It was only 15-miles away but I secretly hoped it would take hours.
Leaving Jack Murphy Stadium under the arm of my grandfather at the start of the eighth inning became the tradition. We never saw the Padres play a complete game. He was concerned about traffic and wanted to get home to my grandmother and his wife in El Cajon. I never felt as if I had been cheated because we always showed up 90-minutes before the game to watch batting practice and the ground crews prep the field for the impending game.
There would be hot dogs smothered in ketchup and Cokes as we walked down to his season tickets three rows above the visitor’s dugout. My father taught me a proper hot dog had only mustard on it and when I questioned my grandfather, he would dive into a story about his naval career during World War II where the only condiment was ketchup. Because of his four years serving on the USS Henley throughout the Pacific, he added ketchup to anything and everything that he shoveled into his mouth. A quick-wit from Atlantic City, New Jersey, the only thing he was able to do faster than eat was talk.
Our seats were fantastic. They completely spoiled me for any further major league baseball game. Along the third base side right on the aisle directly above the other team’s dugout, you could hear the colorful language of the players and the brutally harsh tongues of the coaches. Baseball is a man’s game and those that make a life of counting the balls and strikes of the game were unafraid to let loose a stream of expletives that caused me to smile numbly at my grandpa. He had these seats before Jack Murphy was constructed and the Padres were some expansion team in the PCL. He made San Diego home after the war and the first thing he did after getting work as a union plumber was to secure the best seats in the house in Southern California.
When the Padres entered the majors in 1969, they left Westgate Park and made Jack Murphy home. Even when PETCO was built and Grandpa took me to the inaugural game in 2004, I was instructed firmly that it was never Qualcomm. It was simply the Murph. It was an ugly stadium but my eye never left the Swingin’ Friars as they took the field. My only regret with our seats was that my favorite player was parked in right field. The greatest hitter in the modern era after Ted Williams was wearing #19, shagging fly balls and slapping opposite field hits confounding even the best pitchers of the day. Tony Gwynn was God and my Grandpa Tom brought me to him every summer.
I was born in El Cajon, a small town in eastern San Diego in the exact same hospital room as my mother. My parents were bouncing around California in 1974 with my father trying to establish a medical practice. We detoured to Maryland in the late 70’s when he was stationed at Walter Reed Medical Center after joining the US Army. We landed in Las Vegas when he got out and started working for Southwest Medical. Las Vegas was a far cry from Maryland and California and my mother would haul the kids to San Diego at every available chance. We spent countless summers in San Diego at the beach and at the ballpark with Grandpa Tom at night.
Being the oldest, I took the lion share of the games and relished in those long trips with him to the ballpark. He would talk about everything with a level of expertise reserved for doctorial students and bar stool drunks. A born exaggerator, his military service during the War went from him serving as a gunner on a ship outside the Philippines to him not only developing the atomic bomb but also flying the Enola Gay and dropping the bomb on Nagasaki. The stories became more and more extravagant as I went from sitting in the passenger seat of his work truck to me eventually doing the driving to the Murph as he talked over the sport’s radio.
I wouldn’t have traded those moments for anything.
But we always left at the start of the Eighth. We’d start the long walk up the stairs to the causeway with Grandpa shaking every ushers’ hand and waving good-bye to fellow Pad People. With his calloused hand holding mine as I fought off sleep and still staring wildly at the field, we make it out of the park and into his truck. He’d turn on the stereo to the game and became the third voice in the broadcast booth. Joining the stream of fans departing, he would paint an image of the game as I looked towards the illuminated radio imagining that we were still back at the Murph.
It was a simple relationship. I’d fuss with the oversized seatbelt as Grandpa explain the play-by-play as I listen quietly picturing what Tony Gwynn, Luis Salazar, Terry Kennedy or Graig Nettles were doing on the field. He’d continue with the game as we headed east back towards their oversized rambler home in the middle of an avocado farm in El Cajon. There was nothing but me, the radio and Grandpa Tom. The magical part of the experience was that, win or lose, the last out was always recorded as we pulled into his garage. Collectively, we would celebrate or moan as we hear who the winning pitcher was and the final tally.
Walking inside, we’d find a quieted house with my siblings asleep in the bedroom above the garage and my mother in bed in her childhood room. I’d tell Grandpa thank you and join my brothers and sister. The last thing I would see before I headed off to bed was Tom flashing his big smile and thanking me for going with him. Even as a kid, I knew that he paid for everything and was always elated that he wanted me with him even though he could have gone with anyone.
Tom Devlin passed away May 19, 2010. I wasn’t there to say good-bye.
I thought of him today because Erin and I went to our first Salt Lake Bees game of the season. It was a one-sided match with the Bees punishing the Oklahoma City RedHawks in the first three innings. They eventually won 10-3. We weren’t there. We left early to get a burger and a beer at Lucky 13. Walking from the bar to my truck, I tuned the radio to 1280am and listened to the game on the way back to Sugarhouse.
Erin asked why I was so emotionally invested in the game. I told her I wasn’t but it reminded me of Grandpa Tom. She smiled gently and settled back into the passenger seat. We drove on in silence, listening to the balls and strikes with the glow of the consule lighting our faces as we headed home.