Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com on November 2, 2014, and is reprinted here by permission.
I can tell you so much about the baseball games I’ve attended in my life.
As a big Braves fan who spent most of my formative years growing up near Atlanta, I can tell you that I saw Chipper Jones hit 12 home runs in person, including his first and 45th of his MVP season in 1999. I can tell you that I saw John Smoltz’s first shutout, his 100th save, and the final win of his career (No. 213) in 2009.
I’ve seen a game that lasted 18 innings, a game with an estimated 115,000 people in attendance, and a game with a walkoff, inside-the-park home run.
I’ve even seen a perfect game, Randy Johnson’s dominant 13-strikeout performance against my Braves on May 18, 2004. That was the most surreal experience I’ve ever had at a baseball game.
What I can’t tell you is a single detail about my first Major League game. I have no memory of it, no ticket stub, no corroborating documentation that might help me figure out the first time I ever root, root, rooted for the home team.
I love hearing stories about people’s first games, like the ones that have been told in the “My First Game” series at The National Pastime Museum. It’s a defining moment in many people’s lives, the day when they consciously became a baseball fan, a love affair that never ends. At the very least, it provides them with a wonderful memory of their childhood. Who doesn’t enjoy a day at the ballpark?
But unlike many fans, I don’t have my own story of a first game or first moment when I fell in love with the sport. I have no recollection of the first time I walked through the tunnel of a Major League stadium and saw the expansive green grass of the outfield that seemed to go on forever. I’m not sure when I ate my first peanuts and Cracker Jacks or when I learned the last two words of the “Star-Spangled Banner”: “Play ball!”
Baseball has been an important part of my life since before I can remember. As best as I can tell from family lore, I probably went to my first game at the age of two in 1984 at Memorial Stadium in my hometown of Baltimore. All I do know is, by the time I was 5, I was already a baseball fan, cheering on Cal Ripken, Eddie Murray, and the Orioles. “Come on Ripken, hit it in the bullpen!” we’d yell, following the lead of O’s super-fan “Wild Bill” Hagy. That much I do remember.
My most vivid memory from those early years is from batting practice before a Twins-Orioles game around 1987, when Kirby Puckett pointed in my direction and threw me a baseball . . . which I promptly dropped. Kirby let out a laugh and smiled that great big smile of his, ran over to the warning track, and tossed it up again. I have no idea where that baseball is now, but I’ll never forget that big smile on Puck’s face.
I know I’m not alone in having no memory of my first game, but maybe that helps explain why I’ve spent the rest of my life trying to learn everything I can about the games I do remember.
Long before there were websites and mobile apps that helped you keep track of your personal attendance list, I began compiling details about the games I’ve seen, based on ticket stubs, programs, photos, newspaper stories, and other artifacts and memories. My “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” file is more than 60 pages long now, complete with summaries of all 163 games I’ve attended (the games I can document, at least), plus my personal team standings, statistics for my favorite players, and many other details. It’s a nerdy endeavor, but it’s also a lot of fun to find out when my memory matches up with the box score—and sometimes when it doesn’t.
Websites like Retrosheet.org and Baseball-reference.com helped me fill in the gaps when I didn’t have much information to go on. For instance, a while back I found a series of snapshots in a shoebox from a Braves-Cubs game that I attended in the early 1990s. One photo showed David Justice playing first base and another photo showed the San Diego Chicken mascot dancing on the Braves dugout at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Justice only played 69 career games at first base, all in his Rookie of the Year season in 1990, so that narrowed down my search quickly.
Then, I found an old newspaper article about the Chicken appearing in Atlanta in mid-May of that year. Apparently, the Chicken arrived in the seventh inning of the May 15 game because of a travel delay, but Justice didn’t make his first appearance of the season until May 16, the finale of the Cubs series . . . playing first base. Voila! That was my game. Turns out, John Smoltz beat Greg Maddux for his first career shutout that night. Now that I know the date and have the box score, I can tell you a lot more about that game than I can just from my vague memories and a handful of photos.
Because I keep track of them all, I can tell you that the most runs I’ve seen scored in a single game was a 15–12 slugfest won by the Braves in San Diego on July 14, 2006. Chipper Jones hit two home runs, including one back-to-back with Andruw Jones; Adam LaRoche hit two home runs—including a 461-foot shot to center field, the longest home run I’ve ever seen in person—Adrian Gonzalez hit two home runs, and Mike Piazza (you forgot he played for the Padres, didn’t you?) hit a three-run shot. There were five lead changes in the ninth, 10th, and 11th innings before the Braves finally prevailed. Needless to say, that was an extremely rare occurrence at pitcher-friendly Petco Park.
Unfortunately, despite all of the Braves’ success in the last two decades, they don’t always come out on top when I see them play. Of the games I’ve documented, Atlanta is just 33–38 (.465) when I’m in attendance—a small sample size over 20-plus years, certainly, but that doesn’t make me feel any better when watching them lose.
But one Braves loss did provide me with my greatest thrill in all the games I’ve seen: Randy Johnson’s perfect game in 2004. That was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
I had a random Tuesday off from work, thanks to a late schedule switch with my editor, and I noticed an exciting pitching matchup on the schedule between Johnson of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Mike Hampton of the Braves. I sat about halfway up in the left-field stands, which is an unusual spot for me; I usually prefer the upper-deck seats behind home plate at most games. I didn’t realize Johnson was chasing perfection until about the sixth inning, when I heard the late Braves announcer Skip Caray say on the radio in the concourse, “Don’t go anywhere, folks.” Thus began the most surreal three innings of my life.
The crowd began to buzz quietly after Johnson set down the Braves in order in the seventh, and by the eighth, Atlanta fans were openly cheering for history to be made. The ninth inning was just a blur. I kept saying to myself, “He’s really going to do this, he’s really going to do this.” But I didn’t mean it. My hands were shaking for the entire inning because I knew exactly how rare this feat was—the 17th perfect game in Major League history.
I still can’t believe that I was there. But I’ve got a ticket stub, a picture, and memories that will last a lifetime.
I don’t have any of those for my first game. But that’s fine by me. I’ll keep looking for it anyway, and continue to learn more about the games I do remember. The fun is in the search—and the journey.