I spent way too much time last week thinking about baseball and circus trains. In my defense, baseball is my favorite sport and Opening Day was last Thursday. The very next day Disney premiered its new, live-action/CGI version of Dumbo. Dumbo is my all-time favorite Disney movie and I am anxious to see if the new version can hold a feather to the magic of the original.
When you spend time reflecting on baseball and circus trains, you end up making new connections. For example, did you realize that Disneyland in California and Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom in Florida have contrasting Caseys?
I didn’t either. At least not until last week.
The Casey Jr. Circus Train opened at Disneyland as an original 1955 attraction. It is a Fantasyland favorite. Partly because of its proximity to Dumbo but mostly because of its inspiring message. Can the words “I think I can, I think I can,” ever get old?
At Walt Disney World, Casey comes at the end of Main Street U.S.A. It’s not a ride but a restaurant. Famous for its foot-long chili cheese dogs, Casey’s Corner celebrates the 1888 poem “Casey at the Bat.” Main Street U.S.A. tells the story of a time in America’s past. Baseball, America’s pastime, is a perfect fit for the park’s turn-of-the-century street and story.
But the stories between Casey in California and Casey in Florida couldn’t be more different. Casey Jr. is an underpowered underdog. He is Disney’s version of The Little Engine that Could. You don’t have to keep telling yourself “I think I can, I think I can,” unless there is the under confident likelihood that you actually cannot.
Casey at the Bat doesn’t suffer from such a shortage. Quite the opposite. Casey is the team’s star player. When he comes to bat in the bottom of the ninth inning his team is down two runs and already has two outs. But no worries–runners are on second and third—and Casey is so confident that he allows the first two pitches to casually pass by as strikes.
Casey only needs one swing. One swing and a…miss. Why is there no joy in Mudville? Because their hometown hero, the mighty Casey, has struck out.
Walt Disney was a big believer in baseball. When he built his new studio in Burbank he also built an on-site baseball field. In 1946, Disney created a cartoon version of Casey at the Bat. When Gene Autry opened Angels Stadium in 1966 he insisted on two things—his new park needed to be next to Disneyland and he wanted his friend, Walt Disney, to throw out the ceremonial first pitch.
The Angels inaugural season in Anaheim was Walt’s Disney’s only season of Anaheim Angels baseball. Walt died of lung cancer in December 1966.
Before writing The Wisdom of Walt, I first tried to write a baseball book. me, Bob, and Ralph is a true story about three friends who bond around their love of the game. I still have the unfinished manuscript. I still look at it every now and again. I still hope to finish it.
On Opening Day last Thursday, I couldn’t help but think about me, Bob, and Ralph. Not the unfinished book, but the unfinished friendship. For years, the three of us spent March going to Spring Training games in Arizona and our summers traveling the country going to as many games and ballparks as possible. Our goal was to see every team and tour every stadium.
Halfway toward our goal Ralph was diagnosed with cancer. At first, Bob and I refused to believe it. Ralph was one of the good guys. He grew up an orphan on the streets of Pittsburgh and served our country as a decorated Colonel in Vietnam. Despite the difficulties, Ralph had an infectious spirit that never quit. For Ralph, every day was Opening Day. Every season was spring.
In March 2007, our trio watched our last game together. Ralph was only well enough for a quick trip to Tucson and a single exhibition game. He died in June. Bob and I were with him that night, at the Veterans Hospital, across the freeway from Tucson Electric Park where we had seen so many games together. Watching Ralph lose his battle with cancer is one of the hardest losses either of us have ever experienced.
The late Bart Giamatti (his son, Paul, plays the chauffeur in Saving Mr. Banks) warns us that “Baseball breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall all alone…when you need it most, it stops.”
But Giamatti is wrong. Baseball doesn’t break your heart. Life does.
The world will never forget Walt Disney. Bob and I will always remember Ralph. The start of spring reminds us that we all have unfinished business. The start of another season reminds me that I need to honor my friend, whom I miss so much, and take another swing at finishing me, Bob, and Ralph.
I think I can.
“Baseball is a great teacher of an important secret of living: the giving and taking in the group, the development of qualities and behavior that will stand us in good stead through life in pursuits both personal and professional.”