The first thing that came back to me about this place was the familiar smell - popcorn and beer and cigars . . . and summer. Even in the fall, Comiskey Park always smelled like summer.
Then the sounds came back, the hawkers, the ballpark capitalism."Program. Gitchya program."
"Peanuts - $2.75 inside, buck a bag here."
It had been five years since I'd been back, or was it 10, or more? I'd left Comiskey behind, as I'd left behind Chicago, in pursuit of career, and since then, the city had changed enormously, new buildings replacing old, and I'd never cared much about the changes, but this was different. When I heard they would soon be tearing down Comiskey Park, I had to come back for a last visit.
We entered the park, my old man, my four brothers, my mother - the family as it used to be - and I began to wonder what brought me here. What was it I came looking for? Nostalgia? Yes, but it was something more, and at first, I wasn't sure what.
Most fans will forever see ballparks as they saw them at a certain age, usually around 8 or 10. For the old man, that was the 1930s, and as he always used to do, he began to name the White Sox line-up of that decade. "Zeke Bananas Bonura played first," he reminded us, "Luke Aches-and-Pains Appling at short, Iron Mike Kreevich in right." My younger brother Nicky shook his head. "He doesn't even remember our names," he said.
"Kiss off, boy," said the old man, which is what he used to say here when we gave him a hard time.
I looked for changes, but didn't see many. The grass was still the greenest green of any grass, kids still stretched over the dugout for autographs. Of course, they never used to have high-priced skyboxes here, and we'd decided, for this reunion, to splurge for seven seats in one - cushioned seats in front of a sunken living room complete with a catered tray of roast beef. It was pure luxury. After two innings, we had a meeting.
"Let's get out of this dump," one of the brothers said. We made our way down into the stands, finding seats way back behind first base, our view partly blocked by a post, which is how we used to do Comiskey. Much better.
Now we began to look for the most important players, just as we'd once done, and I saw one right away: a vendor selling ice cream drumsticks. Everyone bought one except my oldest brother, Hugh, who proceeded to ask me for a bite, then ate the whole thing, explaining he enjoyed drumsticks best when he was taking them from me.
I'd brought my mitt, partly as a joke, but on every pitch, I tensed and leaned forward, and it came back to me that the most diligent times I prayed as a child were here, at Comiskey: Please God, I would murmur, let Aparacio foul just one in my direction. I'll do anything you say for the rest of my life if you just let me catch one ball. It never happened.
Just as diligently, I used to jam Bazooka bubblegum in my mouth until my left cheek blew out like a spinnaker, because that's how Nellie Fox did it with tobacco, and I truly believed that if I mimicked that cheek closely enough I'd one day grow up to have a .306 average. Nellie Fox. Little Looie. Big Klu at first. The memories all came back.
And something else came back, too. The old man took out a cigar, bit off the end the same way he used to and spat it at my shoes. And we fought over the program, and stole each other's popcorn, and talked about each other's lives. And we were together again.
And now I knew: That's what I'd come looking for. I'd come looking for what we had, and still have, but more important, I'd come looking for the secret behind it. And I'd found it.
For some it's a ballpark, for others it's a picnic spot, for still others a cabin by the water. It's finding a special place where you can build memories together. That's what forges families into families.
That, over time, with the family I'm now starting, is what I hope to be able to do: find a few Comiskey Parks of our own.
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service