"There Used to Be a Ballpark"

That’s the title of a song which, baseball fan that I am, I’ve loved since the first time I heard it sung exquisitely by Frank Sinatra.

The lyrics by a songwriter named Joe Raposo (possibly more famous for writing tunes for Sesame Street and the Muppets) are suffused with a feeling of loss about a time and place in the past. I had to call it up on iTunes and give it a listen after I read about yesterday’s induction of former Boston Red Sox slugger Jim Rice into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The connection dates back almost 40 years, in one of those “before they were stars” moments. Rice, a native of Anderson, S.C., played for his hometown’s American Legion team against the team from my hometown of Clinton in the Legion playoffs during the summer of 1970. One game was played at what was known in town as “Cavalier Ballpark,” a facility that in its prime was as nice as some minor league ballparks I’ve seen. The Clinton Cavaliers, the team it hosted, played baseball in one of the textile leagues, named for the cotton mills that sponsored the teams and still dominated the economy of the region in the post-World War II years.

The quality of play was often better than the low minors at that time, and the rosters included some names that would soon wear big-league uniforms. One of them was retired Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda, who pitched for the team in nearby Joanna in the late 1940s when he could get leave from military duty at Fort Jackson. When he was named manager of the Dodgers in 1976, I was working for The Clinton Chronicle, my hometown’s weekly paper, and I interviewed some of his former teammates who still lived in the area. It made a nice “looking-back” column.

One of his former teammates must have sent Lasorda a copy, as I received a package in the mail from him a couple of weeks later with a cordial hand-written note, a Dodgers media guide and an autographed picture. I’ve been a fan of the man ever since. But back to Rice at Cavalier Ballpark.

As I recall it, that game ended up the deciding one for Anderson in the best 2-of-3 series, and watching Rice was like watching a man play against boys. He hit two monstrous home runs to lead his team to a victory. Those shots may still be orbiting the earth.

I encountered Rice one more time after he began his career with the Red Sox and I had taken my first daily newspaper job with The Sun News in Myrtle Beach, S.C. The paper’s sports editor and my boss, Willie Binette, had come to the Grand Strand from the Anderson (S.C.) Independent and he knew Rice and his family well. This was in 1977 and 1978, when Rice rivaled the New York Yankees’ Reggie Jackson as the most feared power hitter in baseball. So he was quite a drawing card when Willie prevailed on him to participate in a couple of off-season charity golf tournaments sponsored in part by the paper.

I remember him as a quiet fellow with a bone-crushing grip for a handshake. And he could send a golf ball flying with the same ease that he hit baseballs out of Fenway Park.

And what about that ballpark back in my hometown? It fell into disuse after the Legion baseball program was discontinued sometime in the Seventies, and it was eventually demolished — not sure when. But it always makes me feel good to go back and see that kids are still playing ball there on the site. It’s right next to M.S. Bailey Elementary School, and it serves as a practice and playing field for teams in the town’s YMCA leagues.

The park might be gone, but the game endures.

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About theoldperfessor

I'm a college professor, teaching journalism and public relations classes at a small private university, and a freelance writer.
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