He loved to reminisce, and we loved to listen. For all his amusing anecdotes and tales of 20th-century living, there was one aspect that we were most fascinated with, one thing that seemed to be the heart of his America.
He'd tell us about the game, about the boys of summer, about the excitement, competition, kinship and spirit that one season would bring to the country. He told us of the bleacher bums in Chicago, the hopeless Cleveland Indians, the dominant Oakland Athletics of the '80s and New York Mets of the '90s. He told us about Boston's curse of the Bambino, Nolan Ryan's incredible fastball, Ozzie Smith's unparalleled fielding.
"Whatever happened to baseball, Grandpa?" I asked from his bony knee.
With this question we could see a wistful gaze in his eye and hear sad memories in his voice. "Today's sports just phased it out," he said. "The other great American sport of the day, football, has developed into combat football. Old football had been popular because people loved violence and the NFL was the closest thing they had. Except, of course, the six o'clock news."
He chuckled at his little joke; being brought up in the 21st century, I didn't get it. He continued, "Now that we have auto-duelling, football had to become more barbaric to remain competitive. But baseball was loved for its art, not its excitement.
He paused to relight. "After the Short War, with the emergence of blood sports, the wick of baseball's popularity was blown out. There are still some semi-pro teams scattered about, but I don't think it will ever regain the popularity it once held."
We children looked at each other. We all felt the same sense of loss. I spoke the group's sentiment when I said, "Grandpa, I want to play baseball."
The old man smiled. "In your father's basement" he said, "is some equipment that I used when I was your age. You boys could dig it out so I could teach you."
When we returned to the porch with bats, mitts, and helmets, Grandpa had a blue plastic binder in his hands. "Come here," he motioned. "Look here, look at these." Insider the binder were transparent plastic sheets containing what looked like combat football trading cards. "These," he said, "are baseball cards. They were a billion-dollar business 50 years ago." He flipped through the pages, found one with a bulky, curly-haired black dude powerfully hefting a bat. "This is an Eddie Murray rookie card," he said. "He was a great player, with the Baltimore Orioles, Los Angeles Dodgers, and '90s vintage Mets. He could do anything: hit for average, hit for power, field, steal bases. I bought this card for 50 dollars, not just because I knew his card prices would soar. The reason I shelled out 50 bucks for a piece of cardboard was that I loved to watch Murray play, loved to read about his misadventures on the sports page, not expecting a return."
He closed the binder. "You coming?" he shouted, trotting toward his van. We rushed to catch up.
"Where are we gonna play, Grandpa?" I asked.
He smiled. "You'll see."
Grandpa taught us the rules for an hour, then let us practice batting for another hour. We weren't too good; even our middle school's combat football star, David Walker, didn't get a hit out of the infield. I had only two weak fouls in about 30 swings.
We were a little better at fielding. David said it was like catching a football. We fielded for 30 minutes, then batted again. We kept swinging until it grew dark and we had to return home.
But we were hooked. We made Grandpa take us back the next day. We must have played for six hours, and Grandpa just sat on the sidelines with a huge grin on his face, like he'd grown 30 years younger. When we were about to leave when he asked, "Do you wanna see Grandpa hit, or what?"
That sounded good. "Throw it over the middle of the plate, nice and easy," he commanded, waving his bat to and fro like a slithering serpent. Dave complied, and Grandpa smacked it. We expected it to plummet after about 50 feet like all of ours, but no. His hit kept soaring, refused to drop, floated into the seats.
We gaped at his power, and he smiled nonchalantly. "Someday you'll all hit like that," he said, although we didn't believe him.
Soon we took up four vehicles. But the more the merrier, and we improved steadily. In a month we were regularly hitting 200-foot drives and making diving catches.
Dave Walker even blasted one out to the warning track. My brother Herbert ran his heart out, dove, and caught it about six inches before it dropped. Everyone applauded both performances.
On the last day of summer, the cataclysmic day before school began, Grandpa announced that we were going to play an actual nine-inning game. He named Dave Walker and my oldest brother Jan as the team captains.
Dave picked Herb first, remembering the catch he'd made. Next one picked was Robert Usborne, a tough older kid who claimed he'd been a gang member back in L.A.
I was picked dead last, by Dave. He listed me as a relief pitcher on the lineup card.
