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|| News Item: Posted 2011-03-14

A Reflection of Baseball and What it Means to Me
Spring is the time of year that I always look forward to.

By Keith Birmingham

Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News

Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News

Los Angeles Dodgers Manny Mota rides his bike past players before a spring training game against the Kansas City Royals at Camelback Stadium on Tuesday, March 1, 2011, in Glendale, Arizona.
Part of that season is spent at high school and collegiate baseball games. Another part of the early spring that I wait for has to do with a specific date on the calendar. That date has nothing to do with presidents, sweethearts or groundhogs. It’s the date that pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to spring training.

Some are Major League veterans with years of experience under their belts and five or six figures on their paychecks. Others arrive in camp with eyes widened by the fact that they’re sharing a clubhouse with players they want to be like. You can usually tell who the unproven players are. They’re the ones that are a little friendly, who rarely look old enough to shave and typically wear a uniform number that is nearing triple-digits.

Each year is usually the same. We arrive in Arizona work on assignments, visit with friends for a wonderful dinner to celebrate a life of not only one of the best baseball photographers that has ever lived, but also more importantly a great person. The players go through drills, game after game. Everyone has the same hopes and dreams – that doing it right in February will lead to a World Series Championship in November.

This year was no different. On second thought, things were noticeably different.

The sights and sounds were the same. The smell of freshly cut grass around perfectly manicured baseball fields hadn’t changed. The heat of the morning sun as it slowly baked the desert floor was just as I had remembered. Even the faraway chatter of players talking and joking with each other brought back memories.

So what was different? The emptiness, for starters. There were fewer photographers and writers trying to beat each other to the breaking story or that unique image. The stagnant economy, though easily ignored by most Major League players, has taken its toll on an industry that has accompanied the sport of baseball through the ages.

Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News

Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News

The late Duke Snider before he tossed out the first pitch on opening day at Dodger Stadium on April 12. 2005.
Even some of the game’s better-known and recognizable players were saying good-bye. Garret Anderson, a longtime fixture in the Angel Stadium outfield, made a stop in Arizona to officially walk away from baseball. He had the luxury of bidding farewell in person. Others, like catcher Greg Goossen and Hall of Fame outfielder Duke Snider could only say good-bye through the headlines that told us they were gone.

Spring training is an event that I look forward to for obvious reasons. But like the other changes that I’ve already mentioned, this year’s trip to Arizona was close to my heart. Right around the time that pitchers, catchers, fans and the media were arriving in Phoenix, I received word that my sister, Pamela Birmingham-Stewart had passed away in Tennessee.

I flew to Nashville made the drive to Columbia, a small town where I with my family, friends mourned and spent time together. I would have gladly remained in Tennessee for a longer period of time but somehow I knew better. I caught a plane back to Los Angeles and hours after my arrival I was on Interstate 10, heading to spring training. Pam would have wanted it that way, in fact she would have insisted.

The long drive gave me plenty of time to think about my sister. I listened to country music and thought about Pam. I drove in silence and thought about her some more. I flipped on the iTunes and listed to “That’s Baseball” made famous by former Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell. Even that conjured up memories of my sister, and the rest of my family. In the 1970s and ‘80s, our family used to make the 15-minute drive to Dodger Stadium. We had season tickets back then. They were in Aisle 28 of the field level, overlooking first base. Seats 5, 6, 7 and 8 belonged to my family. Those same exact old seats sit still in my workshop at home belonging to the Birmingham family because I was able to acquire them with help from a friend.

Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News

Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News

Los Angeles Dodgers' James Loney signs autographs before a spring training game at Camelback Ranch Stadium as the Dodgers beat the Angels 5-1 on Sunday, February 27, 2011, in Glendale,Arizona.
Those were the days of Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell, Ron Cey and Steve Yeager. Left field was known as (Dusty) Baker’s Acres. You could buy Cool A Coo ice cream from a passing vendor, or show off your catching skills by snatching a two-bagger of peanuts from midair. You could savor your Dodger Dog while chants of “Reggie-Reggie” (Smith) filled the stadium. Centerfield was shared by Rick Monday and Lee Lacy. Names like Hank Webb, Stan Wall, Glen Burke and Vic Davalillo were common, as were victories by starting pitchers Don Sutton, Rick Rhoden, Burt Hooton, Charlie Hough and Tommy John. Jim Gilliam was a fixture in the coach’s box and we even witnessed Tommy Lasorda’s first year as the Dodgers’ manager. Jerry Doggett was a familiar voice on the Dodgers’ radio network. I can remember my father and I watching the Dodgers and Yankees battle it out in the cool, crisp air one October. Unfortunately, the other "Reggie" Reggie Jackson lived up to his billing as Mr. October that season.

Harwell had a way of making listeners remember those good ‘ole times. A smile appeared on my face when the next track was one of Lasorda. It was one of his famous rants. This particular one was about Kurt Bevacqua. My sister always got a kick out of hearing one of Tommy’s explosions, even though they were filled with profanity.

I was asked to fill this space with a personal reflection of baseball. Sound simple? It’s not.

Baseball is not just one person, or one place or one thing to me. It has been a way of life. As a fan, a player and a photojournalist. I love the game between the lines but I don't like the business side of it. I love the little things like the feel of a bat in your hands the sound your batting gloves makes when you twist your grip. I love the way the old red infield clay, from my high school and Dodger stadium felt. I love the moments. And I love the memories.

What I don’t like? It’s watching owners fight over a team they never should have been allowed to own in the first place and if not careful damaging a great franchise.

My favorite moments, well at least one of them came on a hot Sunday morning years ago when my best friend and I were talking at the entrance to the visitor’s dugout at the old Angel Stadium. An older gentleman walked out from the clubhouse and looked at us. He smiled and introduced himself (as if we didn't know who he was). He simply said, “Hello my name is Ernie Harwell,” with his distinct, recognizable voice. He didn’t talk down to us. He spoke as if the three of us were old friends.

Some of my favorite moments were created on quiet afternoons on baseball diamonds that had seen better days. A handful of parents were there to watch two last-place high-school teams. There were no agents or scouts. There weren’t any security guards telling me that I couldn't be there. They actually wanted me there. We were all there for one simple reason: because we love the game of baseball.

My favorite baseball items are not my autographed Sandy Koufax or Bob Gibson baseballs, or my autographed Pete Rose or Keith Hernandez gloves. My favorite item is a 70 year-old beat-up black wood bat and first baseman glove that belonged to my dad. We shared a lot together, trains, hunting and fishing and the love of baseball. March 3 was the 25-year anniversary of his death, though it feels like it just happened.

Photo by

Keith Birmingham, with his sister Pam (right).
As I wrote this piece, I spent a few minutes looking at some of the pictures on my piano. There is one of Duke Snider and me. There’s one of my friend Jon SooHoo and me on the pitchers’ mound at the Los Angeles Coliseum. There is also a photo in the well at Dodger Stadium, surrounded by my friends Alex, Terry and Michael. And an old portrait I shot of Vin Scully among many others.

What makes me smile the most, however, can’t be found on the piano. For that you’ll have to read my mind. That’s where the memories of my friends, my teammates, my family and my sister live. Where memories of the times we spent dreaming, playing, photographing and watching baseball remains. They’re memories that will stay with me forever. That's baseball to me.

Keith Birmingham is a staff photographer at the Pasadena Star-News. You can see samples of his work on his Sports Shooter member page: You can also check out his work at his personal website:

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