In the summer of 1981, RCA Records Nashville courted me to move here to run publicity for their country division. There were several problems with the proposal. For one, I had never done publicity. I was a writer and editor in New York, where I was happily living the prototype for Sex in the City.
Though everyone I had met from Nashville through my work seemed nice, I didn't picture myself living there. The first time I visited was to cover the CMA Awards at the Opry House. I sat beside Donna Douglas, who played Ellie Mae on The Beverly Hillbillies. She was in pink from head to toe and her yellow hair rose a good six inches above her forehead. I didn't understand The Opryland Hotel. The women wore so much color. The men called me "honey." The restaurants scared me.
But the biggest hurdle was the lack of big league sports. In New York, I regularly went to Rangers games and Jets games in the winter. I attended not one but two home openers when baseball season began: the Mets at Shea Stadium in Queens, and the Yankees at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, both easily accessed by subway. Shea was awful and the Mets were pitiful, if endearing in their bumbling way. But the Yankees of the late '70s—Ron Guidry, Thurman Munson, Graig Nettles, Goose Gossage, Reggie Jackson and his arch-nemesis, demon-driven manager Billy Martin—were the greatest show on earth.
I wrote about baseball occasionally for the alternative-alternative, so I had an inside view of the soap opera. But mostly I felt like the luckiest woman on the face of the earth, from my seat on the third-base side of one of the most historic ballparks in America.
"So," I asked Joe Galante and Randy Goodman, "what's the sports scene in Nashville?"
My would-be RCA bosses looked anxious. "We have the Nashville Sounds," they said. This I knew. The Sounds were the AA team in the Yankees' largely ignored farm system. "We have minor league hockey," they added, "the Nashville South Stars." I correctly surmised they were a farm team of the Minnesota North Stars, not exactly your marquee NHL team.
"Is that it?" I asked. They hemmed and hawed: "Er...Vanderbilt has a football team." Hey, boys, I wasn't born yesterday. Remember Playboy's annual prediction of the 20 Best College Football Teams? For three years I had been editor of Penthouse magazine's rival forecast—the 20 Worst College Football Teams. Vanderbilt made the list every year.
Ultimately, it was a live-in love affair gone bad that sent me fleeing below the Mason-Dixon to work for the Nipper the end of August 1981. When I came to my senses a week later, the baseball season was already over at Greer. I tried Commodore football, but like most Vandy students I couldn't work up much enthusiasm for a losing team in a stadium where I couldn't buy a beer for crying out loud. The South Stars were fun to watch, even in dismal Municipal Auditorium, but they were one and done, off to Birmingham the next season.
So I made the best of it. Using one of RCA's season tickets, I headed to Greer Stadium for the home opener in April 1982. After all, it might be the minor leagues, but it was professional baseball, and I was intrigued by the notion of catching the stars of tomorrow early in their careers.
The first friends outside of the music industry that I made in Nashville were Imogene and Clyde Green. A beautician and mortician, respectively, they had season tickets in section S, row 10, directly behind me. Clyde bought me a beer to welcome me to Greer, and I didn't mind a bit when he called me honey, or Imogene suggested my hair could use some height. They introduced me to team owner Larry Schmittou, to their other friends in the section, and to beer vendor David Cheatham—now in his 32nd season, the longest-tenured member of the team.
We spent the whole summer together, and the next and the next. When the Yankees played the Sounds in an exhibition game in April 1983, I introduced them to pitcher Ron Guidry, who wasn't playing that day and came to sit with us. In 1985, the Sounds made the leap from Double to Triple-A. Imogene and Clyde preferred AA, and let their tickets go. I moved my seat to Section T, higher up in the stands.
That was where I was sitting on June 25, 1989, when Ron Guidry came back to Greer Stadium. The 1978 Cy Young winner was on a 20-day rehab assignment with the Yankees Triple-team, the Columbus Clippers, trying to work his way back to the big club from injuries and surgery. Guidry started, taking the mound as a light mist fell. The mist turned to drizzle, and Louisiana Lightning was rocked for six hits and five runs (three earned), striking out just one batter in 2 1/3 innings. At that point, his manager and former teammate Bucky Dent stepped in and took the ball from his friend. Less than a month later, Guidry retired from baseball.
"A Star Fades at Greer Stadium" was one of the first pieces I wrote for the brand new Nashville Scene, and though the story was personally heartbreaking, I was thrilled to write about baseball again. Editor Bruce Dobie gave me carte blanche to write about sports whenever I wanted. Thus by default I became the Scene's first sports columnist, which, given the lack of professional sports in the city, was a bit like critiquing restaurants in a town dominated by fast food and chains. I wrote about the Sounds, roller derby, auto racing, the Sounds, rodeo, professional wrestling, the Sounds, college football, the Battle of the Boulevard, and the Sounds.
When I took on the restaurant column in 1992, the eminently more qualified Randy Horick took over the sports beat, and he was firmly ensconced in the chair when the NHL and NFL arrived. Both the Titans (then still known as the Oilers) and the Predators played their first seasons here in 1998, though Vanderbilt Stadium was home field for the Titans-Oilers that year, until Adelphia opened in 1999. At the Bears game, I remember sitting in front of some fellows from Chicago, who nearly had a heart attack when they found out they couldn't get a beer at a professional football game. No doubt an alert went out through the NFL network.
The signs of the impact major league professional sports has had on Nashville are everywhere you look: LP Field, Sommet Center, Baptist Sports Park. We have national exposure on network and cable television, not to mention explosive growth in youth ice hockey. We have football clinics and camps run by pro athletes, and high school coaching positions filled by players who retire here. We have the Titans Foundation, the Predators Foundation, nonprofits founded by players, and thousands of personal appearances by coaches, athletes and cheerleaders at events, tournaments, schools and hospitals.
We have vanity plates and Jordin Tootoo hockey sweaters and Keith Bulluck jerseys. We have pre-game shows, post-game shows and Sunday-night sports shows on all three affiliates, and sports talk radio in between. We have Lower Broad on game night and the Shelby Street pedestrian bridge on game day. We have earlier worship service times during football season. Most shocking of all, we even got a change in liquor service hours on Sundays. Thanks to the Titans and Rule 0100-01-(2), any Nashvillian can celebrate our hallowed day of rest with a Bloody Mary at 10 a.m.
But to me it's not so much the impact on a community that professional sports makes, as it is the community it creates, pulling people from every corner, gender, race, ethnicity and socio-economic background to cheer the teams that represent their town. It's the friendships, the shared experiences, the memories of big and small moments, victory and defeat—the eternal optimism and bottomless well of hope that allow us to brush off crushing disappointment and say, "Next year." It's recalling where you were for the Music City Miracle on Jan. 8, 2000, and changing your team allegiance from the town where you grew up to the town where you live.
It's joining conversations at the Kroger checkout line about the Titans' thrilling start last year and what's up with Vince Young. It's the friendliest cookout in Nashville spread across the stadium parking lots, and the proud and rowdy camaraderie of Cellblock 303 in the cheap seats at Sommet. It's catching up with friends made over the course of 28 summers in a minor-league ballpark that's seen better days, catching the ascending arc of a future major-league starter, and witnessing the bittersweet end of a pitcher whose strikeouts used to electrify Yankee Stadium. It's where I taught my kids the game of baseball, fueled by hot dogs and soft-serve ice cream in plastic batting helmets.
The Sounds aren't the only professional team in town anymore, and I am happy for that. But from mid-April through the end of August, there's no place I'd rather be on a starry night than my seat in Section T at Greer Stadium. David knows just where to find me.