when Katey breathlessly recounted what we had just done. She wanted to recreate the stunt in the eighth inning, but I somehow distracted her from that notion. As I remember it, though, she stayed true to her word and was quite well behaved the rest of the game.

Years would go by before Katey came to understand what made for the magic that night. And, today, I still have a pair of those old wooden general admission seats from Parker Field (third base side). Those artifacts were gathered firsthand, 21 years ago, after the last baseball game played at Parker Field.

The first International League game was played in Richmond in 1884 (supposedly, at a ballfield somewhere near Stuart Circle). And, now the 40th season for the R-Braves playing baseball on the Boulevard is about to end.

Who knows? After all the runs, hits and errors, since 1954 maybe there’s a trace of magic still in the air over that baseball park. If history is any help, should the R-Braves pack up and leave they will be replaced. And, I suspect it would happen quickly. The game will go on, one way or another, and each one will surely have a seventh inning stretch.

-- 30 --

No comments: