Casey Nichols is one of my dearest friends and he’s a baseball nut like me. When I mentioned that I was headed out on my second nutty 10-stadiums-10-days ballpark tour, he told me he wanted to join up at some point. It turned out that New York would be the place: Casey would get a chance to see Citi Field and the newest version of Yankee Stadium (although it almost didn’t happen due to rain, and as it was he only got in about three innings of the subway series before needing to get on the subway himself to head back to California).
Casey just retired from his life’s work as a high school publications adviser. I mean this literally: his last day in the classroom was less than a week ago. He was born to be a teacher and thousands of students have had the golden opportunity to learn from him. I always learn from him too.
We spent the first part of the Mets vs. Rockies game basking in the sun before thinking better of it and moving up to higher, and more shaded, ground. Over the course of the second inning, he and I chatted about baseball: his history with the game and what it’s meant to him. The audio is interrupted a few times by planes flying overhead or the insane PA announcer who couldn’t stop making noise between every pitch (Sorry to Casey’s wife, Sarah: the best part is during what I think was a replay review during which a rock concert apparently broke out!)
You can hear a version of our conversation by going to this link.
Otherwise, here it is in all its trancripted glory: “A conversation with Casey Nichols”:
Me: Alright, we’re here at Citi Field in New York watching the Mets and Rockies, with my very good friend Casey Nichols, an amateur baseball historian, and certainly one of the best fans I know. And I’d love to have Casey tell me a little bit about the story of his life growing up with baseball. So Casey, you’re a lifelong Giants fan, huh?
Casey: Yep. I grew up in Northern California, so by the time I was old enough to know what baseball was, the Giants were in San Francisco, and I went to my first game in 1962 when I was in third grade. I saw the Giants and the Reds. All the big stars of those days, Mays, Alou, Cepeda, McCovey, Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson and on and on and on, and just kind of fell in love with it. I started watching the game of the week every week and reading the box scores. I was a huge box score guy.
Me: You were telling me you’ve seen some really exciting, monumental games in person. I think you were telling me about McCovey’s last game, for instance. What were some of the good ones that you’ve seen over the years live?
Casey: McCovey’s last at bat against the Dodgers, where he beat the Dodgers in the first game of a doubleheader.
Me: And this was what year?
Casey: Oh gosh, ’81 I believe; McCovey was one of those quirky guys who actually played in four different decades, because he came up in ’59 and he retired in ‘81. That’s just a fluke of the calendar, but it’s kind of fun. I saw the Angel Pagan inside-the-park walk-off at home at AT&T Park [May 25, 2013], which was pretty amazing. We were down the left field line, so it just played out right in front of us.
The funniest, weirdest game I ever saw was a doubleheader against Cardinals. Jim Barr’s going to pitch the first game. He walks Lou Brock, this was about ‘73 or ‘74, he gets called for a balk and was thrown out of the game. So then they call in Lynn McGlothen and he has as much time to warm up as he wants. He wasn’t even in the bullpen, he was back in the clubhouse. He throws eight pitches and says ‘I’m ready.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s no way.’ He pitches eight-and-a-third shut-out innings and wins the game. And then in the nightcap Jim Barr comes in and gets the save. So it was just kind of strange. The other exciting one we saw is the Giants/Cardinals playoff game and on the bunt play when Polanco bunted and they threw it away and it was a walk-off error really but it was still crazy exciting. There’s just tons of little things like that in baseball. The best part about it is you just never know. Something happens every time.
Me: That’s for sure. You were telling me you’ve seen 38 different ballparks?
Casey: This is my 37th I believe.
Me: What are some of your favorites?
Casey: Well, I’m partial to, to what is now Oracle Park, of course. I loved Pittsburgh for the good location. And then I like the statuary, same with at Comerica Park. I liked the statues and I love when they tie in history in with the ballpark. Oddly, I really like the Rangers’ ballpark; I was surprised how much I liked it. Although I get that it’s too hot and they need to build a new one. That was another of my funny stories: I met Bradley Wilson (a fellow journalism guy), who picked me up at the airport and we had dinner. And on the way to the Rangers game, we got into a car wreck. So we thought we weren’t even going to go, but Bradley kept insisting that we’re going, so we got a rental car. We were only about an hour late and I thought, oh shoot, it’ll just be second inning of the Ranger game, because it was a night game, but it turned out we saw the last five innings of Kenny Rogers’ perfect game. So I guess I’m partial to Texas because of that, because it was just kind of cool. And we actually hung around and watched the post-game interviews.
Me: What’s a ballpark you wish you had seen but didn’t get a chance to see?
Casey: I think again, oddly, The Mistake by the Lake [Municipal Stadium in Cleveland]. Jeff Nardone [the legendary newspaper adviser at Grosse Pointe South High School who died from complications brought on by Lymphoma in 2013; Jeff was a mutual friend and one of the best baseball fans either of us have ever known.] and I almost went a couple times when we were teaching at Ball State, and then we end up canceling both times. It had such a bad reputation and no one went to the games. But it would have been cool to see.
Me: Did you play ball as a kid?
Casey: Oh, yeah, I played all through Little League and all that. And then I coached Little League for probably 5-7 years in my 20s. Umpired a lot of little league too. I wasn’t particularly good. But I was ok.
Me: Any aspirations ever of playing whatever the next level might have been?
Casey: Nah. I started playing golf when I was 10. And that was clearly my sport. So I played high school and community college golf. That was kind of what I was best at.
Me: We’re through the top the first Noah Syndergaard picked off a runner at first, which was overturned by replay. So Casey, your family seems to be very much into baseball as well. How cool is it to be able to hang out with your wife, Sarah, and your daughter Carson at a game? Watch Carson play a game? I think she’s not playing any longer?
Casey: Correct. She was, though. When Sarah and I started out together we connected a lot on baseball. She grew up a Reds’ fan, going to the Reds all her life, but has converted to the Giants. Carson loves live baseball; It’s such a great game to enjoy with your family. I think it’s such a pleasure, a family memory, that you’re creating a family experience. And you have a story to share and get your favorite foods and develop your whole routine. We tend to go anywhere from five to 10 times a year. We kind of got it dialed in how we do it. Although we try to take Carson to other ballparks as much as we can, she likes going to see the Giants.
Me: What do you like best about baseball?
Casey: The strategy and the subtlety. I like watching the outfielders change their positions, there’s so much more to the positioning nowadays. And one thing I’ve heard announcers say with a lot lately, which is true: in baseball, there’s no longer a fastball count. A lot of pitchers throw a 3-0 changeup. That’s the evolution of the game, but it’s a slow evolution. It’s very subtle. And I love the advantages and disadvantages people try to create; it’s a thinking man’s game and there’s time to think while you’re there. And then you get these bursts of action where now it’s a reactionary sport just briefly. I love that. And I love the stories, the history of the game and the stories of the game. I read a lot of history, baseball history books.
Me: All right, well, let’s enjoy this one.