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The Art of the Narrative

I just bought the most expensive iPhone application since I began using my iPod touch. $9.99 doesn’t sound like much, but for an iPhone application, that’s a premium.

Allow me to explain how this happened.

When I was a kid, once or twice—or perhaps if I was lucky, three times—per year, my dad would round everyone up in the car and we’d go for a little drive. Sometimes, he’d even invite his old college buddies (who were basically like family to me) to come along. The drive wasn’t always the same route, and we didn’t always need to take the drive at the same time, but the destination was always Michigan and Trumbull.

Tiger Stadium.

My dad loves baseball. He used to play—professionally. He grew up in suburban Detroit in the 40’s, in a house only a handful of blocks from the one I grew up in. I wish that I had been old enough to realize back then what a connection it was with my father to go to games at the corner of those two streets, in what was then one of the two oldest parks in Major League Baseball (Fenway was the other and is still the champion). I never appreciated what a gift it was to watch guys play the sport in the same place where my dad would have when he was young—where I’m sure he dreamed of someday being one of those players.

I remember approaching the building and simply being in awe of its presence. It’s this unbelievably gargantuan, stark-white sort of a building. You could see it from a great distance, towering above everything else. There was always this great anticipation upon handing over your ticket and walking through the turnstyles: What seats would we have? Where would we be? Upper or lower deck? (There were advantages to both for that place.)

For me, there’s nothing like the moment where you come out of the concourse surrounding the seating area and emerge into the ballpark itself. It’s revelatory. You would go from being indoors, surrounded by concrete and steel, shadows and artificial light, to seeing green grass, the color of the stands themselves, and the players standing on the field conducting warmups. The Hammond would be playing, or they’d be pumping music from the radio over the loudspeakers. You could smell the grass on the breeze. Sometimes we’d get there so early that we would try to get autographs during batting practice.

My dad always liked to get seats on the third base line if he could. We’d usually get something in the upper deck, and yes, sometimes (more often than not) there would be a steel I-beam the width of a modestly-sized person right in the way of seeing center field. Tiger Stadium had personality. Obstructed seats, two decks of bleachers and huge amounts of seating in both left and right field, a roof in left onto which only the most powerful right-handers had ever cranked a ball, a flag pole in fair play, and a center field so deep that home runs went there to die—all these things combined to make the stadium another player in games against the visiting team.

I recall sitting in my seat with my cap just over my brow, maybe fighting with my brother over something, and my dad teaching me how to keep box score. There were hot dogs and soda (my dad’s not a beer drinker), and maybe if we were lucky one of those little malt cups with the wooden thing vaguely shaped like a spoon. We’d watch the game; Dad’s college buddy and eternal bachelor Carol would watch the women; we’d cheer, clap, heckle, and do all those things you do at a game. I lived for doing the wave.

Sometimes it would be a windy day game on the weekend. Sometimes it would be a sticky, humid night game in the late summer. Occasionally, it would rain and we’d be thankful for the obstructed seating. Once, we made it through a tornado warning and a green sky and finished out the game. We’d always stay to the end. When you’re 8, it’s a big deal when you get to stay up into the double-digits. I wouldn’t have missed it.

I even got to see way more of the place than most people ever did. My next-door neighbor was the audio engineer for WJR radio. He sat in the booth with Ernie Harwell, running the board and making sure the sound was just right. I got to go up there once. I saw the press box, got to see how the recording process worked, and even managed to see the owner’s box and the clubhouse box. I met Jim Northrup up there and he autographed a ball for us. My dad still has it.

Going to Tiger Stadium was the highlight of my summer.

Now, the place is torn down except for dugout to dugout around the infield. The grass isn’t kept up. Plants grow in the box seats, and all that obstructed seating isn’t there anymore. It’s a shell, an empty reminder of another era (or two). You can see some pictures taken just before the demolition here. It’s hard for me to look at them. But it’s still that place of memory for me, a relic from my childhood.

I know what you’re asking. What does this have to do with an iPhone application?

MLB.com released their new At Bat application for iPhone recently. I didn’t buy last year. But this year, they’re including gameday audio from every team on both home and away games. I started thinking about how there were many nights where we couldn’t go to the stadium and instead would either watch the game on TV or I’d use my clock radio to turn the game on when I went to bed and fall asleep to the sounds of the place.

I started thinking about the ability to listen to all of those games—and not just those of the Tigers. (I am an acclimated Cardinals fan now, after all, but that’s OK because they’re in the NL.) I thought about the sounds of the game and the unique quality provided by a radio broadcast from a home team announcer. And when I began thinking those things, the memories—the story—of how awesome baseball was to me as a child swept through my mind. It created an unbelievably emotional connection, one that I think you can see as you’ve read these words now.

I don’t think I can explain it. I’m not even sure it makes sense.

But I do know this: do you want to reach people? Do you want to connect with them? (Sometimes, you might even want to sell them something.) Tell them a story. Give them something that connects them to their personal stories.

I’ve given you an example from my experience. What kinds of things connect with you?

  1. Awesome. I remember quite vividly going to the 1982 World Series in St. Louis with my dad, watching Willie McGee hitting a homer. Telling a story is how you connect to a person's life.

    This is why, imo, the Gospels should hold priority in preaching, then the Old Testament. Sermons, at least to some degree, should always tell a story, connect us to the life of our Lord, and draw us into the eternal story of God's love for His fallen children.

    Play ball!

  2. Love it. Brought back fond memories of the time my dear dad (may he rest in peace) took me to my first professional baseball game, in Atlanta. They still played double-header and we saw a double-header, and I got to see Hank Aaron hit two homers. Wonderful memories.

    And of course, as I'm sure you would agree same things happen when watching "The Natural" and "Field of Dreams" … heavenly movies!

  3. I am coming to think being a fan of a team is embracing a story – the story of a city, the triumphs and tragedies of a franchise, and maybe the mascot. I like to joke about how my Christianity is intertwined with my love of the Vikings, because both require embracing suffering (theology of the cross). It's a joke, but there's some truth to it for me too.

    When I was 10, my dad had taken me to the old Met Stadium (on which site now stands the Mall of America) to see the Vikings play the Browns. The Vikings were losing, per usual, and my dad decided we should go to beat the traffic. I refused to leave, and Ahmad Rashad caught a miracle pass that led to the Vikings winning the Central Division. I am convinced that that one moment blessed/cursed me with the belief that it is always possible to win, no matter how long the odds.

    I bought At Bat too. Can't wait to listen to the Twins this summer.

  4. I have to admit that I wasn't expecting to strike such a chord with this article.

    Thanks for the responses, all.

  5. I'm looking forward to testing out At Bat this evening for the first game of the season. I'll get a feeling how long my iPod touch battery will last when the WiFi is in full use and the screen is on.

    Braves at Phillies. 7 p.m. CT!

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