Jilted Lover (Damn Braves)

As I stood shaking with bitter tears on the pitchers' mound at Memorial Stadium late that October evening, I had no realization of the crossroads I was teetering on. How could I have known my childhood was ending with the first great disappointment at the advent of my adult life? It was the beginning of reality and the end of fantasy, a lesson I will never forget.

Where I was standing, Cy Young slingers had earned their merits. Yet, one of the last tosses here was thrown by Ellie Hendricks. I didn't even know you could put in a pitching coach. Desperation creates strange circumstances. How could this have happened? I thought '69 was the worst it could get, but this World Series had given me a new perspective on the stark actuality of loss.

Baltimore was over an hour from home and my father did not speak on the return trip. My brother and I were recounting the rout in disbelief. We cursed the NL rules that had kept Lee May from batting. In later years, I came to know this was the second time baseball had broken my father's heart. He was born in Brooklyn during the Depression. Growing up playing stick-ball in the streets, he and his friends collected metal scraps to sell to pay for uniforms and field space. Baseball was the great love of his childhood, too.

He grew up watching Branch Rickey and company at Ebbets Field. He was there for Jackie Robinson. Even though the players were gods to him as a boy, he told us they were also more like regular people back then. You would stand holding the same pole on the subway with them. In New York, the subway was an amusement park ride taking you to the Polo Grounds for Mel Ott's Giants or to see DiMaggio at Yankee Stadium.

I was born in Maryland in 1966 at the dawn of the golden age of the Orioles. The 'birds' made my father fall in love with baseball again after his great losses in '57 over Campanella and the relocation to LA. We won’t mention the wrecking ball at Ebbets. He took us to see our Robinson's, Frank and Brooks, though Frank was a coach by the time I could remember going. Being an accountant, he taught me to keep the box-score with special added places on the side of the page for pitching stats. He taught us to have the same reverence during the game as we would in church, paying attention to each pitch and recording the unfolding story of the game.

If we couldn't go to a game, we listened to Chuck O'Donnell commentate. Dad taught us how to play and our yard became the neighborhood diamond. Even though I was as good as the boys, they didn't allow girls in the Little League back then. I played with them during the week and got to work in the tiny two-story building with Dad, throwing the switches for the balls and strikes lights. It was a magical time.

Then came the '79 season. We put our whole lives into the Orioles. Now that I'm a parent, I have a new appreciation for what my father did. He paid for box seats behind third base for the three of us. We saw at least 20 regular season games, all of the playoffs, and, of course, the World Series. My brother had a scrapbook with newspaper clippings from every game, recordings of radio shows, and we knew the stats so well we would quiz each other.

It was hard to choose a favorite on that '79 roster. Being a first baseman, I idolized Eddie Murray, but was equally enamored of two-time Cy Young winner, Mike Flanagan. There were so many more: the immortal Jim Palmer, the other starters Dennis Martinez, Steve Stone, and Scotty MacGregor as well as the relievers who we nicknamed the 'ST'avers (Stanhouse, Stewart and Stoddard) Tippy was in a class by himself.

What a clown we had in Rick Dempsey. Once during a rain delay, he did a slip-and-slide around the bases on the tarp much to the field crew's chagrin. Remember the phenomenal fielding of Mark Belanger, who was so good, he started even though he was an awful batter? And, he was surrounded by Doug DeCinces, Rich Dauer, and Kiko Garcia. In the outfield we had legs and hitting with Al Bumbry, Ken Singleton, Benny Ayala, and all the rest. Speaking of hitting, on the backyard diamond, kids waved their bats frantically, saying, " Look at me. I'm Lee May."

I need to start a new paragraph for this guy. I probably only saw him half the time because he was always getting tossed, but we loved his defense for his team with the fervor of zealots. Will there really ever be another manager like Earl Weaver? But, I digress.

How could they lose after being three games to one? Well, they did. I was like a jilted lover; couldn't speak of baseball for a while afterwards. Didn't have to worry about discussing it, as my brother went off to join the Air Force. Going off to high school, I put down my mitt and chose tennis. The last I remember of the golden age of the O's, I was on a school van as a freshman in junior college keeping stats for our soccer team. It was the Fall of 1983 and everyone was hooting and hollering for the victory over Philadelphia in the World Series. I tallied the defensive and offensive assists quietly up front in the passenger seat, the walls of my heart solidly shut to baseball.

