On a chilly morning in October 1979, on the coal-dusted edge of Beijing, China, I sat in the apartment of an American who had once moved in Chairman Mao’s circles, then fell out of favor and had been jailed for it. He had recently been released from a Chinese prison, and — because of my friendship with his son — he invited me over to sit next to his massive shortwave radio and hear the Pittsburgh Pirates play the Baltimore Orioles in the seventh game of the 1979 World Series. I was 11, living overseas with my professor parents and missing an extraordinary baseball postseason. I was a baseball fan unanchored, a Pittsburgher adrift.
I had been trying to follow the pennant run and the postseason, but doing that was as slow as swimming through a milkshake. There was no internet, no iPhone to check for scores — only painfully delayed surface mail from my grandmother in Florida, who sent me articles from the St. Petersburg Times about the Pirates. As they did better and better through August and September, the articles got splashier and bigger, and I pasted them into a scrapbook with bad Chinese glue. So when I listened, on Armed Forces Radio early in the morning, as Willie Stargell slammed a sixth-inning, two-run homer against Baltimore’s Scotty McGregor to win the Series, I touched a tiny slice of home — of Pittsburgh, of my house in its suburbs. In those distant analog days, such connections to where I came from were few and far between, and I was grateful. It sustained me.
It has been so very different for my Pittsburgh-raised, baseball-hungry sons and their parents these past 3 ½ years while we lived in Bangkok for my job and spent time traveling across Asia.
For most of four Pirate seasons, MLB.tv sustained us in Thailand when we couldn’t be at PNC Park. This was particularly true on the early school mornings when, because of the time difference, we enticed the kids to get their butts out of bed by making sure the voices of Greg Brown & Co. were blasting from the TV in the background.
Our apartment heard the loud cheers of walk-off wins and the sad sighs from our boys when their favorites, Russell Martin and Travis Snider, moved on. The then-9-year-old pulled out all the stops for a tape-delayed Opening Day 2016. The games also helped me, across the miles, maintain a close relationship with my older sister, a big fan of the 1971 Pirates who lived in Bangkok as a little girl before I was born and who, has, like us, returned to watching baseball closely in recent years.
Two mornings ago — Oct. 2, 2017, coincidentally also the 93rd birthday of my baseball-loving mother — I pulled myself out of bed before dawn and watched the final live Pirate game I will get to watch while living in Bangkok.
This time, I watched alone; the boys and my wife went back to Pittsburgh several weeks ago for the beginning of the school year. I watched as the (very long!) game edged to its 11-run end early on a Monday morning with a nice offensive display and a sneak preview of what might be ahead for the Pirates (Max Moroff, Jacob Stallings). And I felt gratitude that, while we were living in Thailand, our family had what I lacked nearly four decades ago as an American boy living overseas — access to live baseball that provided a real-time connection to home.
This was an interesting run for our family, following the Bucs from so far away with my wife and boys — and during my own travels across Asia, too. I watched the 2015 wildcard game on my iPad while lying on a hotel bed in Beijing, China, after a redeye from Bangkok. I saw games on my mobile devices in Vietnam, Hong Kong, South Korea, Myanmar. And there was the moment in Summer 2014, in the middle of nowhere three hours outside Pyongyang, North Korea, when, wearing my Sunday-alternate mustard-yellow cap, I pulled out my phone and watched 90 fleeting seconds of a Pirate game. I like to think that it confounded the MLB.com IT guys who were charged with monitoring the IP addresses (“What the heck is THAT stream?”).
We hear often about Steeler Nation. But it is Pirate World that helped my family make it through this period in our lives — familiar faces, familiar places, a daily reminder that home still existed and, as home often does, was there waiting for us to reclaim it.
Now my boys are home, living once more in our second-generation family house in the North Hills. I will follow them and my wife there in several weeks when I wrap up here. The 14-year-old is a high-school freshman, talking about going out for the school team in the spring, and the 10-year-old is now playing fall ball. They’ve been to three games at PNC Park since they got back in August. They walk around like they own the place. It’s as if they never left.
My wife and I talk about how grateful we are for their (and our) time abroad, and we are grateful that they’re home once more. They are different people because of their three-year journey across Asia, but they are still the same boys, too. That’s thanks in part to the connecting power of baseball and the hometown DNA it carries with it.
And in an age of technological marvels, I think that’s particularly true when the game is propelled into the ether, across mountains and oceans and time zones to people like us — people with gloves extended, waiting underneath unfamiliar skies to catch a taste of home.
- № 23 is Missing, in which a platooning outfielder is traded from one mid-sized industrial city to another, and the ripples are felt by a small boy in Thailand.
- Pittsburghers of the Year, 2013: The Pittsburgh Pirates, in which, after decades of anticipation, the city’s baseball team wins back the hearts of ‘a lost generation of fans.’
- Three Strikes and You’re Out — Maybe, a defense of baseball’s messy imperfection.
- A Bad Day for Rennie Stennett, a mini-memoir on Josh Wilker’s baseball-card blog Cardboard Gods.
- When Baseball Meant More Than All the Tea in China, a look at China in 1979 and a young boy’s search for baseball there. (A more detailed retelling of the first few paragraphs of this piece.)
Ted Anthony, a Pittsburgher living in Thailand (for several more weeks), is a Baby Boomer by generation and a Gen-Xer by age. He has been dissecting and musing about American culture since Guns N’ Roses was on the charts and “Rain Man” was in the theaters. He is the author of Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song. He tweets here, Instagrams here and collects various fragmentary images and thoughts on Tumblr here.
©2017 | Ted Anthony