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Dog days and baseball
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At last the dog days of August have arrived.

Those of us who have logged more than half a century here in my native state know well what to expect from the unique combination of high heat and humidity; it's that time of year when only mad dogs and Englishmen come out in the noonday sun.

Afternoon buildups of cumulonimbus clouds portend sudden downpours followed by sauna-bath steam heat, the only escape from which is into that wondrous invention called air conditioning.

I recall, like it was yesterday, growing up in un-air-conditioned Georgia, and playing baseball during the dog days. Of course, way back in the mid-20th century, school didn't start in the middle of summer. But that was then, not now.

Although many dramatic changes have occurred over the last 50 or so years, two things remain constant, at least - the dog days of August, and the great American game of baseball.

About 42 years ago, if memory serves, movers and shakers in Atlanta convinced Major League Baseball that it was time to move "the show" south. The Milwaukee Braves, winners of the 1957 World Series, were destined to arrive in 1965 in old Marthasville. But a Milwaukee used car salesman, Bud Selig, sued to stop the move, succeeding in delaying it until 1966.

Thus, the first major league game ever played in what was then brand new Atlanta Stadium was an exhibition between the still-Milwaukee Braves and the Detroit Tigers. Detroit's announcer was Ernie Harwell, my uncle, whose broadcasting career started at old Ponce de Leon Park, where he called games for the independent AAA Atlanta Crackers on WSB-AM radio.

Now a permanent resident in Cooperstown's Baseball Hall of Fame, Ernie took me and my younger brother, Rhee, on a grand tour of the gleaming new ballpark on Capitol Avenue, from deep in the catacombs all the way up to the press box.

We were 14 and 12, wide-eyed small town boys, virtually speechless when introduced to players like Henry "Hammerin' Hank" Aaron, Eddie Mathews, and Warren Spahn.

Last week, in part to celebrate my brother turning 55 - and in part because neither of us could remember the last time we'd seen a major league game together - Rhee and I visited Turner Field as the Braves hosted the St. Louis Cardinals.

We were on our way out to watch batting practice when a gully-washer of a storm hit. Changing course, we headed for the blissful air-conditioning of the press box.

On the way, we met Larry "Bo" Osborne, a special assignment scout for the San Francisco Giants. Bo once played for the old Washington Senators, and later for Detroit, and he remembered Ernie's arrival behind the Tiger Stadium microphone for WJR radio at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull.

Ernie is the only announcer ever traded for a player. No kidding. The Brooklyn Dodgers wanted Ernie to call their games, and thus traded catcher Cliff Dapper to the minor league Crackers for Ernie. Later, he called for the New York Giants, then briefly for Baltimore prior to settling in Detroit in 1960.

So last Tuesday night, with batting practice rained out, Rhee and I tried to recall all the stadiums we'd visited over the course of Ernie's amazing career.

I guess the best story involved one night during the dog days of 1959 at old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. We were seated in the upper deck in right field as the Orioles hosted the Yankees. A young center fielder by the name of Mickey Mantle crushed a homer up there that our dad managed to grab for us. After the game, Ernie had "the Mick" sign the ball, and at home it resided on a special pedestal on our mantle over the fireplace.

A few summers later, on a fateful dog day afternoon, we were playing catch out in the front yard. One of us threw wildly and our very last horsehide rolled down the street into a storm drain. We were faced with the prospect of not being able to play any longer, unless...

Yep, you guessed it.

We took the Mickey Mantle ball off the little pedestal over the fireplace. Sure enough, despite extra care, one of us again threw wildly and the priceless baseball headed for the storm drain - with both of us sprinting wildly in pursuit.

Folks in the press box Tuesday night probably thought we were a little crazy. Both of us were laughing out loud, pointing fingers at each other, yelling about whose fault it was losing the Mickey Mantle ball. Rhee remembered how we could see "the Mick" resting just out of reach on the ledge of a precipice in that drain, and how I got mad when he wouldn't let me hold his ankles and try to lower him through the grate to get the ball.

Those were, indeed, the days. Things were so much simpler.

As Rhee and I watched the 2008 Braves drop another game in this disappointing season, we focused on the sights and sounds of the ball park. Barkers hawking peanuts, hot dogs and ice cold beer, the groans from the stands at missed opportunities, and that unmistakable sound in the sixth inning when the Cards' Albert Pujols struck a fastball that let every fan know it was, as Ernie would have called it, "lo-o-o-ng gone."

Funny what you remember. Driving home I pictured sitting in the right field bleachers at Atlanta Stadium, watching the sky go from blue to purple to black, each transition was as brilliant in its own way as the last.

I remembered the days growing up in Greensboro, making a running over-the-shoulder catch in deep center on a sandlot called Robinson Field. And there was a pure sand field down in Siloam, Georgia, behind a lumber yard, where I hit my one and only home run.

Undoubtedly, the 2008 dog days heat will be brutal, and will likely exacerbate the myriad of problems besetting our citizenry. Serious matters abound, the solutions to which call for careful scrutiny, thought and concerted action.

Kind of makes me long for the dog days of what seems just yesterday, when losing a Mickey Mantle baseball was the worst thing that ever could have happened.

Nat Harwell is a Newton County resident whose column appears Sundays in The Covington News.