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Baseball opening day: A rite of passage

July 02, 2020 - 06:00
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  • Baseball opening day: A rite of passage
    Baseball opening day: A rite of passage

School was in session as kids greatly anticipated the upcoming summer months. Especially the kids in Atlanta. After all, a new baseball team had moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta and there was a new, big stadium in downtown Atlanta.

They called it the Atlanta Stadium. For what seemed like an eternity, we had all been saving our nickels and dimes and the occasional quarter, hoping to save enough money to buy our 50 cent ticket to sit in the upper deck of this huge place with enough left over to buy a carton of popcorn shaped like a megaphone complete with the image of the team’s mascot, Chief Noc-A-Homa emblazoned in red, white and blue on the side.

Man, we were fired up. I was 9 years old and already playing recreation department Little League baseball at the field behind Kathleen Mitchell Elementary School in College Park. It was a dusty old field but we were awfully proud of it. I played for the Rams that year and had to wear No. 15. Had to.

That was the number of my favorite player on the Braves, Joe Torre.

He was the Braves catcher, and of course, that just so happened to be my position so wearing that number during the summer was going to lead to the “bigs” someday. I couldn’t wait to hit my first homer and have Chief Noc-A-Homa come out of his teepee in left field with smoke pouring out from the inside and Chief doing a war dance around his teepee to celebrate the wonderment of it all.

But that would have to wait a few years. Today was April 13, 1966, and it was Opening Day for the Braves as the Pittsburgh Pirates and Roberto Clemente were coming into town.

My grandfather, Rodgers Hardegree, was coming to take me to the game clad in my Braves uniform get-up with that big No. 15 covering my back. I was so proud to be standing there waiting on Papa to pull into our driveway on Northwest Drive in Newton Estates, hoping every kid in the neighborhood would see me in my uniform.

Especially cute little Melissa Raspberry from across the street. Funny how a girl’s last name can directly impact and robustly affect your standing among the guys when you’re only 9. Much more on that later. Much more.

This was opening day. I had much more important things on my mind besides some girl. I wasn’t even sure she didn’t have cooties.

Papa arrived and had the biggest surprise for his young aspiring home run hitter: box seats behind the Braves dugout. Yep. No nose bleed seats on this day. The stadium was awesome and painted in a light blue shade. I had my trusty catcher’s mitt in tow and ready for any screeching foul ball that came my way.

A souvenir vendor walked by and my grandfather bought me a souvenir baseball with Chief Noc-A-Homa proudly etched on the fat part of the ball. I noticed some kids hanging around the side of the dugout and had to inquire about their presence.

Papa explained the phenomena of autographs and suggested I go down and try and get one. Of course, I thought, who wouldn’t want the signature of opening day starting pitcher Tony Cloniger.

It got better. Easing my way through the wad of kids hollering and screaming at players, I noticed this young man signing an autograph for this kid and nobody else was around them so I made my break. I got to the railing and the first thing I noticed were the red colors on the front of his jersey specifying him as player No. 44. Who?

It didn’t take me long to hear Papa’s story of this kid. Said his name was Hank Aaron and he was the future of the Atlanta Braves. History has remembered his name longer than I would have imagined on that day when Hank Aaron said hello and gladly signed my baseball.

I don’t know whatever happened to that old ball but the memory from that day and that moment with the greatest home run hitter of all time kindled the spirit in the Braves’ newfound fan for life and to this day, I can still see Hank flashing a big smile as he was more than happy to make another kid smile.

Thanks Hank. It was April 13, 1966. It was the Atlanta Braves Opening Day. And I was there. With my grandfather. It don’t get any better than that. The popcorn was good, too.

And the cardboard megaphone got a lot of mileage echoing the sound of my haunting voice in the ear of my little brother.

I was the older brother. I was obligated by kid law to harass him whenever the chance popped up.

It’s funny how the simplest pleasures in life like going to a baseball game can turn out to be one of the biggest moments in a man’s life. Just like writing this column every week.

This is Got a minute. I’m out.