LORAN SMITH: A spring ball game is the perfect tonic

FEATURES COLUMN: For a Southern boy, Saturday baseball games on the radio was the highlight of the week

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Every spring when baseball training camps are in full swing, I think about the times when I was a farm boy wondering what it might be like to actually lay eyes on a big league baseball player.

What a real bat, what a real baseball looked like? A bat that reflected the burnt logo of the “Louisville Slugger” and a baseball made of horsehide which read, “Spalding.” A boy could dream, especially a country boy who preferred the shade of a pecan tree and a book about Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth over drudging to the cotton patch where the sweat off your brow stunted your imagination. When will the sun ever reach high noon? When we could take a break for our noontime meal which we called dinner? And find an old baseball magazine to read in our spare time which passed by like an asteroid.

I could never imagine making it to a big league game. How could one find his way to New York or Chicago or Boston and see someone hawking peanuts, popcorn and Crackerjack? Crackerjack, available in local grocery stores, became my favorite treat. There was always a prize inside, but with a box of Crackerjack, I could sit and imagine I was at Fenway Park with Ted Williams at bat. That I would someday spend an afternoon with the Splendid Splinter and would see games at Fenway Park never entered my consciousness as a real life circumstance. It was out of the realm of possibility.

Saturday was a highlight of the week in summer. I could listen to baseball on radio on the Mutual Game of the Day with Al Helfer. I can hear his voice resonating now over the small radio which brought us news, weather and the Grand Ole Opry. To me, that little box with sound connecting me with faraway places, was the most important possession we had, even our aging Chevrolet pickup.

I got out a pad and pencil for making notes on what Al Helfer would be saying, long before he would actually sound forth over the air waves. First, I had to endure the Dixie Farm and Home hour and the Saturday morning obituaries — sponsored by the same funeral home which sponsored our church fans which we used on hot Sunday afternoons to confront and stir the heat and shoo away the pesky gnats. (One of the most enriching features to life today is living above the gnat line).

Finally it would be 1:30 p.m., and Al Helfer would reach out to me, which is the personal gratification that radio gave us, in addition to allowing us to develop an imagination. “Good afternoon everybody,” Al would begin. “This is Al Helfer with Art Gleeson bringing you Mutual’s game of the day from sunny Shibe Park in the city of Philadelphia.” Shibe Park, for me, was just this side of the moon. I could see a weathered ball park in my mind’s eye. People thronging inside, a beautiful baseball diamond with sparkling grass on the outfield and a red clay mound with a resin bag lying within arms length.

Here last week with the Phillies hosting the Boston Red Sox, I was taken by a standing-room-only, overflow crowd at Bright House Field. The outfield grass was gleaming in bright sunshine. Every foot of the outfield fence was covered by a billboard and there was a millionaire on every base. Gentle breezes kept the fronds of the Palm trees beyond the outfield fence swaying irregularly but stimulating the emotions. Baseball in the spring is one of the highlights of the year.

Going to the ballpark, hearing the crack of the bat, smelling the hot dogs on the grill. If you are feeling low, a trip to the ballpark in the spring is the best tonic to lift your spirits.

Loran Smith is co-host of “The Tailgate Show” and sideline announcer for Georgia football. He is also a freelance writer and columnist.