Excerpt: 'The Best Seat in the House'

My mind wandered those evenings sitting on the sofa by myself. I never knew what the other team's players looked like. I didn't know what color their uniforms were. There was no way to know if the radio announcer didn't mention it; the local TV stations never went on the road with the Mud Hens, so there were no game highlights to be seen. It was still a full decade before the launch of ESPN, even longer before the arrival of local sports cable stations. I had to rely on the stories and black-and-white photos in the newspaper to tell me what the game must have looked like. That, and my imagination. Years later, a sportswriting colleague told me that he had the same problem. When his favorite major-leaguer was traded, he wrote to ask him a simple question: "What number are you wearing with your new team?"

The newspaper sports section then became my guide, and many days, I grew impatient waiting for it. We subscribed to the afternoon Blade, and it arrived around 4 P.M., sometimes 4:30. So eager was I to start in on the box scores and the wire reports of the previous night's major-league games that I sometimes stood quietly in our foyer, waiting for the thunk on the doorstep. Even after listening to the entire Mud Hens game the previous night, I devoured the newspaper stories the next day. I realized I actually was more interested in reading about a game after I had spent the night listening to it. Even at this early age, I was intrigued to see how the writers described it, what they chose to emphasize. I pored over the box scores and analyzed the International League standings to see who had gained a game or who had fallen back. I did the same for the Tigers and the other major-league teams, but I spent the most time on the Mud Hens. A few years later, the television show M*A*S*H and its nutty Corporal Klinger, played by Toledoan Jamie Farr, introduced the nation to the Mud Hens. People came to realize then what I was understanding in the 1960s, that our Mud Hens were the very essence of minor-league ball. They had been around forever and had a colorful history. Dad told me the great Casey Stengel even had been Toledo's manager in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Back in the late 1800s, the team had been alternately known as the Blue Stockings, the Toledos (the Toledo Toledos?), the Maumees (for the river that runs through town), and the Swamp Angels. For a while, their stadium was located in marshland inhabited by ducklike birds. Amused by these creatures that occasionally joined them in the outfield, opposing players began calling them "mud hens." In 1896, this became the team's permanent nickname. What a godsend this would become a century later when merchandisers inherited the earth and people wanted offbeat souvenirs like hats with a hen on them.

The man who brought the Mud Hens to life for me in our living room every night in 1969 was Frank Gilhooley, a local sportscaster with a rich, jolly voice. He was the Hens' radio play-by-play man. There was a language to sports, and I began to learn it from him. One night, Gilhooley mentioned "the hot corner." I didn't know what that was. I waited for him to use the term again, to see if I could figure it out, but before he did, Dad walked into the living room.

"What's the hot corner, Dad?"

If this question surprised him, coming out of the blue as it did, he didn't miss a beat. "That's another term for third base." I thought about that for a moment.

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