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.
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.