I began the game in what had once been the Atlanta Braves' dugout, sat there until the bottom of the third. When starting pitcher Steve West complained of a sore arm, Dave promptly elected me as bullpen catcher. I was honoured, although in retrospect I wonder why.
We won the game, 26-23. One highlight was Dave blasting his first homer. There was a small party at home plate afterward. Everyone was pleased that he'd developed so nicely.
Yes, baseball does bring people closer.
Next summer we had regular competitions, four teams each playing 40 games. I was Dave's bullpen catcher again. Our team won the championship with relative ease, finishing six games in front of Jan's. Dave won the home run crown by blasting four, Steve West won the ERA title with a not-so-glittering 5.25, also leading the league in strikeouts (57), innings pitched (60) and complete games (3). Herb, another teammate, led in stolen bases with 53.
When I began high school, Grandpa discussed with administrators the possibility of starting a school ball team. Surprisingly, they agreed, and in early March 2030, I found myself taking batting tryouts at the ball field that our gang's parents built near the campus. It was beautiful, with evenly trimmed grass and clearly marked baselines. The bases were sparkling white. The fences, 275 feet from home plate at the nearest point, were sturdy chain link.
Steve West, a cinch to make the team, pitched tryouts. When I batted, the first pitch whizzed across my belt line for a strike. Second one, shoulder-lever strike. Third pitch. I swung early on a change-up for strike three.
I didn't make the team.
It was depressing: two years ago the game had been my idea, and now I couldn't even make a team that I helped start.
Grandpa looked a bit offended. "Tell him no," he said sternly.
Whenever Grandpa gets stern, there's no point in arguing. I slunk back upstairs, said politely to the coach, "No, thank you. I just don't have time, with homework and all."
"Yeah, I understand," the coach lied. If I didn't have time, why did I try out in the first place?
I asked Grandpa why he refused. "Do you want to be an honorary manager all your life, George? If you let 'em stick you with that now, they'll assume it's your place. If you practice hard and try out again next year, you might make it as a player, not as "honorary manager."
"But there's nobody to practice with!" was my only argument.
Grandpa puffed his pipe. "There's always me," he offered.
So Grandpa trained me personally. and that summer I played as a platoon center fielder. Grandpa's training had made me an excellent fielder, but my hitting was still a bit deficient. I got the plate 43 times, taking 15 bases on balls and otherwise batting .214.
As a sophomore I made the school team as a reserve outfielder, hitting .257 with three doubles. That summer I knocked my first homer as Dave's starting left fielder. My junior year they split our team into Varsity and Junior Varsity, and I became a JV starter.
Even though Jan had already graduated, he still played our summer league. That summer he became friends with a fat guy named Roach Harrison, who owned a local arena. He persuaded Roach to let us play an exhibition game before one of his Friday night mayhems.
I stared at the gathering crowd. One of the grandstands was already packed, and I could see fans lounging with plastic cups in their hands. Way off to the side there was a vendor with a large sign proclaiming Real Brew, $1.50 per cup.
Beyond the grandstands I could see beautiful specks of city light. It was so much like I imagined the good days.
I was snapped from my reverie by Steve patting my back. "Good luck, Bud" he said. "Make some nice snags for me."
The announcer called us to the field. He explained baseball to the crowd for five minutes while we took warm-ups. The he intoned, "The first team to bat will be David Walker's Storm Giants. Leading off is Herbert Russell, #49."
The crowd cheered half-heartedly, not knowing what to expect. Herb was batting against Rock Harper, a fast pitcher. He grounded Rock's first pitch into the outfield for a single.
"Batting second," the announcer said, "is #20, Jake Burton." The crown cheered even less enthusiastically now, more like quarter-heartedly, When Herb stole second, they didn't bother to react. Jake hit a high pop-up that Jan caught at the edge of the infield.
When the announcer said that third baseman Ken Evans was due up next, one member of the audience took off the kid gloves and jumped to the point. "We don't want this pussy stuff!" he screamed. "We came for the duels!"
After Ken struck out on a slider, more fans joined the jeering. Our nadir came when Dave hit a long fly that left fielder Robert Usborne handled. The whole crowd began to spite up then, screaming about what they'd do to us "pretty boys" and that they wanted a real man's sport.
