San Francisco, Any Summer of Recent Past
I was driving rideshare around The City picking up passengers and spinning the radio dial in search of something different to listen to. Driving in San Francisco is always a nostalgic experience due to the tremendous history of its many storied neighborhoods. The salty sea air is steeped in tradition, laden with stories intricate in detail like the beautiful Victorian awnings hanging off the ‘Painted Ladies’ on Postcard Row. My go-to audio dose of nostalgia in San Francisco is usually the Grateful Dead, but sometimes I like to diversify.
It was then I heard his voice. Bass deep, yet melodic, immediately transporting me back to my childhood when I would listen to him spin yarns late at night — my bedtime stories. I would hold the transistor radio close to my ear so I could hear him regale and wax poetic over the constant hum of the fan blowing in my window, attempting to circulate and cut a cool into the thick humid air of a hot Maryland summer night. Sweat beading up on my brow as he described the heroic actions and roles of the players on the battlefield.
I was not hot now. I was in San Francisco, where warmth is rare, and the air is normally damp and moist, soaked with a coastal chill. However, the goosebumps forming on my arms at this moment were not due to the cold. They were for sure because of him.
He was in the midst of setting the scene, describing the more mundane details that were the backbone of all his stories. He was likely far from the climax and certainly well from the denouement of his tale, only in the third frame of his nine-chapter legend. He told his nightly odes in threes and nines because the mystical divinity of the Gods had dictated it that way.
He was the storyteller. He did not make the rules, nor write the tale — he just told it with remarkable grace and passion that was evident in the minutia and simplicity of his accounts. A true artist he was — painting with words, providing a detailed and elaborate description that transported the listener to the field of battle with a hot dog in hand instead of a sword or wooden stick. His descriptions were meticulous, down to the color and fear in the eyes of the protagonist and his nemesis at the plate.
His stories were slow and unwinding. Stories that twisted around like Lombard Street in the City of San Francisco. Allegories that had an innate sense of tradition and paid due homage to those before him. His stories were the tales of America and the days of yore — a time when life was simpler, and the game was bigger. The game immortalized over the radio.
The game has a heightened sense of history just like the City of San Francisco. The ghosts milling about the cornfields of Iowa’s Field of Dreams are akin to the apparitions wandering the wharf, through the streets of Filmore and the Haight and dancing about the meadows of Golden Gate Park with flowers in their hair. Gold-searching ghouls fresh off steam-liners, clad in denim with six-shooters on their hip, or the more friendly Casper-like spirits decked out in colorful bandanas, torn denim jean-jackets, and tie-dyed Tees.
The Gods sent down muses to inspire the storytellers who would pass forward the legends of The City: tales of Manifest Destiny and stories about the idealism, love, and hope of the flower children. The Beatnicks as well as the songwriters steeped in patchouli and incense whom they inspired were a realm of mystics entrusted with the responsibility of preserving the ideals, tales, and traditions of their society.
The Great Game had its own set of storytellers — bards who passed down the oral tradition through lyric. Legends with legendary nicknames like the “Catbird,” Red Barber, or his inimitable understudy, the great Vin Scully. These two men alone would preserve decades of history, passing on the tales of their organization through generations and generations of Dodger fans — stories heard coast to coast, from Brooklyn to Los Angeles.
The mythology of “The City” was part of its essence, much like the sentimentality inherent in the smell of leather or the crack of the bat. The City and The Game were tied together and linked through history like Marin and San Francisco via the Golden Gate Bridge, inseparable throughout time.
The nostalgic heirs of San Francisco were causing the hair follicles on my arm to stand at attention…or was it the tone of his voice? “The one-two pitch is in there. A fastball at the knees. A called strike three. And we go to the bottom of the fourth with the score knotted at three. Now a word from our sponsors.”
You cannot hide from the ghosts of the game. They are ever-present, just like the spirits lingering in the shadows of an alley behind an old ballroom off Geary Street. The Babe still is, and always will be the greatest of all-time. The Game and The City have poetic souls intrinsic to their nature.
I was driving by the Panhandle now, the thin strip of green grass and great tall trees that jut out from Golden Gate Park running parallel to the Haight. I imagined thousands of flower children gathering on green grass, swaying and dancing arm in arm to Janis and Jerry performing free concerts — impromptu assemblies in the name of justice and peace.
My daydream was interrupted when I was thrust back into the present once again by the sound of his voice. Its tone was a conduit for time travel. He welcomed us back with an announcement: “We have a pitching change to tell you about…”
By the time the new pitcher would throw his first pea, I would be back under my covers in Maryland — a child once again, huddled up and listening to the great Jon Miller ramble in rhythmic prose about the joy of home. I parked on the side of the road in the middle of Golden Gate Park, pulling aside for a moment to enjoy the warmth and comfort of my childhood once again, wrapped up in simplistic obsession over a simple game.
