Sunday, April 20, 2014 · 12:42 p.m.

Deering: Opening Day conjures memories of yesteryear

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Engel Stadium hosted Opening Day festivities for the Chattanooga Lookouts from 1930 to 1999. The Lookouts will begin their 2012 season on Thursday night at AT&T Park. (Photo: Chattanooga Lookouts)

The opening of the baseball season—that glorious time of year when the doldrums of winter evanesce into the buoyancy of spring—is finally here. For the diehard fan, there’s nothing like the ambience of Opening Day at the ballpark.

The Lookouts will raise the curtain on the 2012 season Thursday night at 7:15 as they host the Tennessee Smokies.

It was 60 years ago this week that my uncle took me to my first Opening Day at Engel Stadium. Back then, baseball’s rebirth was cause for a citywide celebration. Schools dismissed at noon, many businesses closed and a throng of more than 10,000 would convene at the venerable old park to welcome another season.

Joe Engel, the Lookouts’ president, would be there, spectacularly clad in a white suit and eager to preside over the opening ceremony. Ruby Williams would have her bevy of concession vendors in full voice, singing out “Peanuts, popcorn, Crackerjacks.” The organist’s happy tunes would echo through the PA system. Gus Chamberlain would be warming up his voice for his popular radio broadcast. 

The sights, sounds and smells of Opening Day remain vivid in my memory. The aroma of hot dogs turning on the rotisserie, the crack of the ball off the bat during batting practice and the image of a pristine field yearning for action will remain with me forever.

I had seen a few games the year before when my dad was teaching me about baseball, but Opening Day in 1952 was something special. We had box seats behind the Lookouts’ dugout. I had never been that close to the players, those soon-to-be-heroes who would go on to win the Southern Association pennant, the Lookouts’ first since 1939.

There was Cal Ermer, the fiery young manager who would become a close friend in later years. There, right in front of me, were the veteran Ellis Clary, who led the team in hitting; Ringgold’s Roy Hawes, who led the team in home runs; and others like Gene Verble, Al Sima, Dick Sinovic and little Ernie Oravetz. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

Sinovic’s status as one of my heroes, though, didn’t last long. On a Saturday night a few weeks later, he crushed an inside-the-park home run to the Lookouts sign in dead centerfield. It was the most spectacular thing this 9-year-old had ever seen. Sinovic became my hero du jour. 

The next morning, my dad awoke me with the news that Engel had traded Sinovic to the hated Atlanta Crackers for outfielder Ralph “Country” Brown. I cried but soon got over the disappointment. So much for that hero—I couldn’t possibly root for a Cracker.

You may not be able to buy a hot dog and soda for 15 cents any more, but the aroma from a plethora of concessions items will be wafting throughout AT&T Field Thursday night, just as they have done on Opening Day for years. Kids will still be begging for pre-game autographs, vendors will still be hawking their food and beverages, and players will still be eager for a new season to begin.

The field itself has been immaculately groomed. Head groundskeeper Joe Fitzgerald and his crew have nursed new infield grass with a growth tarp, rebuilt the pitcher’s mound and reworked the infield by adding an amendment of crushed brick and a stabilizer. 

“It’s usually hard to have a field looking this good in late March, but the weather has really helped us this year,” Fitzgerald said. “I think the field will play very well.”

The Lookouts will be giving away magnetic refrigerator schedules. Justin Silva of the Chattanooga Skydiving Company will be parachuting into the stadium to deliver the game ball. 

That sounds like something Engel, the master promoter, would have loved.

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