My grandfather, Norman Mitchell, used to joke when the Detroit Tigers were losing badly, as they did frequently throughout my childhood going to games with him, that they “at least looked good in their uniforms.”
He kept cheering them on at Tiger Stadium through some lean stretches. He knew the ushers by name, and they knew him. Parking attendants, too. And hot dog vendors. And the folks who sat behind the third base dugout in the section where he had season tickets for something like 30 years.
The Tigers specifically, and baseball more generally, worked as the connective tissue in his relationship with his grandkids. My memories of him — playing catch in his backyard, watching games with him on TV or at the ballpark — are largely baseball memories. When he died in 2008, the Detroit Tigers front office sent a card. The pallbearers wore Tigers hats.
This is not a unique story. Baseball fans all over the country can tell you their version. The game holds a special place in American culture. Its relatively long history in America combined with its languid pace, drawn-out season and pastoral aesthetic imbue it with a sepia-toned romanticism that indoor sports like basketball and hockey lack and that combat sports like football and boxing are too violent for. Baseball is Americana, just as much as apple pie, rock ‘n’ roll and the automobile.
So when you talk to baseball fans about why they love the game, you tend to hear more about family than about batting averages. That’s certainly the case for Jeff Garretson, general manager of the Yakima Valley Pippins, who open their season Tuesday on the road before their June 7 home opener at Yakima County Stadium.
Garretson (who, full disclosure, was a longtime editor at this newspaper before taking the Pippins job) is a baseball lifer. Though he never really played himself, he grew up in the game. His grandfather, Bob Garretson, played for the old professional version of the Pippins, back in the 1930s. And his father, Bob Jr., won two American Legion World Series as coach of the Yakima Beetles, then coached at Yakima Valley College.
“My grandpa played, my dad played, my younger brother played, I didn’t,” Garretson said. “But for my brother and I growing up, it was summers at Parker Field when Dad was coaching the Beetles. From our youngest memories we were always out there. That was our summer life. And things like that just stick with you.”
Baseball got the family through a lot, including Bob Sr.’s death in 1988, during the Beetles’ annual Fourth of July tournament. Bob Jr. and Jeff worked the tournament in shock, sharing the burden of their grief with a stadium full of friends and family. The Beetles went to the Series that year — the last time they’ve gone that far.
“That’s what baseball is to me,” Garretson said.
Bob Jr. retired from coaching more than a decade ago, but he still hangs around the team and the game.
“When I started out here toward the end of the 2015 season, he came to me that winter and said, ‘Jeff, I gotta do something,’” Garretson said. “And so he was my groundskeeper, my head groundskeeper out here for the last three years. ... It is really how the family has connected. I’m always busy no matter what time of year it is. I don’t get to see my family much. Mom and Dad, my brother and sister, and the nephews. But having Dad out here the last few years, that gave us a chance to spend some time together.”
Memories like that, much more than balls and strikes or stolen bases, are what give baseball its staying power in the American consciousness. Sure, you’ll remember big wins and big losses, the time you saw some pitcher strike out 15 guys or some slugger hit for the cycle. But the best memories will be about the people you were with.
Todd Lyons, the morning guy on 94.5 KATS FM, is about as big a public baseball fan as there is in this town. He can quote you stats or debate the merits of this or that third baseman with you all day. But he knows baseball’s magic lies in its ability to connect people.
“Baseball is an heirloom,” Lyons said. “It’s an heirloom that gets handed down from generation to generation.”
That’s why stadiums are such powerful places. The sense memory triggered by the crack of the bat, or the impossibly green outfield grass or the smell of fresh popcorn popping, has the potential to link us to our past.
“That’s something everyone who ever went to a game with their dad has,” Lyons said. “You can always, in your mind, get transported instantly back to that time and that memory of that person who was important to you.”
It doesn’t matter if you’re at a Tigers game, a Mariners game or a Pippins game; a baseball stadium is a place where people share experience.
“You’re not going to remember the score,” Garretson said. “But you are going to remember it if your kid catches a foul ball or gets an autograph or your grandkids are out on the field running the bases with the mascot. Those are the family bonding moments that we sell. We sell the excitement, the family and friends. We sell that atmosphere.”
That’s not to say the action on the field is inconsequential. But it’s not the only thing. Sure, you want the Mariners or the Pippins or the Tigers (or whoever) to win. But if they don’t, you still got to spend a summer evening in the sun with friends and family, sharing stories and laughs over a couple of beers.
And the team, well, at least they looked good in their uniforms.