The ballpark of our memories

Randy Riley - Contributing columnist

Baseball is on hold, so television is now playing reruns of famous games — games that were played decades ago. The amazing thing is that people are watching these old games. They sit at home, in their easy chairs, cheering on players who haven’t crossed home plate in many, many years.

The game of baseball is not always about who won or who lost. It is about the strategies, the hitting and bunting and base running. It is more about the beauty of the game. It’s about that summertime “Field of Dreams.”

Most people who were born and raised in southwest Ohio grew up Cincinnati Reds fans. In the 1950s and ’60s, I have precious memories of piling into an old church bus for the ride to Crosley Field. Mom was not a baseball fan. My brother was too young, and my sisters were not interested, so it was usually me and Dad.

We loved that old baseball field. We also loved the time spent together. Sitting in the stands at Crosley Field, my Dad taught me how to keep a scorecard. Every at-bat is recorded on the scorecard.

I asked my Dad why we wanted to do it and his answer was simple, “After a while, a player is going to come up to bat and you are going to ask me what he did the last time he batted. I keep a scorecard, so I’ll know. If you don’t keep a scorecard, you’ll never know. Because I’m not going to tell you.” Then he grinned.

The next thing I knew, Dad was teaching me the art of keeping a scorecard. Soon, we were laughing and comparing notes. The scoring process makes watching a baseball game a lot more fun. I still do it.

The game has changed only slightly over the past 70 years. I grew up cheering for my favorite players, Vada Pinson and Ted Kluszewski. Pinson could cover the entire outfield. Anytime he came to the plate I could just about count on marking him as a base runner on my scorecard.

Big Klu, with his jersey sleeves cut off, could be counted on to hit for power. Often, he did. In 1956, Klu hit three home runs in a single game. Throughout the mid-1950s, he was always one of the league leaders in hits, home runs and runs batted in. Both men played with class.

Then came the years of Pete, Johnny, Joe, Tony, Davey, George and Ken – The Big Red Machine. Everyone was a Cincinnati Reds fan during those years. Everyone loves a winner and the Reds were winners.

We saw many exciting games while eating popcorn, peanuts and Crackerjacks in those old seats in Crosley Field and Riverfront, but the best game I have very seen was played in a small semi-pro field in Chillicothe called the VA Memorial Field. That field is home to the Chillicothe Paints. The Paints are a member of the collegiate “wood bat” league, also known as the Prospect League.

Several years ago, the Wilmington Elks Lodge #797 was looking for a fun outing for their members. We talked about going to Cincinnati to watch the Reds play or the Fifth-Third Field in Dayton to take in a Dayton Dragons game. I didn’t care where we went. I just wanted to go to a good ballgame.

Someone looked into the Chillicothe Paints. We found that $25 would pay our admission to the game, as well as a buffet meal and the round-trip bus ride. We could not resist. We booked our evening in Chillicothe.

The VA Field is a wonderful, intimate ballpark. We found some picnic tables along the third base line. We were close enough to the field that we could chat with the third baseman during lulls in the game. He was a very nice young man. It was obvious that he wasn’t playing for the money. He just loved to play baseball.

It was exciting and fun. The lead switched almost every inning. The score stayed tight. At the end of each inning the score was either tied or there might be a one-run lead. Both teams played with spirit and heart.

As the sun went down, the sky darkened far too quickly. A storm was rolling in. In the distance, thunder could be heard. The Paints were up by one, but in the top of the ninth inning, the visiting team scored two runs.

They now led by one. If they could hold the Paints scoreless, they would win.

Just as it started to sprinkle, the Paints stepped up to bat. The first batter grounded out. The second batter hit a long drive into dead center. The center fielder made a great catch. Two pitches; two outs. The third batter got a single. He really had to hustle. The fourth player to bat was our friendly third baseman.

The first two pitches were balls. The next pitch looked low, but was called a strike. This pitch was followed by a heater right down the middle. The next pitch hit just in front of the plate. Full count.

The runner on first base was ready to start running on the next pitch. The fans were all standing. The pitch came in right over the plate. A loud crack was heard as the bat crushed the ball.

The ball flew high and long. Just as the ball was about to clear the centerfield fence, a crack of lightning lit up the rainy night sky. It was like a scene from the baseball movie, “The Natural.”

Our third baseman rounded the bases with his hands raised in victory.

Despite the soaking rain, we all stood and cheered.

OK, I’ll be honest. I don’t really remember everything that happened in that last inning, but the Paints did win on that lightning-boosted home run.

That is part of the magic of baseball. You don’t have to remember every play to thoroughly enjoy the game.

I do miss baseball, but, on the bright side, I am proud that I got through this entire column without mentioning the coronavirus.

Stay home and stay safe. We’ll get the ballpark soon.

Randy Riley is former Mayor of Wilmington and former Clinton County Commissioner.

Randy Riley

Contributing columnist