My estrangement furthered with the free-agent movement, strikes, doping and all the other myriad reasons why I continued to fall out of love with professional sports. The players were not role models to me anymore and the people up in the office were worse. Being a fan in the AL East, I never liked the Yankees, and it seemed they were taking over again with their budget. I understood why the free agent thing had to happen, but the continuity of the 'home-town' team was gone. It was all about money and stars, not teams in my opinion. Once the drug scandals happened, I failed to believe in stats as well.

After college, I moved to the mountains of western North Carolina and became an outdoor athlete, living reclusively and teaching whitewater, rock-climbing and backpacking off the grid. Even when we lived with electricity, cable TV was anathema as our group was busy being extreme outside. TV was for renting movies. Cell phones and internet had not yet become pervasive. Our world was rock, water, and trees.

However, everything morphed with the arrival of parenthood. When you raise offspring, your own childhood rears its head whether you want it to or not. My little buddy had excellent hand-eye coordination, so we bought her a tiny pink mitt. My husband had been a catcher growing up, so the three of us made up catching and throwing games. At 8, she was the only girl in the Parks and Rec league, but a grand hitter and fielder.

We were good baseball parents, hardly missing a practice or a game. O.K., I wasn't always good. I was raised by Earl Weaver, so, when the umpire accidentally gave the opposing team four outs one inning, I behaved so poorly I had to write a letter of apology. Look up Mike Flanagan's controversial balk call and Weaver's ejection thereafter for reference. Astroturf really ruins the whole dirt-kicking thing though. Baseball had inadvertently crept back in, but I still had no team. She moved on to other interests and my heart remained safely walled off.

I held out against cable TV as long as I could, but when my daughter hit teen-hood, I caved. How strange it was to watch sporting events on that glowing box again. After missing thirty plus years, I felt like Rip Van Winkle. Players had come into the game, had entire careers and retired. A deer at the edge of the meadow, I refused to pay for MLB, so I was relegated to whatever games were available in my area. The only team we could see on a regular basis was the Atlanta Braves. The AL snobbery I still possessed kept my door shut to them.

In September, we could watch all of the playoff games. Like Easter-Christmas church-goers, we were those fair-weather fans jumping on the bandwagon of whichever team was the underdog. Cleveland and Houston piqued my interest as they reminded me of old teams who were cohesive, fun-loving and sportsman-like, but I still refused to get emotionally involved.

Now that we are caught up to the present season, I must confess the wall has been breached. I'm in again with the Braves. What got me? Freeman's winning smile and gentleman-like behavior, as well as his star-quality stats, Culberson's attitude and abilities to play literally any of the nine positions upon request as well as riding the bench, the 'hometown team' players like Swanson and McCann, the jocularity of Acuna and Albies, the stolid work ethic and performance of vets like Markakis and Donaldson. Why, there's even pitching available in the young and old with Soroka, Fried, Teheran, Kiechle and Tomlin, and a bullpen to back them all up.

Who is responsible for this old-school group? He might be the polar opposite of Earl Weaver, but Snitker is a throw-back to my childhood in his managerial methods. When the camera pans to him, it shows his calm and patient demeanor in the face of so many stressful situations. It is obvious he is more interested in his players development than numbers, money, or keeping his job. And, Washington on third reminds me of Cal Ripken Sr. I am even embracing the NL strategy of no DH. To be honest, it makes for more interesting decisions when the pitcher bats.

Now, I find myself wondering over morning coffee, Who are they playing tonight? My husband and I text each other to discuss what happened in the previous game. He has to talk me off the ledge after the sixth inning with assurances they will deliver in the last third. And they do. My heart pounded when Enciarte hit the wall in his first game returning from the DL. I was so worried about his back. They may or may not win the last game of the season in October, but they have opened the door of my heart and let the light of baseball flood back in. Who am I? A baseball fan again thanks to those 'Damn Braves'.

Mar Startari

July 26, 2019

Maria Startari-Stegall