By TIM BARTO
It’s mid-October and I should be watching postseason baseball, and I would be if Major League Baseball had not aligned itself with protesters and All-Star Game boycotts, and ruined my 50-year obsession.
But I still have wonderful memories of the early 1970s, a time just before I discovered girls, when innocence ruled my life and baseball was about base hits, batting averages, and double plays. In those days, many big league ballplayers still worked odd jobs during the Winter months, and baseball cards were ten cents a pack and came with a stick of pink bubble gum that was full of sugar and so hard it sometimes cracked our sugar-laden teeth when we bit into it.
At 10 years old in 1972, I — as a good, red-blooded American boy — followed baseball religiously. Only two years prior, my big brother, Rick, taught me how to read box scores and The Standings, and I was astonished to learn that big league ballplayers actually got paid real money to play the game.
The September 1970 edition of Sport magazine had Johnny Bench on the cover, asking if he would be baseball’s first $200,000 player. For perspective: the minimum Major League salary in 2021 is $570,000, and the average salary is over $4 million.
But enough about the money part of the game. It’s the romance of it all that takes me back – back to Oct. 18, 1972.
My Ol’ Man had an accounts receivables business in San Jose, California, the heart of what is now Silicon Valley. As a business investment, he purchased two World Series tickets for each of the three home games in Oakland, as the A’s – that “other team” across the bay from San Francisco – had won the American League championship. The tickets were in the third deck, but they were smack dab behind home plate, and they made pretty nice perks for his business clients.
My Dad was going to take my brother Rick to Game Three, the first game in Oakland after the first two games were played in the National League city . . . which happened to be Cincinnati.
Yep, my beloved Reds won the National League championship that year behind the leadership of Johnny Bench, who’d won his second MVP award in two years. There are few things in the world I would have gladly given to attend that game, including various limbs, organs, and appendages.
But I was only 10. Rick was 17 and a senior in high school. The tickets for the other two games would be used for business clients. I would have to be content with telling my friends that my Dad and brother went to the World Series. All in all, pretty good bragging rights, but it wasn’t an invitation to the big dance.
On Oct. 17, Rick and Dad drove up to Oakland to watch Game Three in person, and I would scan the TV screen to see if I could spot them in the crowd. Unfortunately, it rained that day, rained so hard that the game was postponed. Rick and Dad would have to drive back up to Oakland the next night to see the re-scheduled game.
There I was, sitting in my fifth grade classroom on Oct. 18 when my teacher received a message that I was to go to the office. My face flushed and my innards turned to ice as I scanned my memory banks for something I’d done that would get me sent to the office. Having been pretty well behaved of late, I was unable to come up with anything, so I was fully prepared to mount a defense of false incrimination against whatever crime I was being accused of.
As I walked into the office, I saw my Dad standing there. Oh, no, they called in the Ol’ Man. This was serious.
Sensing my dread, the school secretary smiled at me as my Dad was saying goodbye to the Principal. What was going on? A sense of confusion overcame my sense of dread.
Dad turned towards me. “How would you like to go to the World Series, Tim?” he asked.
My mouth opened but I had trouble finding my voice. Was that a serious question? “Really? Where’s Rick?” I finally managed to ask.
“He has a varsity basketball game tonight, so he can’t go the game,” Dad said with a smile. He had my tattered PROPERTY OF CINCINNATI REDS T-shirt, my red satin jacket with the white C on the chest, and my plastic Reds batting helmet with him. This was real. “Come one, we gotta’ get going. Game starts at five and traffic will be horrible.”
As we left the office, the always stoic secretary smiled for a second time in two minutes, the first such smiles any student at John Muir Elementary School had ever witnessed.
I was going to the World Series. With my Dad. To see my favorite team.
Inside the car, my Dad handed me a ticket, an actual World Series ticket: Section 318, Row 7, Seat 10. Price? Ten bucks. I taped it to my wall when I got home, and I have it to this day.
Game Three is best known for MVP Bench taking a called third strike after the A’s catcher initially called for a pitchout, but what I remembered most was watching Tony Perez rounding third with what would be the only run of the game, and slipping on the rain-soaked grass.
He got up and made it home, but that scenario a recurrent nightmare for many of us who follow the game: falling down while headed towards home and struggling to get up and make it to the plate. But Tony did make it home and the Reds won, salvaging the Series after losing the first two games in Cincy.
Dad is 93 years old now and his mind is wandering. Two months ago I visited him and Mom in California. Memories come and go with him, and he often asks what day it is or how it’s going in the Marines (I honorably discharged in 1990), but when I mentioned baseball and going to the World Series with him, he perked up, smiled, nodded, and remembered.
And that, my friends, is part of the reason that baseball is so dear to me. It’s full of great memories and bonding, and no matter what MLB does I will always have that part of the game.
Tim Barto is Vice President of Alaska Policy Forum, President of the Chugiak-Eagle River Chinooks Boosters, and late at night often recalls the greatest day of a ten-year-old boy’s life.