Tag Archives: crack of the bat

The Wide-Eyed Boy and The Game

This is a short story I wrote because even after all of my years in baseball, playing it, watching it, writing about it, coaching it, dreaming about it, and teaching it, I was genuinely inspired. The source of my inspiration doesn’t know about this story, and neither does anyone else, so I’m hoping everyone enjoys it.

I have a tendency to romanticize things here and there I suppose. And yes, I know that reactions and intensity sometimes overtake us when we face adversity and failure, and we show a side of us that might not be so pretty, perhaps because it exposes others directly to our hearts. The truth I see though is the thousands of times that we bounce back almost immediately, pulling ourselves to our feet, to love and compete again, for the love of the game. So, romanticized, or not, there is not much that’s more beautiful to me than the wide-eyed boy and the game. Inspired by #8 and the #9.

If you look really close and let your mind travel along memory’s checkpoints, the past reverses, flashing head-on towards the present and the visual collides with the picture in front of you. It’s the wide-eyed boy, full of wonderment, completely engulfed in joy, participating in a boys game, now in a grown man’s body. The names have changed, the neighborhood kids are gone, the dimensions have expanded, the style, the look now seem to matter, and the canvas on which this picture unfolds is viewed by many. Beneath it all though, is the boy. The boy who still cannot soak up enough of the game or the atmosphere found inside the lines separating the player from the spectator.

The sky is perfect blue. The lines, bases, home plate, pitching rubber and baseballs are bright white. The grass cut short, and symmetrically shaped, is green and beckons all to sample its run at perfection. The Stars and Stripes wave gently; perfectly against the blue backdrop. There’s no actual stage, but still it’s set, for the boys of summer.

Enter, the man, in body and mind he’s a man now. But in pure joy, and jittery excitement, he is, and always will be, a boy. Especially in this setting. There’s something that’s perfect about all of it. It all adds up. The pieces all fit. And, it’s as if all things have come together in this place at this time as they were meant to be.

The man may appear this way, or that way, but there’s more to him than meets the eye. He’d rather be in no other setting, he’s home right here, right now. And when this moment passes, if one were to ask, he’d most definitely fondly remember hours spent on an old field, less kept, working on his skills many years before. He’d probably agree to go to that former place now, and continue to work on his game.

Herein lies the beauty, not just the boy in the picture, but also, the picture itself. This is where baseball has that effect, linking all that was right, pure, and innocent with the golden years; linking directly to right now. A kids game being played by a big kid like all of his heroes did decades before. Over the years sand lots gave way to school fields or town fields, the quality of which were far less relevant than the time and effort spent in honing skills. Generations passed and kids are kept closer at hand, the outdoors simply becoming a place through which we must pass. But not in baseball. Baseball encompasses the outdoors, the fresh air, and the things that come with it. As kids in passing generations are outside less, enclosed in an imaginary box of constant pacification, baseball is outside and is just as wide open and grand as it was when kids took to the places they played a hundred years ago.

And so it is. The lines are the same. Baseballs sail by, spinning, bending, dropping, carrying, curving, all in the open spaces that transcend time. Just like they always have. The crack of the baseball against wood still tells the story of direction, quality of contact, and the speed in which the wooden tool was used. As it has been from era to era. Look closer to see that gaps are a mirage, closing quickly, the pawns shifting and moving in premeditated harmony. Distances appearing either closer or even farther depending on how these boys of summer manipulate the tools of the trade.

Then my wandering gaze catches the source of the encouragement loudly aimed at a teammate taking his turn at hitting a round ball with a round bat, squarely. It’s that same wide-eyed boy pulling for his fellow mate, his tone and intensity leave no clue as to his recent level of success or failure. For, with him, it’s not about him for more than any second or two at a time, but about the game. It’s about the game. It’s about the joy of competing in the same spaces between the lines as any player in history ever did. A smile is never far from his lips because it’s not work when you’re engulfed fully in your passion. A gleam in his eyes, like he’s getting away with something that must be wrong because it’s too much fun. It couldn’t be more right, this game, this symmetry, and this wild-eyed boy.

 

8 and 9

Baseball – I

Close your eyes. I mean, really close them. Let yourself drift off to another place. Clear your mind. As Billy Chapel says in For Love of the Game, ” clear the mechanism.” You’re sitting outside, leaning back in a rigid but somehow, tolerable seat. As you let your eyes close for a moment, your other senses heighten. You feel the warmth of the sun on your skin. Somewhere a switch has been flipped and your sub conscience seeks out all that is right with the world. Now smiling, you notice that your seat is more comfortable than it was a minute before, and you slouch a little easier into the seat you are glad, now, that you chose. You smell the renewed fragrances of spring. Your senses come alive as if recovering from a long winters nap. Birds nearby sing their spring song and only now you notice. You hear the enthusiasm in voices from a distance, but those are merely background for the unmistakable sounds of wood meeting rawhide in a full-speed collision. If the trained ear listens close enough you can tell which direction the rawhide sphere is headed without even opening your eyes or disturbing your sun-seeking perch. For a split second you want to open your eyes but you decide better of it as if opening your eyes would end this pleasant dream state. So, you clench your eyes tighter still and put your favorite ball players faces from yesteryear into this dream. The sounds are the same in so many ways. And the crash of the round bat into the round ball echoing around the old yard could be the sound of Ted Williams ripping a long home run, or its Henry Aaron sending a line drive through the box, or maybe its Mickey Mantle launching a towering blast, from either side of the plate, that requires patience and a good ear to hear if it ever comes down.

