As much as I don’t belong here, I do.
Back where I grew up, during a light summer rain, frogs used to get run over by cars in the street in front of my house. Sometimes I’d trot out to the asphalt to look at the smear left behind. Each frog, like a spoonful of green bean casserole, made flat as a Communion wafer. After a full day in the sun, they were as brittle as a Communion wafer too. The frogs that got run over on Eden Drive were wood frogs. If you spend the night outside in the Northern Neck, maybe you’ll hear them creaking around a pond or some backwoods vernal pool. It’s different in the winter. The wood frog can stay alive while half of its body is frozen. Eyes closed. Pulse at zero. Quiet as ice.
Back then people told me animals didn’t go to heaven after they died. I don’t know if I believed the people or not. I wasn’t thinking about it while hovering above the green spots in the middle of Eden Drive. I probably wouldn’t have thought about it if I’d found a frozen wood frog buried under leaves in my backyard either. As you get older you realize some things just die, and some things only appear like they did. I guess you don’t go to heaven if you don’t die.
Will Clark turned 58 in March of this year. His first at-bat in the Major Leagues was against Nolan Ryan. He hit the first pitch into the stands. In 1990, Clark had already participated in the ‘84 Summer Olympics, won the ’85 Golden Spikes Award, started first base for the San Francisco Giants from ’86 -‘89, won the NLCS MVP in 1989, played in the World Series the same year, lost that series to the Oakland Athletics, started two All-Star Games (’88, ’89), and hit 98 home runs.
In 1990, I was eight, and hadn’t done much of anything.
32 years ago, elementary school teachers still handed out thin Scholastic Book-Fair newsletters (called TAB) to bring home to our parents. TAB advertised new books and similar items on the colorful pages, most of which ended up in the trash or left on the back of the school bus. The kids who always turned in their homework brought their TABs back with checks from their parents. Some weeks later, books would arrive for those kids while the rest of us sat at our desks and sneered.
When the Scholastic Book-Fair came to school that year, my mother left work early to meet my class in the library where the Fair was being held. I didn’t want any of the books like the other kids. They had pencil sets and Trapper Keepers and posters of red Ferraris and Lamborghinis with white tigers and Spud Mackenzie on a surfboard for sale, but I didn’t want any of that stuff either. I wanted the Sports Illustrated poster of Will Clark swinging for the fence. Clark’s teammate, Kevin Mitchell, was standing behind him, blurred in the on-deck spot. I think I knew who Will Clark was back then. It was baseball, so it didn’t matter to me. My mother bought the poster and it hung on my wall for years, still in the original cellophane with a piece of thin cardboard behind it. I don’t know what ever happened to the thing.
I thought about this walking into The Diamond on April 12th. Will “The Thrill” Clark was the featured former MLB star, appearing to sign autographs and throw out the ceremonial first pitch. The Giants intend to honor Clark by retiring his #22 later this year. Since the Flying Squirrels are the Double-A affiliate of San Francisco, and Clark works for the Giants organization, having him there to help pack the park with 40-year-olds and their families on Opening Day is just common sense.
I remembered bounding up the front stairs when the team was the Richmond Braves and their homebase was Atlanta. The looming presence of the 25-foot-wide mascot, Connecticut, was still there peering out over the Boulevard. I always carried a Wilson baseball glove to those games, my name written on it in Sharpie in my grandmother’s handwriting. I played baseball too, which was part of why I loved the game so much. It was something I shared with my grandparents when there wasn’t anything else to talk about. Ours was a baseball family, and Atlanta was our team.
I’ve been to a handful of Squirrels and MLB games as an adult, but I’d mostly fallen out of touch with baseball. Sometime after Juiced by Jose Canseco was published and John Smoltz retired in 2009, something about the sport didn’t smell the way it did before. When my grandfather died in 2015, I gave up on baseball altogether. I didn’t recognize the players’ names anymore. The guys I remembered were all retired. Some of them already in the Hall of Fame. Gray in their sideburns, now working in the front offices of or having coaching duties for the teams they once played for — or against.
The thrill was gone.
This isn’t uncommon. Maybe you had a band once. Maybe you liked to skateboard. Maybe it was visiting your family on the weekends. Then things happen. Then months happen. Sometimes years happen. Maybe one day you wake up and say, “How long has it been?” Almost like you were put on ice for a long time. Humans have more in common with frogs then we realize.
When RFS personnel let me into the press box, it looked like I was in the wrong place. The men seated inside all seemed to know each other. These were sports writers and podcast hosts and radio people doing media for the Squirrels in office chairs. All of them stopped mid-conversation to look at me and then at the credential attached to the lanyard around my neck. They had computers and microphones and camera equipment and cases on wheels and headphones and cords, plugged into power strips that were plugged into wall sockets. It all seemed pretty serious.
I grabbed the empty seat at the end of the press box and ate one of the free catered chicken salad sandwiches while looking at nothing in particular over second base.
The groundskeepers were still setting the field and fans were in a steady flow of finding their seats and finding beer. It was 77 degrees and beautiful weather for baseball and the SOLD-OUT crowd in attendance. I read a lineup sheet for the Squirrels and one for the Altoona Curve (the Pittsburgh Pirates Double-A affiliate), this being the first of a 5-game stretch between the two teams. On the mound for the Squirrels was RHP Tristan Beck, who also started Opening Day for the Flying Squirrels last year. Pitching for the Curve was RHP Kyle Nicholas, in his debut start for the Pirates organization.
Will Clark appeared beside the home team dugout and walked out to the mound to cheers and applause. Wearing a Flying Squirrels #22 jersey, Clark tossed the first ceremonial pitch — which would’ve hit the batter, had Clark thrown it with any spice and had there been a batter in the box. Catcher Brandon Matorano pulled the ball down and the stadium erupted again. No one else in the press box seemed to acknowledge the location of Clark’s pitch.
