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DUST OF THE FIELDS BEHIND US
By Peter A. Chiarelli
Most baseball fans my age have a distinct memory of their first physical contact with our national pastime. This memory is usually crystal clear, unclouded by years of putting up with artificial turf, domed stadiums, and the designated hitter. It might have come from meeting a famous (or not-so-famous) player, the smell of freshly cut grass at the local ballpark, or the sights and sounds of the vendors while attending one's very first game. Mine involved a pony.
When I was at the tender age of eight, my dad made the foolish statement, "How'd you like to go out to the stadium and win a pony?" I leapt at the chance, not really caring, or being aware of, what stadium or what team he was babbling on about. I mean, we were talking about a real, live, honest-to-goodness pony here! These were the kind of beautiful animals that I saw grazing in the farmer's pasture near our house in eastern Pennsylvania.
Surely Mom and Dad would let me keep this wonderful prize. Our yard was certainly big enough. What pony needs more than a thirty-by-sixty-foot lot with a fine lawn for him to snack on? I, of course, was convinced that it was a boy pony. I mean, what third-grader who loved The Cisco Kid and The Lone Ranger would be caught riding a girl pony? It was just flat-out unacceptable to me. The same way it just didn't enter my mind that when Dad had said "win" a pony, what he meant to say was we're going to have a ticket with a bunch of numbers on it that will give us a chance to win a pony and that Bob "Yappy" Bermann, the press box announcer, would have to read our numbers off in the correct order. Not to mention the fact that every other eight-year-old boy in the county was going to be there, with raffle tickets clenched tightly in hand.
The big night arrived and Dad and I headed out to Municipal Stadium. To this day I remember very little about the game, the players, or even whether the local nine won or lost. What I do remember is seeing my new pet being paraded back and forth on the grass bluff beyond the outfield fence. He was absolutely gorgeous, with a glossy tan coat and a flowing blond mane and tail. I couldn't wait to get a closer look and fidgeted through-out the game. All the while, Dad perused his scorecard and actually paid attention to the action on the field. This really annoyed me, the fact that my father wasn't hanging on every word coming from the press box. What if we missed the appointed inning? Who really cared how many outs there were? Why were all these people watching the players so intently? I kept telling myself that this was some sort of sideshow to keep the crowd entertained until the Main Event.
After what seemed like an eternity, at least for an eight-year-old, the grand announcement came squawking over the public address system. Dad fished into his sport shirt pocket for our pass to the Promised Land. I held my breath while Yappy carefully read off the numbers from his perch at the top of the grandstand. Time stood still; everything moved in slow motion as the winning digits were repeated a second, third, and, yes, a fourth time. Looking back on all of this some thirty years later, I'm now sure this was done for dramatic effect, or in case some unlucky dad was in the men's room during the drawing.
What happened next is a surrealistic blur. Dad shook his head slowly, his ever-present toothpick lodged in the corner of his mouth, and mumbled, "Sorry Peter, we didn't win." I was in a state of shock; surely there must be some sort of mistake. I pleaded with Dad to check the ticket again, hoping that he had read the numbers wrong or that he didn't hear the distorted voice from above correctly.
My state of shock quickly turned into a fit of anger and late-night crankiness that only a parent can appreciate. For the rest of the game, I sobbed uncontrollably in my seat, reciting over and over again, "Are you sure we didn't win?" By this time Dad actually found this whole scene I was causing quite humorous, which only fueled my disappointment. How could he possibly think any of this was funny? To this day my father can see the lighter side in even the direst of circumstances, a trait I didn't inherit from him but certainly wish I had. I remember arriving home later that night with a heavy heart, not even able to tell Mom what had occurred.
Several days later, Dad bumped into the home team manager, who was a casual acquaintance and occasional customer in my parents' jewelry store. Dad related the story of how I cried over not winning the ponyI'm sure while laughingand how distraught I was. The next time they saw each other, Frank handed Dad an official team-autographed ball to help me in my time of sorrow. I do have to admit it was a pretty nice consolation prize, even if I couldn't ride it around the backyard or feed it hay.
Of course, the prized ball didn't sit on my bookshelf or in a dresser drawer for long. As any boy of that era would do, I used that ball in the next pickup game at the playground. When Dad found out we had beat the stuffing out of the manager's thoughtful gift, he was a bit annoyed at first but then kind of laughed it off in his happy-go-lucky way.
Maybe what amazes me most about this episode is that baseball played second fiddle in my mind to the raffle prize that night at the stadium. However, shortly thereafter I started to follow the game with a passion that continues to this day. I've been known on occasion to twist any conversation toward baseball, regardless of my subject's knowledge of its history, rules, or place in American lore. The game has given me great joy and memories over the years, a soothing tonic when the rest of the world seems to be crashing down around me. I guess, in a way, that pony opened my eyes for the very first time.
PETER A. CHIARELLI is a SABR member and self-proclaimed baseball junkie.
When not rooting for his beloved Philadelphia Phillies, he works as a print
production coordinator for a large medical firm. He lives and plays in Reading,
© 2004 Peter A. Chiarelli
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