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Baseball and the start of a new summer

Though most know me as a huge football fan -- most notably a giant Green Bay Packers fan -- what you may not know about me is that baseball has always been the sport that has tugged at my heartstrings.

And with the Packers doing next to nothing in NFL free agency while we await the NFL Draft, there are plenty of days ahead where we can start diving into the start of the Major League Baseball season.

And already the season starts this week.

Spring and baseball go as well together as a hardball and mitt and when we hear the crack of the bat and the smack of the leather ball into a leather mitt, it’s time to yell, “play ball!”

Growing up in Wisconsin during the 1960s, I was broken when the Milwaukee Braves announced that they would be leaving Wisconsin for the warmer climate of Atlanta, Ga.

Though I took the news badly, as a 10-year-old I wasn’t about to be swayed about which team to follow.

After all, it was the likes of Hank Aaron, Eddie Matthews, Felix Millan and Felipe Alou who kept my interest in the game.

While I spent many lazy summer days traveling to Metropolitan Stadium to watch the Twins play whomever, I could never commit to approving Minnesota as my favorite team.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved watching the likes of Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva, Don Mincher, Luis Tiant and Rod Carew, it was the game, not so much the players, that attracted me.

The smell of the freshly mown grass, green and beautifully contrasting with the dirt of the infield were just two of the highlights that provided one with the live experience of the game.

There were the fans -- the crazy fans -- who would eat and talk as much as watch the game. It was the fun of being jammed into the left field bleachers and standing with every upper cut of Killebrew.

How many home runs I saw that guy hit, I don’t know. It was many.

But it was the “small ball” abilities of a guy like Carew, who could slap an outside curve ball into right field with the best of them and then follow that up with a steal of home plate as easily as Jackie Robinson once made it look.

So, as we approach next week’s opening day celebrations of a season that sometimes never seems to end, we remember all the great players, all the great smells and all the nuances the game brings.

As I grew older and the old Braves players got older and eventually retired, my allegiances were moved north -- not all the way to Minnesota, but to the Milwaukee Brewers.

Yes, I admit that I’ve been a forlorn Brewers fan for decades, looking for the team that will somehow duplicate what that special unit in 1982 accomplished.

But again, Robin Yount, Paul Molitor and Rollie Fingers are long gone.

Now it’s Ryan Braun and a whole slew of young players who will be hitting the field and the mound come April.

I know, not much to look forward to, but when it’s April and everyone is unbeaten, things can look pretty rosy.

The fields will be just as green, the infield as immaculate as it has been in the past and the umpire will be yelling “play ball” as the skies brighten and the warmth of spring and summer hit the stage.

Once again, it will bring back the memories of seasons gone by. It will bring back the memories of teams that never won the World Series, but came close.

It will bring back memories of a simpler time when we didn’t have to worry about terrorism and gun violence.

We will head into the new season with dreams of hot dogs and Frosty Malts and the sweaty, throaty, happy vendors who would put on as many miles as the players walking up and down the stadium aisles trying to sell their items to fans who might want a beer and a dog without the ice cream.

Baseball seems to bring out our younger selves, conjuring up times when we may have watched a Saturday afternoon game being called by Curt Gowdy, Joe Garagiola and Tony Kubek, followed up by a visit to Metropolitan Stadium on Sunday to watch the Twins play whomever.

The crack of the bat also brings back the days when we would ride our bikes to the local ball field to play the game for hours on end, pretending to be Hank Aaron or Rico Carty, Harmon Killebrew or Rod Carew.

Though we wanted to be those players, deep down we knew that may not have been in the cards.

But knowing that didn’t matter. It was a simpler time with simpler goals. Rapping a single to left and rounding first base was like going to Heaven and being given your own set of wings.

So here we are in 2016 wondering what the game will bring us this year.

“Play ball!”