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Remembering My Youth, Through Baseball

ED GORDON, host:

The World Series kicks off tomorrow in Chicago. Both teams already have a big reason to celebrate. For the Houston Astros, it's their first trip to the World Series. The Chicago White Sox have only done slightly better. Their last World Series visit was in 1959. But no matter who's playing on Saturday, commentator and baseball fan Mark Anthony Neal says there's no way he'd miss the big game.


Perhaps no other season of the year is as endearing to me than autumn. Sure, I dig things like apple picking, fall foliage in the Adirondacks, and that hint of coolness in the air that allows you to rock that cable knit sweater. But most importantly, it's time for the Fall Classic: baseball's World Series. Indeed, the World Series conjures memories of my childhood and my understanding of the manhood that awaited. I was only five years old when I watched my first World Series. It was 1971 and the Baltimore Orioles were battling the burly Pittsburgh Pirates.

(Soundbite of 1971 World Series game)

Unidentified Sports Announcer: Pirates lead 1-nothing, playing here in the top of the fourth. Each team in with one hit.

NEAL: It was that series that introduced me to the majestic athleticism of Roberto Clemente, a whirling blur of speed and style who became one of the sport's dominant Latino stars. For years after first watching Clemente, whenever I played softball I would purposely wear my hat loosely on my head so that it would fall off the same way that Clemente's did as he rounded the bases.

(Soundbite of 1971 World Series game)

Unidentified Sports Announcer: Here's Bobby Clemente. Pops to short his first time up. Hits a screwball a mile into left-center field. It is going, it is gone!

(Soundbite of cheering crowd)

NEAL: By 1973, I was a full-fledged baseball fanatic, and it was my favorite team, the New York Mets, playing the Oakland A's for the World Series title. Though the Mets lost, my enduring memory of that series was the performances of two players who were at opposite ends of their careers. Throughout his career, Willie Mays personified grace, with a boyish charm that appealed to millions. But at 42 years old and in his last season, Mays tripped and slipped his way through the Series, becoming a metaphor for players who stayed in the game well past their primes. Indeed, Mays' performance helped my seven-year-old self better understand the ravages of aging. In comparison, Reggie Jackson had yet to reach his peak. That would come a few years later when he joined the New York Yankees and became Mr. October. But during the 1973 Series, Jackson exuded the brashness that would later become synonymous with him and generations of black ball players who would come after him, including Daryl Strawberry and Barry Bonds.

As I approach the age of 40 and begin to contemplate the realities of middle age, watching baseball has become one of the ways that I tap into a youthfulness that I hope will travel with me well into my senior years. Decades later, Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays and Reggie Jackson remain dear to me, if only because they gave me a glimpse into the range of possibilities that awaited a little nappy-headed black boy who simply loved to watch baseball.

GORDON: Mark Anthony Neal is an associate professor with the Department of African and African American Studies at Duke University and author of the "New Black Man."

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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