The final game of the World Series is over. Some of you didn’t even notice. The Braves were not in it. I don’t like the team that won, but I tip my cap to them out of respect for the game. There were some great moments. Always are. Baseball is forever my favorite game.
I like baseball because I got to play baseball. I tried football in 7th grade, but Bruce Berry ran over me like a Mack truck and I figured out that I like breathing better than football. I laid on my back nearly motionless. I remember looking up at the clear blue sky thinking this must be what it’s like to die. I couldn’t even gasp for air. Coach Orr pulled up on my belt a few times and when the air came back to my lungs, I had an epiphany. I love baseball.
My Dad loved the game. We played catch in the front yard day after day before and during the season. I must have driven him nuts. He threw me a million ground balls. I scrambled to the left and right and fired it back to him. He squatted and let me pitch to him.
“Make it look like an aspirin tablet. Hum it in here.”
But we never worked on batting. And the yard wasn’t big enough to work much on catching fly balls. Consequently, I could scoop up any ground ball or line drive hit to me, but I looked like a goose waddling around under a fly ball and struck out consistently.
I played shortstop for the Hampton Hawks. Little League is where the purest baseball has always lived. The absolute joy and heartbreak of the game is played out on the faces of 11 and 12 year olds in a way that captures everything that the game is about. To me, Williamsport is the most exciting place on earth in late August.
The coach didn’t care that I couldn’t hit as long as I could play the ground ball. My buddy Pete stood at first base. He was a tall lanky kid that moved to Hampton from Canada. He was the first guy I ever saw put ketchup on eggs. And he could swallow up a throw from short stop. Whenever we text, I still call him “my first baseman”.
My parents came to my games. I never heard my Mama yell about much of anything except baseball. She could get cranked up when she got into it. I can still see here in the bleachers over the 3rd base dugout. Of course, she knew everybody on the field, including the umpires.
A hard scorcher was hit deep in the hole. I barely got to it. I made a throw to Pete.
She stood up. “He was out by a mile, Ump! I’ll see you in church on Sunday.”
One of my more awful moments in life took place on the ballfield during a game. I never wanted to come out. I could have had a broken arm and I would have begged to stay in the game. But one day, I had “to go”. And there was no place “to go” in the dugout. I knew I was in trouble, but I went out to take my place at short stop anyway. The strain was killing me. I started dancing around.
“Swing batter, batter, batter. Swing. Swing batter, batter, batter. Swing.” This was our chant to distract the guy at the plate.
Then it happened. I peed my pants. Right there between second and third. Other than the day when the girl sitting behind me in 3rd grade threw up her hotdog lunch on me, it was the worst moment of my life. A puddle was forming next to my right cleat. I scratched it out in the dirt. I ran off the field.
What I loved best was the pickup games with my buddies. We never had full teams, but we’d divide up and play all day long in the summer. I’d ride my bike into town. My glove dangling from the handlebars. One of the houses on North Avenue had a chain link fence around the backyard, so it became the homerun fence. We had a bucket lid for home plate. The clothesline post was first base. Second base was an old stump level to the ground. Third base was always moveable. A brick. A chunk of wood. An old cap. Whatever we could throw down. We never wanted to quit.
But it all ended. I played a few more years, but my capacity for swinging and missing at the plate finally caught up with me.
About 10 years ago I got the bright idea that I would play on the church softball team. There’s a ball I could hit. It was slow and bigger than a baseball. I was reliving my love for the game. But a man in his fifties really shouldn’t pretend that he is anything other than past middle age. To my surprise I wasn’t really all that quick. Ground balls looked odd through bifocals. Sometimes there were two balls coming at me. I nailed a pitch right back up the middle and ran for first base. My mind said to run hard. Which was a mistake. I pulled my right quad and limped for 6 weeks.
So, I am content to watch and cheer from the couch these days. The season is over. I don’t understand hockey and soccer. I do like football. The only thing good about basketball is March Madness. But by that time baseball is back and I am happy again. The Braves might have a chance next year. I can’t wait. It’s the best game ever.