Sometimes, I open an e-mail that is so good I have to share it with everyone I know. This is one of them. It is a letter to the Braves from disappointed Rome mom Joni Pittman. I am running this on the Monday op-ed page that I assemble because it made me think about the opportunities to serve as a role model for kids that I may have blown. It’s also a well-written piece. Hats off to Joni.
(And hats off to Brian Jordan.)
Dear Atlanta Braves Baseball Players,
It was my son’s 11th birthday. He wanted to celebrate the occasion by attending an Atlanta Braves baseball game with several of his friends. We purchased eight tickets for our group, a dozen or so rows behind home plate, giving as close of a view to their heroes as allowed by the puppeteers at Ticketmaster.
Arriving early to the stadium, our excited crew headed to the area around the Braves dugout, a location available to fans sitting in our particular section. With stars in their eyes, the boys watched the Players in batting practice, enthusiastically pointing out their favorites, voices becoming increasingly high-pitched in decibels only available to the prepubescent.
These young boys were the only group standing behind the dugout that hot day, waiting patiently for each Player to finish their turn at bat, to complete the drills that would render their arms sufficiently warm. Slowly, after completing the workout process, Players made their way back to the dugout, just a few feet away from the group of eleven year olds struck almost speechless in their adoration. I stood to the side with my camera, ready to capture the very moment a young boy catches the eye of his idol, a mutual recognition between big name Player and small statured fan.
Not a single identity escaped the memories of the boys lined at the back of the dugout. With pure, uninhibited joy, the boys called out the names of each hero as they made their way down the steps leading into the bat-lined abyss that little fellows begin dreaming about the moment that they hold their first peewee glove.
I had my lens perfectly focused, trigger finger ready, waiting for the exchange between Player and boy, hoping for a small wave, but realizing with each passing disregard, that they weren’t going to even offer eye contact. It was a separation of less than five feet, yet not one Atlanta Braves Player acknowledged any of the five boys. Not a single photo was taken as the top of a ducked player’s head does not a memory make.
The field emptied, and the Visiting team took its place. With a sick feeling in my stomach, I looked at the expressions of the disappointed group of boys who regarded each other in disbelief. “They didn’t even look at us,” I overheard one tell another. “And they knew we were there.”
In the 80’s, I grew up watching the Braves play in Atlanta Fulton Stadium. Our family of six often sat in the cheap seats in left field, tickets made instantly exclusive by its close proximity to Chief Noc-A Homa’s tent. As familiar as I was with the names and numbers of each player listed in the program, I became even more so because of the interactions that occurred at the end of each baseball game.
There was an area of the stadium referred to as The Tunnel. At the conclusion of each game, after showers and interviews, the players would walk through the tunnel that connected to the parking lot of their waiting cars. Fans lined the walls, greeting each Player as they made their way among the crowd.
I have vivid memories of those days that momentarily allowed the transition from Player to Person. I remember the boisterous personality of Bob Horner and the reserved one of Phil Niekro. I recall Jerry Royster routinely honking his car horn as he exited the parking lot, causing us all to squeal and clap in appreciation. I remember Dale Murphy talking to my dad, agreeing to an appearance at our elementary school carnival, scribbling his phone number on the white cardboard of a Twinkie wrapper found in the passenger floor of his Chevette. Glenn Hubbard was almost always the last Player to leave, signing baseball cards, church bulletins, and any other scrap of paper given to the beloved second baseman.
I was an ordinary little girl made into an extraordinary fan because the Players took a bit of time for me. A lifelong love of baseball was born in that Tunnel, and I have cheered for the Braves ever since.
Obviously, much has changed.
Frenzied fame and outlandish fortune have catapulted the Player to a plane that has difficulty coinciding with the normal. Times are considerably different, security concerns superseding those that are relational. Pursuit of privacy seemingly more important than appreciation for the public that placed them in said esteemed position.
But, those little boys standing behind the dugout weren’t asking for a personal conversation, or even a coveted autograph. Eager faces with orthodontic smiles hardly a threat to the towering athletes that passed them by. Sadly, because it is a different time, a different day, simple acknowledgement would have been enough for the birthday boy and his buddies.
A few moments after the field had cleared from batting practice, former Braves baseball star Brian Jordan, dressed in attire that suggested a more formal purpose in attendance, glanced in our direction. He may or may not have noticed the disappointment, the silence that had overtaken a typically animated bunch of boys, and walked directly towards our group standing forlornly at the dugout. He greeted each boy with that well-known smile and mischievously asked if any wanted a signed ball, penning a birthday greeting to my 11-year-old son.
That lone signature, that solitary contact was enough for me to exhale deeply, relieved that my son was given a glimpse of what happens when a Player transitions into a Person, when exchanged appreciation for the sport prevails over the desire to be admired from afar. Our little group of boys took the whole experience in innocent stride, enjoying the rest of the baseball game as if the rejection at the dugout had not occurred, because, regrettably, they don’t know any better.
But I do.
And so should all of you.