Announcers read the lineups of both teams for the night before roll-calling the players individually. Then Trey Wilson stepped into the press box. Trey is ‘The Voice of the Flying Squirrels” on Sports Radio 910 (AM), The Fan. Shortly after “The Star-Spangled Banner,” he asked if I had made it to Will Clark’s press conference. I hadn’t.
“That’s my fault,” Trey said. “How much time do you think you’d need?”
“Maybe 10 minutes,” I said.
“Probably can’t get you 10 minutes. How about three questions.”
“Yes. That would be fantastic,” I said.
“Give me a little bit. He’s doing a signing right now. I can’t promise it,” he said, “but I’ll do my best.”
I sat back in my chair in front of the window and looked out at the field. A few days prior to Opening Day, I emailed Trey about scheduling an interview with Will Clark. He said there were too many requests to accommodate all of them. Instead, a press conference would be held, which I’d be emailed more information about at a later date. I’d expected to sit during the press conference and let others ask the baseball questions. I planned to take notes and eat another chicken salad sandwich and think about how Will Clark had helped St. Louis sweep Atlanta in the 2000 NLDS. But I didn’t get the email from Trey about the press conference.
Marcano struck out for Altoona, and it was the end of the Top of the 2nd inning.
I pulled the 1987 TOPPS Will Clark rookie card from my back pocket and looked at it. I didn’t know what to ask this man. Could I ask him questions which were mostly geared toward stating his opinions of current players in the MLB, or players from the past? Maybe ask him why he chose to wear eye black for reducing glare, when it was an uncommon trend in baseball? I could ask him what he thought about current world events? Or I could tell him about the Sports Illustrated poster on my wall and the Scholastic Book-Fair and the wood frogs and ask what he thought about the existence of universal connections, which would all make me sound like a card-carrying lunatic. I wrote down three different questions.
And then, Will Clark was there.
I stood up. “The Voice of the Flying Squirrels” had done me a solid. The MLB player who had spent all of those years stuck to my wall was suddenly shaking my hand.
“I’m Will Clark,” he said.
I don’t know what I said in return. Maybe I mentioned having been a fan. Maybe my name and RVA Magazine were mentioned too. Looking down, the questions I’d written were oddly, blurred and I began reading each word of the first question like an old person reading out their policy number to somebody on the telephone.
“How does it feel,” I asked, “to be a former ballplayer and have guys my age come to the ballgame with their kids and they’re just as excited as the kids are to see you?”
He laughed, which was good.
“Signing some of the autographs I just signed,” Clark said. “I run into quite a few of those people, and it’s a lot of fun and it’s very flattering. Also, at the same time, hey, I must’ve done the right job out there to have people that enthused to see me.”
The man from the poster on my wall was talking to me. That line became a hum in my ear or a high-pitched frequency you don’t normally pick up. If I’d said this out loud, Trey Wilson probably would’ve tased me and dragged me out to the parking lot.
“What would happen if baseball ended abruptly, and there was no more?”
“People are very flexible,” Clark said. “They’re always gonna find a way to gravitate some way or the other. If the sport itself was taken away, they’d most likely go on to another sport.”
I wasn’t expecting that answer. It was a matter-of-fact answer but done with a good-natured tone, and maybe I had higher expectations for his answer to a dumb question. There was only one left, and I hoped this one was better.
“What is your favorite baseball memory during your playing career?”
“Well, there’s two of them. The first at-bat off of Nolan Ryan. You know, that’s just a fairytale start to your career. And then getting the base hit against Mitch Williams in the ‘89 playoffs. Reason being, is the whole time growing up you’re playing in the backyard and you’re going, ‘Bases loaded, two outs in the Bottom-of-the-9th,’ and then to actually walk up to home plate and relive it feels really special.”
“And to actually do the thing,” I said.
“Exactly. Nice to meet you, Ryan.”
We shook hands again. Took a photo.
And that was it. The man from the poster on my wall was no longer talking to me. Will Clark followed Trey and the other media related RFS personnel to the radio booth at the other end of the press box. “The Thrill” was gone. I looked back at the questions I had written down and the words weren’t blurry any longer. The hum was now quiet. I got my things together and walked out into the stadium.
My mother likes it when I write about baseball because her parents are dead. Baseball reminds her of them. She likes baseball for the same reasons I do. It reminds us. That’s what the world does. It reminds us of the good things, despite the bad. It all depends on how you look at whatever it is you’re looking at. You may just see a dead frog. You may hear B.B. King.
I wasn’t at Opening Day for the same reasons other people were there. I was there to fall in love with baseball again, but I didn’t know that. Jose Canseco didn’t ruin baseball. Neither did Mark McGwire or Barry Bonds. Neither did Pete Rose. They just dragged something that was already dirty through the mud once more. There are worse things to romanticize. We’ve seen this happen to America, and you can still love something for what it once was. Something you may have dreamt about as an eight-year-old. By truly loving something, you can still love it when it does something wrong, or when it does something worse. This goes for baseball and the country we call home. The two are synonymous, and you can love them both despite their faults. You can find forgiveness on a baseball field. Or you can let it go.
I sat in the Terrace section and watched the Squirrels lose 3-2. The fireworks exploded for 10 minutes at eye level, and there is nowhere on Earth I’d have rather been. As much as I didn’t belong there, I did. Watching the grand finale, I thought about my grandparents and the old players and the old stories of all that had gone before. It wasn’t heaven.
I guess you don’t go to heaven if you don’t die.
Top Photo by Ryan Kent.