When the Storm Giants took the field, the impetuous crowd started throwing things. First a tomato splattered on the pitching mound, then a well-placed egg scored an ace on Dave's head.
Both teams retreated to the pits for refuge...
But Jan, the brains of the bunch, had a different opinion. "Baseball is such a beautiful game, there have to be people who love it somewhere. Besides ...I have an idea."
Jack Eldridge, a teammate, was injured in practice and couldn't start the season. We were lucky: other teams were reporting lots more losses. Dave lost Steve West, but as competition increased we became less sympathetic to our rivals' woes.
After a month of practice, league commissioner Jan announced that we would begin play, and said we had an arena booking in two weeks. The management was so excited about our hot new idea that they even promised five innings of play.
All around town I saw Upton Duel Arena signs, hyping our debut. At home one night I found a Channel 12 news van parked in the drive.
I opened the front door, skipped to the kitchen, saw a short, squeamish reporter talking to my brothers. Surprisingly, Grandpa was not there.
The reporter asked a whole passel of questions. We explained the sport's history, the summer of 2028 when Grandpa taught us to play, how we got baseball instituted in Atlanta High School #5.
That night we had an eight-minute TV spot.
Our teams took the field, clad in body armor. The announcer briefly explained the rules, then screamed, "Here it is folks, the moment you've all been waiting for, the first ever game of Combat Baseball!!!" The crowd went wild. We batted first, Herb leading off. Dave's starting pitcher was Rock Harper, who'd developed into a side-armer.
His first pitch came in knee-high. Plate umpire Matt Gibson shouted "Steerike!" and the crowd cheered like mad. The next pitch was also knee-high, and again Herb let it go. Third pitch was at the same level, but this time Herb swung vertically to undercut the ball, popped it up a mile.
Catcher Henry Gault chased the fly, keeping his eye on it. Herb went after Hank with his baseball bat, trying to avoid an out. But Hank would have none of it, drawing his nightstick for defense. The catcher pulled a dirty trick, swung his stick underhand and pulled it up at 90 degrees between Herb's legs. It whacked Herb's cup, knocked him to the ground in a squirming fetal position. Hank caught the ball.
Next up was first baseman Jake Burton. He shot off a line drive to center and decided to go for two bases. But the center fielder let off his throw to second baseman Ronnie Tritan before Jake could slide. Jake drew his nightstick, to evade Ronnie at any cost. Ron didn't draw a weapon, just lowered his head and charged. Jake walloped him a couple of times, but Ronnie tagged Jake. Our second out, and the crown was bordering on hysteria. "How 'bout that Combat Baseball?" The announcer was milking the violence for all it was worth.
In the course of the game Ken Evans broke his arm on a close play at third, and I don't think the crowd was trying to be mean when they cheered. When the game was over we received a standing ovation.
That winter, we announced on BGN, ESPN, and KILL (the West Coast's link to blood sports) that we'd be starting a national professional Combat Baseball league, with a contact number. We mentioned that anyone interested in starting their own team could make a sizeable profit.
Our league became a ten-team operation, television contracts sold to the highest bidders. It seems our sport was generally regarded as a future success, as BGN and CBS bought rights for $5 million apiece. Hasbro bought merchandising rights for $1.05 million; Topps, Score, and Donruss bought card rights for $2.6 million apiece.
Teams were quartered in Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Montreal, New York, Ontario, San Francisco, and Seattle. Jan was Atlanta's principal owner, building the ballpark with his share of outside money and local sponsorships.
The first professional Combat Baseball season began that summer, April through October, with each team playing two games per week (for a total of 56). Ancient Candlestick Park even got revamped for San Francisco.
The season was spectacular, each team reporting over $10 million in profits. Both World Series teams made over $15 million. I was happy for two reasons: that people liked the game, and that our Atlanta team won the Series. Jan put me in center, and somehow also landed Steve West, Rock Harper, Ken Evans and Henry Gault. We won 45 of our 56 contests.
Steve led the league in ERA with 2.74, strikeouts with 142, complete games with 5 and victories with 13. Ken came in second to Dave in homers with 26. I also had a good year, hitting .348. I went 7 for 13 with 2 horners in the Series, and to my utter glee, found people asking for autographs that winter.
Combat Baseball reached #3 in TV ratings, behind autoduelling and private wars, but ahead of ob-racing and combat football. The Wiser Guide to Sports Programming predicted we'd be #2 within two years.
