There’s a quote about nostalgia from one of my favorite television shows, Mad Men. In the scene, Don Draper, the creative director at a Manhattan advertising firm, is trying to sell his pitch to Kodak. He invokes the word nostalgia and explains it like this: “Nostalgia—it’s delicate, but potent. In Greek, ‘nostalgia’ literally means ‘the pain from an old wound’. It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.”
We all have memories from our childhood. Maybe it’s a person or a vacation or a place that we visit in our minds from time to time when we want to relive a time that was a little happier than our present. Maybe we’ve gradually added to that memory or taken away a mundane detail that was just making that memory seem a little too ordinary. Maybe, over the years, we’ve whittled that memory down to where it’s simply a perfect place for us to go in our minds. Maybe, in the end, our memory doesn’t contain as much truth as the actual event, but we’ve made it enough of our own so that it’s “a twinge in our heart more powerful than memory alone.”
I still drive by a place in my neighborhood that harbors many great memories from my childhood. Some are real, some are probably manufactured. When I see it as I drive by it, a different scene pops in my mind each time from a time when the only thing I had to worry about was whether or not my Little League game would be rained out that night.
Lions Field opened in 1957 and, at one point, had twenty teams that played there. Ten teams were in the National League and ten teams were in the American League. In 1974, a team comprised of all-stars from the Jackson Little League that played at Lions Field, participated in the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. There were tryouts for the league and a draft and, unfortunately, players were cut because there were only so many uniforms to hand out per team. For most of the existence of Lions Field, Little League baseball was competitive and even covered by the local media.
I played at Lions Field from 1990 to 1992. During that time, Little League had twenty teams playing there, along with a full-time public address announcer who also kept stats and even had a “league leader” print out at various points in the season. When I was twelve years old, I saw my name on one of those print outs. I highlighted it and tacked it on my bulletin board right next to Will Clark’s statistics for his 1992 season. For a twelve-year-old boy, I didn’t think it could get much better.
The area around the ballpark was quite developed as well. There was a putt-putt course, go karts, batting cages, a water slide, and the bowling alley (which is still there). The nights I didn’t have a game, my mom or dad would drop me off at the batting cages, and I would hit. As I hit, I could hear the crowd from the games that were being played at Lions Field. I could see the lights from the stadium because that’s what it was to me: a stadium. Fields are for practice and sterilized games; stadiums are for the show, and that’s what Lions Field was to me in 1992.
The spring before my twelve-year-old season, I can remember my dad taking me to Lions Field and hitting ground balls to me over and over and over again. I can remember cutting out our box scores from The Jackson Sun and seeing my name in the paper. I can still see my coach, Don Jordan, giving his signs from the dugout: a tip of the hat bill for a steal, a swipe across the belt for a bunt, and a clasp of his hands for a take. I can see clearly the night of our city championship when I was lucky enough to score the winning run. WBBJ put highlights on the ten o’clock news that night. The parking lot was so full that people had to park across the street and at the bowling alley. After the game, the All-Stars were announced and I still remember the pride I felt getting my pin that I could stick on my green, fishnet all-star cap—and, inevitably, have that pin dig into my forehead when I put on my cap. It didn’t matter to me, though, because there was no way I was taking it off.
Lions Field closed in 2008 after struggling for a few years before that. The rise of travel baseball probably had something to do with it. The development of other parts of town probably had something to do with it. The disinterest in baseball from today’s youth probably had something to do with it. Regardless of the reason or reasons, something that was good for the community—our community—was gone.
The stadium is still there, though. I see it a few times a week on my way home. It’s always dark at night, and I never see the lights on like I used to when I would hit at the batting cages. Those are gone, too, by the way. There are some practice fields in place of the batting cages now, but I never see anyone use them.
Now, most of my weekends are spent at the West Tennessee Healthcare Sportsplex where I umpire thirteen- and fourteen-year-old travel baseball teams. The fields all look the same. There’s no public address announcer or stat sheets. The teams aren’t sponsored by a local business, but instead named in such testosterone-fueled ways as “Rage,” “Dragons,” “Xtreme,” “Heat,” and so on. Personally, I like the old days better. A community-funded, supported, and organized league at the center of town with kids from Jackson covered by media from Jackson. I understand the purpose of the Sportsplex and travel baseball and what it means for tourism dollars and spending and development, but I don’t have to agree with all of it. If anything, my present experience with baseball has romanticized my past with baseball and I miss what I remember.
There’s talk of revitalizing Lions Field and some games have even been scheduled to be played there. There was even the possibility of Little League holding the state tournament there in the near future. Along with the revitalization of downtown and the Lambuth area, how appropriate would it be to include Lions Field and Little League baseball in that, as well? Maybe this place is just a nostalgic dream at this point, but imagine a reality where kids from every part of Jackson could meet in a central location that has great character and play a game that brought so many kids a lot of joy while they were young. Nostalgia can be painful if there’s never a chance for something to be repeated, but it can be an emotion of hope if there’s a possibility for rebirth.
Gabe Hart is an English and Language Arts teacher at Northeast Middle School. He was born and raised in Jackson, graduating from Jackson Central-Merry in 1997 and Union University in 2001. Gabe enjoys spending time and traveling with his daughter, Jordan, who is eight years old. His hobbies include reading, writing, and playing sports . . . even though he’s getting too old for the last one. Gabe lives in Midtown Jackson and has a desire to see all of Jackson grow together.
Photography by Gabe Hart.