Like most boys, when I was young my friends and I described what time of year it was not by the season, but by what sport we were playing. That varied a bit with the boy, but in my group there were three seasons…football, basketball and baseball.
I lived in what we euphemistically called “the country.” That meant roads, not streets, connected one home to the next and the houses were far enough apart that yelling out the back door to your neighbor often required several tries to get their attention. The upside to that was that we had a lot of open space and fields to play in. The downside was that finding enough kids to field two teams could be challenging.
If everyone if the neighborhood was available, we could usually scrap up ten kids to play the game of the day…well almost. To get to ten we had to let Mike Hayes’s kid sister join in. Initially there was some resistance to that, but in the long run it was fine. Turns out she could catch a ball really well and she could run faster than most of us.
Obviously, ten was perfect for basketball and it was OK for football too. Realistically, all the offense needs in football is a center, a quarterback and someone to make the touchdown. The defense can easily get by with three. We had five on each team so football wasn’t a problem.
Baseball however, was an issue. Baseball was designed for eight players. I know, there are nine positions. But, I firmly believe that the only reason shortstop exists is that someone brought along their cousin Joey to play one time and there wasn’t anywhere else to put him. Covering the field with five players is tough, but eventually we worked out a system. On my team, I caught, Steve pitched, Barry played a spot between first and second and Mike played between second and third. We let Mike’s sister play outfield…the entire outfield. She didn’t have a long arm, but she ran like a cheetah and could hit the cutoff man with deadly accuracy. The other team had a similar setup, but their outfielder was way slower than ours. Unless Steve was having a bad day, we usually won.
In the end, no matter what the season we had enough players to play the game and that’s what mattered. When you’re thirteen or fourteen years old, it’s all about playing the game.
Occasionally, I listen to sports talk shows and now and then I’ll read a sports article or blog. Sometimes, when the topic is baseball, a pundit will lament that baseball is a dying sport. He’ll explain that the game is too slow paced or not exciting enough to capture the attention of the fans the way that other team sports can. He’ll cite dwindling park attendance and TV time as evidence and offer a touching eulogy. I think that eulogy is premature.
Two of our best friends, Chris and Jeff, have two boys. One of them, Justin, has been playing baseball since he was old enough to pickup a bat or slip a glove onto his hand. Justin is fourteen now and the colleges are already starting to take notice of his talent. Linda and I have gone to a few of his games this year to watch him play. The most recent one was last week and it was an annual all-star game between North Carolina and South Carolina that’s billed as “The Battle of the Border.” It was was hosted by Winthrop University and spanned four days.
Twenty boys from each state in each age group were brought together and given a chance to showcase their skills. I didn’t notice any name tags attached to their foreheads, but I’m pretty sure that in addition to parents and fans there were more than a few college scouts in the stands. There may even have been a few pro scouts lurking in the wings.
I’d expected to see a group of excited, gangly young men filling the dugouts ready to have fun playing a game of baseball. They were that, but they were also more. I looked at the faces of these young men and besides a love of the game I saw an intensity and determination beyond what fourteen year old youngsters should be able to muster. I saw a group of young gladiators preparing to do battle on their field of dreams and do battle they did.
Justin pitched two innings and played third base, distinguishing himself at both positions. At bat, he had a standup double that drove in a run and a stolen base that was poetry in motion. The lead see-sawed back and forth while each of the players on both teams showed the ballpark what they brought to the game but, at the end of nine hard fought innings, it was Justin’s team that won 8-7.
To no one’s surprise except Justin’s, he was voted MVP. We all laughed when they called his name for the award and one of the other players had to nudge him and say, “Hey, that’s you. Go get it.” It says something when a boy has fun, plays his best and then is surprised when someone gives him an award for doing it. To me, it says that baseball and the love of the game are alive and well and living in the hearts and souls of the boys that play it everyday. Pundit’s opinions notwithstanding, baseball is doing just fine.
We did have an epiphany after the game though. As we exited the ball park, we were reminded that, unlike popular belief, Weebles wobble AND they can fall down.
As we went through the gates and approached the street, I noticed a five inch curb drop. I acknowledged the five inch curb drop, I stopped at the five inch curb drop and then I tripped over the five inch curb drop. No worries, I’m old, but I still have skills. As I tumbled forward, I did a perfect tuck and roll and roll and roll in an effort to minimize the pain. Unfortunately, none of the pro scouts were close enough to watch my exhibition. That’s sad. Book sales being what they are, I could have used the contract and extra income.
Linda looked back, screamed my name louder than necessary, and then said, “Again…Really?” Jeff helped me up and I survived with nothing damaged except my pride and ego.
As Chris said, “The good thing is that we don’t know any of these people and they don’t know us…or you.” I guess the worst thing that can happen is that a bunch of people whom I don’t know will have an amusing story to tell about a round, red haired stranger who bounced off of the pavement at the All Star game. I can live with that.
P.S. It’s prudent that I make the following disclaimer. My wife was, at all times, extremely concerned about my safety and well being. I did not see her actually laugh. However, after she saw that I wasn’t hurt, she may have smiled…just a little. 🙂