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Thursday, March 23, 2017 12:20 am

The making of a fan

A look back at AAA baseball in Springfield


Opening Day is April 2, and in honor of the new season I bring you this column from 1978, when Springfield was, gloriously, home to the Redbirds, the St. Louis Cardinals’ AAA farm team.

The piece was written in the mock poetic style beloved of lesser baseball writers and is embarrassing to read today. So is my reference to Springfield’s North End as the north side, but hey, I was a rookie.

By the way, the “big new kid named Kennedy” was catcher Terry Kennedy, who left Springfield soon after the piece was published on his way toward a 14-year career in which he appeared in four All-Star games. Edited for length.

Until this summer, when someone tuned in a baseball game on the tube, she left the room. “I hate baseball,” she insisted, a prejudice her baseball-loving friends ascribed to an ignorance that was as pitiable as it was stubborn. Given her predilections, it was no surprise that the news last October of Springfield landing a Triple A baseball club excited in her only indifference. The anticipatory talk among local fans about what kind of team Ray Smith might bring to town, the spring ritual by which the baseball fan repopulates his dreams, were as involving to her as township election returns – important to some people, sure, but of no interest to her.

That first outing to the north side, then, was not to watch baseball so much as to go to a baseball game. It was midway into what looked like a disastrous season both on the field and at the gate, an introduction fraught with ill omens. She had much to learn. That first game, for example, she wanted to know why every time a man hit the ball it was not a hit, or why a man could go to bat and leave having never been there, officially at any rate.

Baseball surrenders its secrets reluctantly, but gradually confusion gave way to curiosity. Soon she was not asking what was going on as often as she asked why. She learned that a good pitcher doesn’t throw exactly the same way twice in a row, that a ball thrown on a count of 2 and 0 does not signify the same thing as a ball thrown at 1 and 2, that it sometimes makes sense to put a man on base deliberately, that the game, like all of the best games, makes sense only on its own terms.

As her grasp of the rules grew surer, the other aspects of the game became clearer. . . . But the human aspects of baseball exerted the strongest pull against her crumbling prejudices. Esthetics, after all, enhance the sport, but it is emotion that ties one to it. Players who never stayed around long enough to become more than numbers were replaced by players who in time acquired names and faces and, eventually, personalities.

In July she sampled the rewards of attending the two-way traffic through a minor league town. On a Saturday night she had watched Aurelio Lopez (known affectionately among some fans as Taco Gringo) pitch two strong innings in relief against Wichita. It was her first look at a major league fastballer; he’s good, she was told. Two nights later Lopez was called up by the Cards, and that night could be seen in St. Louis against the then-first place Giants, right there on national TV. To the 16,651 paid in Busch Stadium and the millions more at home who were watching Lopez throw for the first time he was an unknown quantity. Not to our fan. “That’s our Aurelio,” she announced when he hummed one by Jack Clark.

Our Aurelio?

By mid-August the transformation was nearly complete. It was still unclear whether she was a baseball fan or a Redbird fan, but the effects were largely indistinguishable. She found herself, against all her instincts, turning to the sports pages on the day after a game. By the last home stand she was allowing that she was a little sad that the season was nearing a close, and was told that that, too, was part of the game and that end-of-season blues provides its own curative in speculation about next year’s prospects.

The last time she watched the Redbirds was at their last home game against Iowa. Behind her were a trio of teenaged boys. “They got rid of their good catcher,” one said, which indeed they had, having traded John Tamargo to the Giants earlier in the year. But that was weeks ago – another team, another season almost. The big new kid named Kennedy who replaced Tamargo was being touted as something really worth watching. When Kennedy – who was batting .308 with 10 homers and 40 RBIs in only 58 games – first came to bat the kid said, “This guy doesn’t look very good.”

Our fan rolled her eyes upward in exasperation. “Rookies,” she muttered, then bent back down to her scorecard.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at

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