As he described a homer by a hometown hero to put the Giants ahead in the home half, goosebumps formed again on my forearm making it resemble a cold, raw piece of chicken fresh out of the fridge. I find Jon Miller to be an incredibly fascinating orator and a remarkable teller of tales. Just the sound of his voice gives me the chills.
He is one of the great voices of baseball, hailing from a long line of timeless raconteurs including the aforementioned Barber and Scully, as well as Ernie Harwell, Jack Buck, or Joe Castiglione to name a few. A baseball announcer has to be as adept at storytelling as he/she is at describing the action. The slow and poetic pace of the game demands it.
There are gaps that need to be filled in between the pitches and the batters. The announcer must entertain the audience before the players take their turn lacing a line drive into the gap prompting a race around the bases with a photo-finish head-first belly-flop into third, safe for a triple just ahead of the relay throw from the outfield. Baseball is a passion of mine, and in my younger days it was an obsession. One of my great childhood memories was when I got to meet Jon Miller.
At the time, he was the broadcaster for the Baltimore Orioles and he lived not far from me in Maryland, where his daughter was in my sister’s elementary school class. I was very jealous of my big sister, for Jon Miller’s daughter had invited her over for a playdate. My sis was hanging out with the great baritone voice that put me to sleep night after night.
My mother or father was headed to pick her up, and suggested that I go with them on the off-chance that I might get to meet the man behind the mic. Not only did I get to meet him, but we stood on the front lawn talking ball for a good while. He told me about how he had developed a love for the game as a child growing up in California, in the city by the Bay where I would move after college, and where he had since become the voice of the hometown Giants.
He described huddling up from the chill and wind in the bleachers at old Candlestick Park, watching the great Willie McCovey from his perch — practicing his call of the game in preparation for his vocation as a torchbearer of legends. He planted within me the seeds of hope for a life in the game beyond a playing career.
I remember spending a lot of time in the coming years falling in love with the written word as much as playing baseball, making mock Sports sections for an imaginary newspaper, hacking away on a typewriter providing summaries and descriptions of the action from the game that I had listened to him call over the radio the night before.
As I became sized out of the game by my talent and the level of competition (as well as distracted by an ever-increasing fascination with the music, mystical realm and magical flowers of the hippies), I drifted away from the game for a bit. But every spring she returned, waiting patiently for me — for when I would be ready for us to rekindle that summer flame.
Eventually, I became a teacher and a coach, and subsequently, a father, falling in love with the game all over again. A game of catch with my daughter is a game of catch with my father. The diamond sparkles spectacularly and holds a special place in my heart. My heart rushes every time I pump my fist into a mitt or kick up dust on an infield. I feel the same sense of tradition and nostalgia when I hear Jon Miller’s voice.
I developed my love and passion for the game as a child. Recently, I have been gravely concerned about the future of baseball due to its waning popularity with the youth of America — a generation who prefers the quicker pace of the NBA and the more intense and violent action of the NFL.
I served for a while as a baseball coach at Fremont High School in inner city Los Angeles; a school that has produced over 20 big league ballplayers in its illustrious history, including Hall of Famer Bobby Doerr, and legends like Bob Watson and Eric Davis. In my last few years coaching there, I could barely scrape together enough players for a Junior Varsity team, and many of them were new to the game because there was very little Little League infrastructure in the neighborhood.
Many of the schools in the famed Coliseum League where so many legends had played their high school ball, were now unable to field a J.V. team. We had more forfeits that year than games played. Now, this is a problem that goes far beyond the dwindling popularity of baseball in inner city America, but it certainly is indicative of how the game is vanishing from the American landscape.
I initially fell out from baseball around the time of the 1994 strike. A game that is so poetic feels soiled and tainted when it is wrapped up and strangled in labor disputes. I especially worry about the future of baseball as the current collective bargaining agreement between the players and owners is set to expire following the 2021 season. Given the difficulties that the players and owners had in establishing the parameters for an adapted and shortened season during the pandemic, another labor stoppage is very possibly on the horizon.
I came back to the game because a ball with red stitches is embedded deep in my heart. The tradition of the game will always bring me back, but I worry that future generations of kids will not feel this connection to the game. So many of them already lost an opportunity to play this past season due to the pandemic.
I want others to feel like I did on that night in San Francisco — a forty-year-old with goosebumps and the heart and soul of a ten-year-old. Jon Miller and the announcers of baseball are the ambassadors of this great game, but they can not do their job if the games are not played. We need to embrace the game as they do, or else it will continue to be supplanted as America’s pastime.
The Great Game will never die, but like San Francisco, a city that has taken on a new identity as the center of technology and the global future, it’s history is in danger of taking a backseat. At that point, the game will slowly erode from the heart and soul of America forever, fading away and vanishing like taxis, or a sun setting in the rearview mirror of my rideshare cab…
D. Thayer Russell is currently in the process of assembling and writing hundreds of tales and reflections from a 4-year, 250,000 miles plus journey as a rideshare driver working across the great State of California. He is a former high school teacher, baseball coach, and dedicated father to his amazing, talented, and beautiful daughter.