I was around 9 or 10 years old and I found myself becoming engrossed in the game of baseball. Growing up in working-class Milwaukee in the 1970s and 1980s, the Milwaukee Brewers were the kings of the city.
Specifically, I'm talking about 1980, 1981 and 1982. At that time, the team consisted of Hall-of-Famers Paul Molitor, Robin Yount and Rollie Fingers. Other players included Cecil Cooper, Ben Oglivie, Gorman Thomas, Ted Simmons, Mike Caldwell, Rollie Fingers, Pete Vuckovich, Charlie Moore, Moose Haas, Jerry Augustine and many others.
It was such a great time and I was at a great age to enjoy baseball. These guys were mythic figures to me. True heroes.
I can't leave out Mr. Baseball, Bob Uecker, whose radio play-by-play voice is still very soothing to me. His voice reminds me of my childhood. Uecker, who grew up on Milwaukee's northside and was a neighborhood friend of my dad, has a sense of humor, a way of using expressions and a local accent that natives are awfully familiar with. He is truly a local legend.
Whether the Brewers were on TV or radio, I would stop everything I was doing and tune into the game.
I would score games on meticulously hand-crafted box scores and would archive them in different folders that were color-coded based on the month of the season. I would also chart stats. My family members nicknamed me "Stats" because I was always interested in the numbers. I didn't care much for the nickname, because it was their way of making fun of my passion. My parents loved that I was consumed by baseball because it kept me out of trouble.
I grew up in a house that was less than a mile away from Milwaukee County Stadium in the City of West Allis (56th street near Harvey and Audrey Kuehn's Cesar's Inn), and I used to walk over to Brewer home games (even at 9 or 10 years old) -- cutting through the Veterans Hospital like thousands of others on game day -- and sitting in the bleachers by myself. I would come early and watch batting practice and stay for the very last out.
I hated going to the game with my childhood friends, because they wanted to screw around and cause trouble. There was a time and place for that, but for me it wasn't at the game. I had different priorities, such as filling out a box score and cheering for the team I loved. I also enjoyed Bernie Brewer sliding down the Beer Barrel out in Left-Center field. He'd slide down after a home run and balloons, simulating beer bubbles, would be released into the sky.
I would also attend games with my dad, who was also a big baseball fan. My dad, who worked for Milwaukee County, was more of a National League guy who never got over the Milwaukee Braves leaving town. He didn't care for American League baseball and the way that it was played, but he would accommodate me because he saw my passion.
After the game, my dad would take me to one of the local taverns, which I loved. He'd have a couple of beers and talk baseball with the bartender and fellow patrons, while I'd eat popcorn and play the pinball machine. For some reason, it was very acceptable in Milwaukee for kids to hang out in taverns with parents. For those not familiar with the city, there's a neighborhood bar on every block in Milwaukee.
Attending games with my dad were always special occasions and provided a common bond between us two.
During that time, Milwaukee had the morning Milwaukee Sentinel and the afternoon Milwaukee Journal, and because my three older brothers were paper carriers (paper boys), we'd always receive a stack of papers at our back door. When that would happen, I'd grab the sports page and read all the box scores and all the columns on the Brewers before my brothers would head out on their routes. They didn't like me messing with their papers so I had to be very delicate in my mode of operation, or else face a whoopin' at the hands of one of them.
I loved collecting baseball cards at that time. For every Paul Molitor or Robin Yount, I would receive 10 Mark Brohards or Peter Ladds. Oh, that was frustrating! Regardless, I would study the back of the card, memorizing players' heights and weights, as well as minor-league and major-league stats.
My brother Kevin and I would also use the baseball cards to play paper-ball baseball in our bedroom, which got very competitive. If a paper ball hit the closet door, it was a home run. If it landed on a baseball card in the field, it was an out. Damn, those games were a blast. I remember one time running out of the room crying after I lost an extra-inning thriller!
The stars were aligned for me to be a fan. The Brewers fielded great teams, I was 10 years old, and the City of Milwaukee (the greatest city on Earth) provided the perfect setting to become a fan.