Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Spring things and baseball dreams

Springtime means a whole host of things to different people.
For some, it's those first glimpses of new life and springtime hope, as tiny shoots of pale-bright green work their way through a winter's worth of blown-down leaves and dried-up grasses. For others, it's the change in light, in color, and in temperature, as balmy April breezes rattle and battle against the last cool reminders of a stubborn wintertime, or the oh-so-subtle changes in the rolling fields around us. We all ooh and aah as buds and blooms begin to sprout; as the tulips and daffodils awake from a long winter's sleep and bluebells, violets and scilla dot yards and garden plots with the season's first bits of dainty color.
They're spring things, every one of them.
But for me, the best spring thing of all was--and still is--baseball.
Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was a kid, 'long about February, I'd dig and retrieve my ball glove from the the indecipherable mass of shoes, clothing and miscellaneous odd socks that inevitably covered my closet floor, no matter how many times my mother made me clean it. Soon, it would be time to begin the yearly task of oiling my well-worn fielder's mitt and replacing any rawhide laces that had stretched and frayed the year before. By the time most of the snow had melted, I would be in the slogging through the muddy backyard, relentlessly throwing a tennis ball against the second story of my parents' house.
"It's a hard-hit ball to deep centerfield. Sloan turns and sprints towards the warning track. He leaps! He's got it! What a catch!"
Once I tired of that, or rather, once my mother tired of muddy ball marks on the back of the house, I would move to the front yard, where a set of old-fashioned wooden porch steps and the sidewalk that stretched to the street provided yet another playground for me and my imagination.
"It's a hard shot up the middle. Sloan moves deep in the hole, gobbles it up, touches second and fires home. Double play!"
Once spring really arrived, the season began in earnest, with my friends and I playing ball every day at school during recess, and after school, as well. That, of course, was just a preview of those halcyon days of summer vacation, where, between sandlot and little league ball, we probably played more games than were contained in a regulation 162-game big league season. If it wasn't raining, about the only time you could get me indoors was during the Saturday afternoon Game of the Week, featuring Dizzy Dean and Pee Wee Reese. Often, one of the teams featured was my then-beloved New York Yankees. I was a big fan of slugging outfielders like Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, along with pitcher Whitey Ford and catchers Yogi Berra and the amazing Elston Howard. But my real favorites were  the members of what sportswriters called, “the million dollar infield,” not because they even came close to collectively making that kind of money (heck, Mantle only made $60,000), but because they were said to be worth a million and more. That infield included first baseman Bill “Moose” Skowron, second baseman Bobby Richardson, shortstop Tony Kubek and third sacker Clete Boyer, all guys who were astonishingly good at what they did, but seemed humble enough and well aware of the fact that they were pretty darn lucky to be doing what they were doing.
But despite my love for the game, and all the games I watched and played in, I wasn't really all that good. Oh, I was fast enough and my fielding was OK, but I was never much of a hitter, and no matter what they say, you'd better be Ozzie Smith if you can't hit for average, power or both.
I wasn't. I didn't.
After a football knee injury knocked me out of competitive sports while I was still in high school, I contented myself with playing on softball teams while in college and for a decade or so afterwards. Fun enough, I guess, but a poor substitute for the real game.
Then I had kids. Two sons to be exact, and the love affair began again. We played innumerable games of catch and hot box in the front yard and the park across the street, and even devised an odd-ball game called "tree ball" that involved a whiffle ball and the giant maple in the corner of our yard. Once they were old enough for organized baseball, I became a little league coach, and spent years coaching and cheering on both boys' teams. I even bought a well-used catcher's mitt at a yard sale so that I could help my younger son, who was blossoming into a skilled left-handed pitcher.
It was fun while it lasted. But it didn't last forever.
By the time my sons reached high school, the older one had bailed out of baseball in favor of football, track and soccer. My younger son, the pitcher, kept at it all through college, but the time soon came when his fastball was way too fast and his curve much too tricky for my mediocre catching skills.
It was the end of an era. My era.
Or maybe not.
You see, I have grandsons now. Little guys, just five and seven years old, who are just beginning the games of summer for what I hope will be a long, long time. Of course, they've got their dad. As a former college player and high school coach, he's just the guy to teach them the finer points of the game.
But maybe, just maybe, there's room for someone else, too.
Someone who thinks bouncing a ball off a wall is all kinds of fun.
Someone who remembers when the million dollar infield didn't make a million dollars.
Someone who never really all that good, but loves baseball, all the same.
I was digging through a seldom-used closet the other day and found a treasure most rare. It was my old catcher's mitt. It must have been a sign.
Because I think it's time again.
Time to play ball.

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