17 May 2016

Baseball and Me: A Childhood Love Story that Never Ends

I loved the feel of my baseball glove over my left hand. I liked slamming a ball repeatedly into my glove. Even better was tossing the ball back and forth with someone. I liked the way it would thwack! into the webbing of the glove. I liked the motion of the throw. I’d feel naked tossing the ball without a cap on. The snug feel of a cap on my head was a must for playing ball. I would occasionally tug at the bill of the cap.

Fielding ground balls was fun. A ball bouncing rapidly toward me could look nearly impossible to glove cleanly but I never had any trouble. I could even back hand balls and handle bad hops. Of course I fumbled some, everybody does. I also liked catching pop ups and fly balls. I’d camp under the ball and watch it into my glove. Sometimes there’d be a point in the ball’s descent in which I’d be sure I was going to drop it. But at the last second my confidence would restore itself and the ball would nestle into my mitt. That was always a good feeling.

Hitting balls was fun too. Sometimes I’d catch one on the sweet spot and be amazed at how hard and far I hit the ball. This would be accompanied by a rush of excitement and a sense of physical power as the ball took flight. Of course not all swings were successful. Sometimes the ball would pop meekly into the air, other times it would glance off the end of the bat and go foul, it could also bounce directly to a fielder and worst of all I might not make any contact at all. These results would cause momentary disappointment but I always knew there’d be another chance, another swing, another turn at bat. Baseball seemed to forever be providing second chances.

Running the bases was a lot of fun. There was the feeling of security at being on the base. In baseball lexicon you are safe and that word is apropos because you feel safe and secure there, untouchable, a tag means nothing when you're on base. You have survived and may continue your journey.  Then there is also the risk of running from one base to the next. Often you have no choice but to go and get the sinking feeling when you can see you wont make it before the throw. Sometimes you get a reprieve in such instances. Perhaps the ball has been dropped or thrown wildly and you are safe after all. Beating a throw on a close play is exhilarating. Of course the best feeling was crossing home plate. A run scored! Mission accomplished.

I never felt I’d played if I hadn't gotten dusty or hadn’t accumulated a grass stain. Bruises and scrapes were de riguer. I never sought them but played with an abandon that made them inevitable. I was forever diving for balls that seemed just out of reach. To snare one was to be a hero to miss was to have made a valiant effort. Of course slides on the bases were fun and I often slid when I didn't need to.

If I wasn’t playing in an actual game I might be playing one in my head and going through as many motions as possible in my backyard. Of course in those games I wasn’t a kid at the playground. No indeed I was a major leaguer performing great heroics in leading my team to victory. Other times I wasn’t involved at all I was taking the place of my favorite team — the San Francisco Giants — as they won again. Victories were either by resounding scores or eked out by a late inning home run. I was forever robbing opponents of home runs with incredible catches or turning acrobatic double plays.

Baseball cards were a must. They gave faces to names. My favorite players were the ones who looked good on their cards. A head shot on a card meant that player was persona non grata but a good pose with a bat or a throwing motion might qualify a player to be a member of my imaginary team. I was absolute ruler of my team, setting the batting order, the pitching rotation and selecting the reserves. I would study my cards carefully, imagining the exploits described on the back ("Bob led the Texas League in doubles for the Tulsa Oilers in 1964." Wow!). The cards brought the statistics to life (Imagine: Lou hit 3.24 with 22 homers in 1967!).  I coupled my beloved cards with the daily box scores. It was no feat at all to memorize each club’s starting line up and batting order and I was even familiar with their starting pitchers. Box scores may look like just a bunch of names with numbers next to them but to me they were (and still are) easily decipherable codes that tell the story of games. Who failed who succeeded who was average are all there. Still there was much to the imagination. If a player was two for four I could picture what those two hits looked like. One was line drive into the gap between center and left field that produced a double and the other was a ground ball deep into the hole that the runner legged out for a single. Home runs were re-created in my mind. The majestic flight of the ball deep into the bleachers or high line drive that nicked the fence and fell into the seats.

Nothing substituted for actually going to a major league game. Best of all was going with my father, of course. Somehow the hot dogs tasted better at the ballpark and the sodas were more refreshing. Peanuts were so much associated with baseball games that I wouldn’t think of eating them anyplace else. (In the same vein pop corn was reserved for trips to the movies.) It was easy to be enamored of baseball when your favorite team featured the legendary Willie Mays in center field — surely he was the best in the game — along with sluggers like Willie McCovey. There was also the high kicking Dominican Dandy, Juan Marichal as the ace of the pitching staff. Of course my favorite players tended to be the likes of back up catcher Ed Bailey, third basemen Jimmy Davenport and my favorite of all time, reserve outfielder Cap Peterson. It was easy enough to opt for a superstar like Mays as your favorite player but I needed to be different and adopt one of the baseball foundlings like Cappy. I was crushed when he was traded one sad off season. My next favorite player was Ray Sadecki who came over in a controversial trade for All Star Orlando Cepeda, another feared Giant power hitter. Sadecki proceeded to stink up the joint as a Giant, regularly earning choruses of boos. But I was nothing if not loyal and stuck with Sadecki. Even when I saw him pitch in person and lose a game to the then lowly Mets, 13-2. After all, the Giants two runs came on a Sadecki homer!

Eventually I stopped playing baseball when I discovered a talent for another sport — soccer. But my love for the game never abated. A baseball game can have long periods of listlessness that are interrupted by anything from mild action to dramatic thrills. No two games are alike. Plus baseball has and always will be a part of the American ethos. It is rich with colorful players, teams and nicknames and with historic and bizarre and shocking and exciting moments. Baseball is an integral part of American culture and history. And for many of us, baseball evokes memories of youth's innocence. My wonder at the exploits of great players and my imaginings of further deeds are rich parts of my youth.

It was just great to be a kid with a mitt and a ball and cap.


Johannes Hourula said...

Nice read. Spent many afternoons playing catch with you in the backyard....If you weren't yet home I'd throw the ball on the roof of the house, running to camp under where it would roll off. Absolutely loved everything about baseball as a kid...

CatWoman Diana said...

Thank you for the card photo of Cappy - was trying to explain to a more recent convert who he was. I was a kid - but for me, Cappy was a crush. And oddly - Ray Sadeki was one of my favorites also. You have good taste in Giants!