Fast balls and slow rivers

Published 2:48 pm Tuesday, April 27, 2010

It is so much wider than you first imagine. It lumbers along at what seems like a slow pace until you see how fast a tree-sized log is floating down the muddy water. The cars in the distant bridge are the size of matchboxes although the bridge itself seems large and imposing.

I am sitting directly under the Gateway Arch in St. Louis watching the Mighty Mississippi River roll by. I visit St. Louis fairly often, but am always amazed by the connection at this point of two great wonders, one made by man and one made by nature.

I have been coming to this very spot since 1976 when I attended a concert under the Arch in honor of this country’s 200th birthday. I will never forget the small plane that flew under the Arch to the amazement of the thousands in attendance.

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The Arch stands just as it did that day. Massive at the two bases, it rises gracefully in a seamless band that narrows at the top to a space no wider than a car. How an architect can even think of such a structure, much less engineer and design it to actually work is beyond me.

The river inspires in its own way, a waterway that helped settle half this nation and provided a corridor of commerce that still supports industry from the old industrial belt all the way to New Orleans.

We see barges in our part of the world on the Chattahoochee, though not as often as in the past. From this spot I can count more than 20 of them, anchored and lashed together along the shores awaiting the beginning or end of their trip. In the meantime, the tugboats push barges longer than football fields through the swift current. They ride low or high in the water depending on whether they are empty or full.

As a boy I couldn’t help but see this river and think of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. I learned to read for pleasure as a youngster by either reading books like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or by reading biographies of baseball greats like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and “Stan the Man” Musial.

Tonight I attended the Cardinals baseball game in the new Busch Stadium. It is one of the magnificent new major league ballparks that dot the country. I can even see the huge Hardee’s sign on the top deck of the stadium from my hotel room.

Like other new parks I have visited, Camden Yards in Baltimore, Comiskey Park in Chicago, and our own Turner Field in Atlanta, they have all the attractions that a young boy attending the game could dream of. The only problem is the price makes it almost prohibitive for a family with kids to attend.

It is the older parks that still hold my heart. Fenway Park in Boston, the old Candlestick Park in San Francisco, and my personal favorite, Wrigley Field in Chicago, are not only shrines to the past, but reminders of how the game was once played.

Baseball was my favorite sport growing up. The move by the Milwaukee Braves to Atlanta in 1966 caught the attention of this 12 year old. I listened to every game on my small brown transistor radio, hiding it under the sheets when they were playing on the West Coast so my father would think I was asleep.

Baseball was the first competitive sport that young kids played in Cottonwood. There were two fields, one by the white school and one by the black school. They were both pretty bare by any comparison today, but they were the Yankee Stadiums and Wrigley Fields of our youth.

There were no pitching machines or batting cages. There was no T-ball. It was just playing ball on red clay, practicing to get better so one day we would be good enough to maybe play on a field with real grass in the infield. We threw fastballs and curves, chewed our first tobacco and slapped each other on the rear after a good play.

It is where the white and black boys of my youth learned to get along years before integration. Sports, then like now, were often a bridge for problems we didn’t begin to understand. I just knew that if you were a black boy named Coachman, then I wanted you on my team because every boy in that family could play ball.

We learned to socialize with older and younger kids during the summer league games. We would try to work up the nerve to sit next to one of the girls in the bleachers that had caught our attention. We lived on hot dogs and Coca-Cola.

The strike the major league players had in 1994 and 1995 broke my love for baseball. Prior to that time, Mary Lou, the girls and I would watch more than 100 Braves games a year on television. I haven’t watched that many in all the years since.

Tonight I watched the Cardinals-Brave game in a suite with catered food and drink. There were televisions showing the replays if we got distracted. We remained dry when the expected rain arrived. I didn’t know the name and statistics of every player like I once would have.

Instead of a scoreboard done by hand, the stadium was lit up with digital signs flashing every sort of advertising imaginable. It was almost sensory overload as you tried to take in all the information being displayed before you.

There were some things that caught my eye and took me back in time. The pitcher spitting once, twice and then three times before deciding which pitch to throw. The third baseman making the long throw to first just before each inning started. The seventh-inning stretch letting you think there was still time to win. And the sound of the crowd, always the sound of the crowd.

The Arch is a monument to those that settled the West. Busch Stadium is a monument to Whitey Ford, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Dizzy Dean and others that fueled the dreams of a young boy in Alabama. But sitting here watching this river, I somehow know like the song that long after these monuments are gone and records are forgotten, the Mississippi will just keep rolling, keep on rolling along.