To minimize the difficulty in making the transition from a night game in Mobile to an early afternoon game the following day in Jackson, Mississippi, we decided to dock Arby in Hattiesburg and use the speed of Toad to cover more than half of the route from Alabama’s Gulf Coast to Jackson. That plan allowed us to return to Arby before midnight and to leave early the next morning in Arby for the Trustmark Ballpark a hundred miles away and make it on time for the scheduled noon arrival.
In Mobile, our approach to “The Hank” took me down memory lanes. We turned off Government Street onto Satchel Paige, then right onto Bolling Brothers, where the street number for the ballpark address is 755—Hank Aaron’s career homerun total. The entry to the ballpark pays tribute to Mobile’s extraordinary baseball history with a silhouette of a batter attracting fans to the home plate gates.
At the heart of Mobile’s baseball heritage is its support of instructional youth leagues, its successful preparation of major leaguers, and its celebration of hometown superstars. Five Hall-of-Fame members—Aaron, Paige, Billy Williams, Willie McCovey, Ozzie Smith—were born in Mobile, the third highest total of any city.
Although I never saw Aaron play in person, I admired the purity of his play, its apparent ease: swift on the bases, efficient in the field, and powerful at the plate with a controlled swing that made explosive contact because of his quick wrists. When the Milwaukee Brewers held their closing ceremony for the old County Park where he had played so many games and won the 1957 World Series, I got to interview him briefly. I was so awestruck by standing adjacent to him talking about his memories of the ballpark that I could hardly write legible notes about our conversation.
In a different way, the tributes to Paige reminded me of his six rules for living, which I first encountered as a teenager when I was inspired by his autobiography Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever.
1. Avoid fried meats which angry up the blood.
2. If your stomach disputes you, lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts.
3. Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move.
4. Go very light on the vices such as carrying on in society. The social ramble ain’t restful.
5. Avoid running at all times.
6. Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.
On several occasions when I have been invited to deliver sermons in recent years, I have been tempted to use his rules as the focal text for the homily.
In addition to its tributes to the Hall of Famers and Mobile players who made it to the major leagues, the ballpark also is distinct in its architecture. Unlike the luxury boxes that sit atop most grandstands, the VIP seats at The Hank are at field level between first and third. The private spaces feature enclosed suites that open onto a couple of rows of covered box seats. The design is unique and certainly provides welcome relief from the sun on summer days.
|Behind the mascot, the field level VIP seats appear below the red-clad fans from Pensacola.|
Waiting to participate in the pre-game ceremonies, a young girl behind me asked if I were singing the national anthem. When I smiled and nodded “Yes,” she identified herself as a descendent of the man who wrote it. Indeed, her father confirmed a short time later that Alyssa Smith is related to Frances Scott Key. It was fun to share opening ceremonies with her. She was one of ten birthday children who threw out first pitches that evening, a record number on my summer tour that exceeded even the roll of eight in Las Vegas.
While the lure of fireworks attracted a large local crowd to the Saturday night game, the loudest cheering came from the red-clad fans in three sections. They were supporting the visiting Carolina Mudcats, an affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds. Initially, it seemed odd that so many fans would follow a Double A team from North Carolina more than 600 miles for a game. The trek that the troupe made was much shorter, merely having come from across the state line from Florida. Next year the Mudcats will relocate to Pensacola, less than an hour’s drive away. Despite the Pensacola fans' vocal presence, the Bay Bears blanked the Mudcats 8-0, thanks to the stellar pitching of Patrick Corbin and a grand slam by Paul Goldschmidt.
All in all, it was a memorable night in Mobile, highlighted by meeting a descendent of Frances Scott Key and evoking memories of Paige and Aaron.