POTRIKUS: The unifying power of baseball

Column by Ted Potrikus

The unifying power of baseball

My wife and I stopped by the Stax Museum of American Soul Music as we passed through Memphis, Tennessee on Saturday — we’re on a long-planned, twice-delayed drive from Cooperstown to Charleston to Tucson to visit our kids. “Where ya from?” the clerk asked. “Upstate New York,” I said. “Cooperstown, to be exact.”

“The Baseball Hall of Fame!” he said happily. “I drove up there a few years ago. Loved it. Had to visit. Love baseball.”

“I love baseball, too,” I said, “but I love my Stax records. I’m glad to be here at your Hall of Fame.”

This week’s column comes to you from the ninth-floor room in a Hilton Garden Inn in the “Bricktown” neighborhood of downtown Oklahoma City. The view from our window: the glorious field of the OKC Dodgers, the AAA affiliate for the Los Angeles Dodgers. We watched the final three innings of the game as we pulled in yesterday afternoon; no game today (but there are tornado warnings for later tonight, so there’s that).

Around the stadium — statues of Baseball Hall-of-Famers like Warren Spahn, Johnny Bench, and Mickey Mantle. Busts for Lloyd and Paul Waner (“Little” and “Big” poisons, respectively), Carl Hubbell. One for Negro League great Joe Rogan. One for beloved Yankee Bobby Murcer, a street named for Joe Carter. Proud Oklahomans all.

In Charleston, out for breakfast with our daughter and her husband, I wore a t-shirt sporting the Fenway Park Citgo logo. “Red Sox fan?” the waiter sneered. “Not so much,” I said, “I’m alright with them but I love the Mets, sorry.”

“Detroit Tigers,” he said, relieved. He had moved from Michigan to South Carolina and took his team with him. He did not like the Red Sox. Nor the Yankees. He, too, was alright with the Mets. We had a good chat about our teams and the state of baseball.Maybe we get a little jaded by the whole baseball thing in Cooperstown, what with it being our local industry and everything. It’s all around us — the Hall of Fame and Doubleday Field in the village, of course, and assorted fields of dreams and baseball-branded activities dotting the county landscape. Maybe we get tired of the ‘America’s Pastime’ trope. The endless souvenir shops.

But driving across the country as we’re doing, it’s gratifying to see baseball as a unifying salve in a country otherwise at each other’s throats. I had to catch myself as we walked the perimeter of the stadium earlier today — those Spahn, Bench, and Mantle statues? At first glance, I thought, “Hey wait a minute, those are our guys. They’re in Cooperstown now.”

Of course they’re not “our” guys. They belong to Oklahoma, just as every Baseball Hall of Famer belongs to his home town, home state, home nation. And in Cooperstown, we’re lucky enough to have them all in one place for the nation to behold as one, members of an elite and diverse team.

It won’t be long before our village streets and county roads are full once more with families and tour buses coming to visit “our” team. They’ll be playing ball nearby and flying home to tell their friends about an experience they won’t soon forget. They’ll visit our restaurants, shop in our stores, and bring renewed life to the region as they did in the years before COVID.

Growing up here, we’d occasionally wince at the onslaught of out-of-state license plates that took up all the good parking spaces and didn’t seem to know how to get to the Hall of Fame (even when they were standing a block away from it). Today, we’re thrilled to welcome them back, again and again, for a shared experience that begins in Detroit, and Charleston, and Oklahoma City, and everyplace else where there’s a team to root for. Let’s look forward to a busy summer.

(Also: The Stax Museum, the Sun studios, and a trip to Elvis’s Graceland are very much worth your consideration. And Oklahoma City is one hospitable place!)

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