From the project itself right down to my presentation, I was so proud of the Barry Bonds shoebox mural I made back in the fourth grade.
Maybe it was the spare baseball cards that I didn’t mind gluing inside, or maybe it was the ramblings of a kid who wanted everyone in the room to care, but the shoebox mural presentation day was a proud moment in my young life.
When I first latched onto baseball, Barry Bonds was my hero, and the athlete that sparked my interest in the sport regardless of the team allegiances that my father (like all good fathers do) tried to saddle upon me. Whether it was his slow-walking swagger after hitting a no-brainer home run, or the catches he made in left field that channeled his godfather Willie Mays, it was Bonds that started my love affair with baseball, and by extension, sports culture as a whole.
But one afternoon would change all that.
Throughout his professional travels, my father made friends across America, including former San Francisco Giants play-by-play announcer Ted Robinson. On a beautiful summer day in 1994, the Giants were traveling to Cincinnati (where I lived at the time) to play the Reds in a regular season game, and Robinson had landed my dad four free tickets. Now the opportunity to see Bonds in person for the first time was enough cause for excitement, but the fact that we would meet with Robinson before the game began would be the moment of destiny that I awaited since my fourth grade shoebox mural, at least in theory.
“Is there a player that you want an autograph from big guy?” Robinson asked me. “I usually do interviews with the players after the game, I’m sure I can make it happen for you.”
Fumbling in my back pocket, I found it: A plastic-framed 1994 Upper Deck MVP baseball card that captured Bonds in mid-stare down with a ball almost assuredly sailing over a helpless outfielder’s head. And as I stretched my arm out with card-in-hand, I watched Robinson’s smile fade just before he gave me the earth-shattering news.
“I’m sorry son,” said Robinson as he delivered a line that I’m sure he relayed to countless heartbroken young baseball fans before me. “But Mr. Bonds doesn’t do autographs. How about an autograph from Will Clark or Matt Williams instead?”
I didn’t cry, I didn’t throw a temper tantrum (I saved the tantrums for years later apparently), and I didn’t grow up to become a serial killer. But from that day forth, the ballpark hot dogs my chubby self loved lost their flavor, the bleacher chairs suddenly became uncomfortable, and the sport of baseball itself became a chore to watch. Though moments of elation would spring up in fits and spurts as the years progressed, the magic that drew me to the sport in the first place had a big, ugly stain on it that wouldn’t wash off.
Suffice to say, I never made another shoebox mural again.
Though the real-life drama, storylines and flat-out power of professional sports have never lost their appeal, I’ve always questioned the motivations of the players suiting up every day since my autograph request was turned down. Is the love of the game still there, or has it been replaced by the love of money and Gatorade commercials? Are you hopping up and down after a game-winning home run for the sheer joy of it, or because you hit a salary bonus in your long-term contract? How are we as fans supposed to tell?
Which leads me to my time in Scotland County. Perhaps it’s my utter lack of cable television, or the fact that baseball and softball were in full swing when I first started at the Laurinburg Exchange, but a peculiar change has come over me. A change that’s happened because of the moments I’ve shared with the residents here.
I laughed when former Fighting Scots’ right fielder Kyle Ricard drowned out everyone else on the field as he cheered teammates on from the dugout. I discovered the fandom at the heart of Scotland County when local fans made hour-plus commutes to away games and asked about possible coverage in the sports pages.
And most recently, I attended two Dixie Youth league games and watched as parents cheered on their kids regardless if they made a big hit or a throwing error. Suddenly, I was transported back to when I was a seven year old third baseman standing in the batter’s box about to face Drew Spaeth, the most feared pitcher in Mason, Ohio. I heard a “let’s go Jason, crush this freakin’ guy!” emanate from the stands, and I saw my grandfather with his hands cupped around his mouth cheering his head off. He maybe came to a handful of games throughout my entire time playing, but on this day, he saw me take a second pitch fastball to deep center field and rumble my big-boned body around the bases for a stand-up double. It should have been a home run, but us Italians were never fast runners.
We lost the game, but that memory lasted a lifetime. And as I glance back on my still-fresh residence here in Scotland County, it’s those type of memories that I prefer reminiscing about versus the pain of discovering your childhood hero to be undeserving of such an honor.
Take that Barry Bonds.
With that being said: If you haven’t found the time to attend an Optimist Club or Dixie Youth baseball/softball game, do yourself a favor and change that. Watch as future athletes, doctors and lawyers create lasting memories, and reminisce about the memories that fueled you to become a lifelong sports fan.
But if nothing else, keep reading the Laurinburg Exchange for continuous coverage of the youth baseball summer days ahead. Because once the games stop, these are the summer days that will linger for a lifetime afterward.