En route to the Sheraton, I said to the four folks in my taxi, "Let me take a wild guess — you guys are Brewfesters?"
It was the weekend of the Vermont Brewers Festival, the annual whale of an event at Burlington's Waterfront Park in which seemingly the whole town — including tourists — wanders around buzzed for 48 hours.
"How'd you guess?" the man in the shotgun seat responded with a laugh. He was a burly, gregarious guy with graying hair enhanced by a slender rattail. The phenomenon of the rattail (along with its beefier cousin, the mullet) peaked in the flamboyant '80s and had largely disappeared by the late '90s. A bold choice for 2017, I thought. I dig his style.
"After we drop my friends at the hotel, would you have the time to take me home to Jericho?" the man asked.
"Yeah, sure thing," I replied.
At the Sheraton, plans were made for the group to hook up for breakfast before the three out-of-towners left the city. As I waited at the light for the left back onto Williston Road, the Jericho guy introduced himself with, "I'm Greg."
"Nice to meet you, Greg. I'm Jernigan," I reciprocated as we shook hands.
I noticed he was wearing an official Atlanta Braves jersey and asked, "So, you're a Braves fan. Are you originally from the South?"
"No, I actually grew up in Barre. We were, I believe, the first Vermont community to get cable TV, and that meant we got TBS, which broadcast every Braves home game. So, I became a fan from early childhood."
"That makes sense," I said. "It's why, to this day, there are Braves fans all over the country."
"Well, I am truly a mega-fan. I've been to the Braves fantasy camp a few times. They hold it at the stadium of their minor league affiliate in Orlando."
"Oh, man — I'm so jealous! I've heard of these fantasy camps. It's where you train and play ball with retired major league players, right? Tell me, what was it like?"
"It's as awesome as you can imagine. You're treated like a real major leaguer, with a regulation uniform and equipment and locker in the actual locker room. And the ex-players and coaches really spend a lot of time with you. It's really a dream come true."
"I've heard it cost a pretty penny to attend."
"Don't ask, man," he said with a chuckle. "My wife has been super indulgent. She knows how much it means to me. Truth is, I'm always one of the few blue-collar guys at the camp. Most of the participants have big bucks. Like, last year, my locker mate was the No. 3 guy at Disney! So you can only imagine."
"I bet you develop a real bond with all the people in the camp," I said.
"You sure do. One of the guys we just dropped at the Sheraton I actually met at a camp. Not only that, but some people develop friendships with the ex-players. Like, I've become friends with Dale Murphy, who was my childhood idol."
"That's so cool. I remember Dale Murphy. He was a star for the Braves in the '80s into the '90s."
"That's right. He should be in the Hall of Fame, but that's another story. I first met him about 10 years ago at a signing event. I made sure I was last in line so we'd be able to talk. I told him that my wife was pregnant and, if it was a boy, we'd name him "Murphy" after him. He thought that was just great and said, 'Well, let's hope for a boy, then.'"
"So, was the baby a boy?"
"He sure was. Murph is now 9 years old and he's a good little ball player. Last year, he came to the last day of the camp with me in Orlando and, at the end, when everyone was saying their goodbyes, we walked up to Dale and he said, 'Don't tell me. This has got to be Murphy.'
"We all laughed together. I then asked him if he'd be willing to throw the ball around in the outfield with me and my son. He said he'd love to. My wife took a video, and I don't mind telling you some tears were coming out of my eyes as we played catch — me, Murph and Dale Murphy. Who says there's no crying in baseball?"
I knew in my bones the meaning that day held for Greg. My father and uncles were Brooklyn Dodgers fans. I grew up a New York Mets fan. Now, living in Vermont, I'm all about the Boston Red Sox. When you grow up playing, watching and loving baseball, it takes on an emotional and mythological dimension in your consciousness. Other sports may have surpassed it in popularity, but nothing tugs at the heartstrings like the quintessential American pastime.
Greg's home was in the far reaches of Jericho, up a long, steep road that turned to dirt as we ascended. "I always think of this as the typical Vermont road," he said. "There's $450,000 homes alongside — well, check it out — there's a ramshackle trailer. Don't you love it?"
As we pulled into Greg's driveway, I smiled and said, "It looks like Sunday is going to be a beautiful day. Any plans, I wonder? I mean, after breakfast with your friends?"
My question was a hanging curve ball, right down the center of the plate. Sure enough, Greg chuckled, swung and hit it out of the park.
"Yup, as a matter of fact, I do have plans, Jernigan: baseball with Murph."
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.