We walked into the great old building, peered at the classic items within. We viewed Ozzie Smith's first glove, a Honus Wagner card, one of Babe Ruth's bats, the ball that Roger Maris hit for his 61st homer in 1961. The Hall was adorned by mementos of Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens, Ken Griffey, Jr., Pete Rose and 5 Cobb.
I approached the clerk. He had thinning white hair and wore bifocals that made his eyes appear both monstrously huge and infinitesimally small at the same time. His wrinkled, yellowing skin suggested that he himself was a remnant - a remnant guarding other remnants of a forgotten era. Protecting old mementos that nobody really cared about anymore.
"Why isn't there anything about Combat Baseball in here?" I asked.
"They are totally different sports," the ancient clerk said. I thought he'd say something else, but I had to prompt him to make him explain further.
"I love baseball's competition. The pitcher and batter always try to get the edge over each other, fielders anticipate plays, managers steal signs." His voice was quiet, but I could tell he was getting angry. Not angry at me - angry at the idea of Combat Baseball. "Combat Baseball is nothing but violence. It's a snot-nosed brat that's bastardized everything good about its mother."
"Can't blame him." Grandpa said. "Your version is pretty much off-base, no pun intended." His joke wasn't really that funny, but the pressure of the moment skewed our concept of comedy, and the whole room cracked up.
"Hold up, hold up," Grandpa said then, when we'd finished laughing. "I want to know, and I mean honestly now, what do you think of Combat Baseball?"
"Well," Steve said. Steve was always the one to speak for our group. "I like Combat Baseball. I mean, it's made me famous and gotten me a lot of money. so I would say that it's good."
"Yeah," Ken agreed. "People ask me for autographs when I walk down the street, so obviously it's been beneficial."
"No, no, no," Grandpa said vehemently. "I'm not asking what you think of the gains you've made through Combat Baseball. I'm asking what you think of Combat Baseball itself, as a game."
"Well, it's like baseball, and I like baseball," Steve said. "Combat Baseball's kind of similar, the only obvious difference being the fact that most players are in traction at the end of a few weeks." Steve snickered at his attempt at humor, but stopped when nobody else joined in.
"Wait," Jan said. "I think I see the point that grandfather's making. Steve, why did you say you think Combat Baseball is so good?"
"Well, at first I said I liked it because of the obvious stuff, fame and fortune. Not to mention women ... But also, it's the closest thing we have to real baseball, and I love real baseball."
"We really have the fame and fortune," Jan said. "That'll stay with us forever. But what you were saying about real baseball - why can't we have real baseball. Steve?"
Steve stammered, "Well, the crowds didn't like it at first - I still remember that first time we got booed off the field at Roach Harrison's arena. That hurt."
"Yeah, it hurt" Jan agreed. "But the public is pretty much used to the game of baseball now, right?"
"Yes. I suppose," Steve said. "But they're used to the violent version we have."
"They are used to us peddling violence," Jan said, "but there's no reason we couldn't phase in a non-violent version. We've been sacrificing our true love for fame and success. There's got to be enough people left who still love baseball without violence, the sport that Grandpa taught us. Why don't we return to it?"
Jan's cold blue eyes unwaveringly made contact with everyone in the room. "Stand with me," he said. "This is what I want to do - I want to return to the camaraderie that we restarted baseball for in the first place. Who will join me?"
I was the first to step forward. "I love baseball," was all I said. I looked at my friends. Did they agree? Or was the money too addictive?
Astonishingly, the next to stand was Steve. "I love baseball, too," he said. That shocked everybody: Steve had been on top of the world. I know I didn't think he'd risk losing all the glory he'd accumulated.
Only Steve could have such an influence. Soon, everyone stood with us.
As everyone left the hotel room with his new resolve, Jan approached Grandpa. "Did I do the right thing, Gramps?" he asked.
Grandpa answered him with a smile beneath the gray-brown moustache that perched on his mouth like a sharp-lined snowdrift.
We had what we'd wanted all along, baseball as it was intended. Jan said he wanted to create an eight-team league within a year. And when Jan has an idea, everyone listens.
In the meantime we go down to Atlanta-Fulton and practice virgin baseball every day. Even if we never play before crowds again, we don't care. After all, this is what we love to do.