You are at a ball field, it is spring, and every player, every team, shares in the renewed hopes of spring. It’s a new season. It’s fresh. It’s refreshing. It’s spring. And then it all hits you, there is no place you’d rather be. Your eyes close a little more tightly, and the sounds fade a little further into the distance. Images appear in your mind as your body shifts and gently jolts almost voluntarily when the memories behind your eyelids appear larger than life. You feel like you can reach out and touch the vivid scene you see, but then you remember for a millisecond where you are, and you think better of raising your arm to swipe at the warm empty air. And you drift back into the scene that hides behind your sun-warmed eyelids. Now you’re smiling from ear to ear, eyes still closed. It’s baseball, in some elementary ways, the same as it’s ever been. A stranger makes his way to a seat nearby, he notices your smile with eyes closed, and he understands. He hurries along to his seat so he too can dip himself in the warmth of the magical transformation that only ball fields bring and clasp tightly the memories of boyhood dreams.

There you are back in your yard, at your school field, or sandlot, wherever you first dreamed of the game and played in the spaces you could find, to win all those World Series titles. When you played everyday because you loved the game, you couldn’t get enough of the game. You knew all the stats, who batted 1 through 9, who would hit for whom in the 7th, and every member of the bullpen. You knew who would pinch-run, whether it was to steal second base or score from second on a base hit. You remember the uniform you wore, right down to the trim, and the wayward stitch or two. You lift your leg for second and shake your foot remembering how fleet afoot you felt every time your old spikes were securely fastened to your stirrup laced feet. Somehow it seems like just yesterday when you would wipe the sweat from your brow and tug the bill of your cap a little lower to shield that bright game day sun. Your hands and fingers fidget slightly as you recall your ability to grab a baseball time after time and have your index and middle fingers perfectly aligned across the seams. Now your palms practically ache just to hold that old wood bat you took thousands of swings with. You can still feel the grain and the way the barrel tapered back to a handle that was much thicker than today’s bat handles. Listening closely to the sounds you fabricate in your mind, you swear you can still hear the ‘swoosh’ your mighty swing once created as it carved through the warm air.

Then, sitting a little more upright now, you roll your shoulders a few times, still clenching your eyes shut as not to disturb the calm and comfort found inside this daydream. Today there are no aches and pains, tightness won’t be thought of here, or at least not until you have to rise from your seat the next time. You recollect the days when you felt so strong, felt so right, you felt like you could throw all day, even throw hard all day. And you did. You think for a moment, trying to figure out how difficult it would be were you to try to calculate how many pitches you threw on any given summer day. Then you just smile, knowing it was in the hundreds, and it was nearly every day. A rest day back then was eating dinner, going to sleep, and going to school for several hours the next morning. Then it was a sprint to the ball, glove, and bat as soon as time would allow.

For me, it was my yard. After school it was the place I couldn’t wait to be. I recall thinking about scenarios that were soon to unfold in my yard while I was still on the bus riding home. Actually it started when I was a young boy and it continued throughout my school years. Often times, my desk in some classroom was just the place I dreamed from. My teacher could have just as easily been any Major League public address announcer. My reality was more often a slice of my imagination playing out the details of me playing, competing, and winning, than not. It’s almost all I ever thought about, and it would have been 100% of my thoughts were it not for school, church, and the occasional conversation. In my mind, in my yard, I was the greatest there’s ever been, yet I revered and respected the greats who came before me. I shook hands with Babe Ruth on the field at the old Yankee Stadium. Hank Aaron was there to acknowledge my gracious demolition of his home run record, and maybe we chatted on the field at the old Tiger Stadium where my record homer was still climbing as it crashed into the overhanging upper deck in right field. Ted Williams marveled at my swing while we talked baseball in South Florida in between his fishing days. At the old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore I sat in the seemingly vertical upper deck behind home plate and talked with Brooks Robinson who couldn’t believe my range, and I was a lefty, to boot!

On rainy days, when I could throw the ball from just inside the dry cover of our garage roof overhang, I was being congratulated by Nolan Ryan and Steve Carlton as a pitcher that was among the all-time winners and clearly the most accurate of all time. Walter Johnson and Bob Feller asked me just how hard did I throw. Ron Guidry asked me my nickname, because even though he was a Yankee, he had a pretty cool nickname in, Louisiana Lightning. After I had twirled yet another complete game, especially on those rainy days, I would grab my wood bat and start to swing. I remember vividly looking down at the broken cement of our garage floor and checking out the shadow of my swing. My swing had to be perfect, both left-handed and right-handed. I would swing at top speed. I would swing in slow motion. I would swing that bat hundreds of times over. I imagined the ball jumping off of my bat and clearing fences all over the major leagues.

After church on Sundays it was a battle for me. I had to decide whether to take the extra few minutes to change my clothes or just go for it in whatever I was wearing. I knew full well that within minutes a ball would carom off of the garage door, too far to my right, and I would have to dive headfirst on the green grass to make the spectacular play. Then I would immediately regret the choice I made, not to change my clothes first, at least for a second or two. Of course, had I not hustled right out to make the play, then someone else would have been in the lineup, so, I was right, get out there and play. Worry about the clothes later. I mean, that was just a double that I robbed down the line. Shouldn’t that cover a for a few grass stains? Some how my mom never put as much stock in my defensive genius in the yard as I did, and as my thousands of fans in the imaginary stands around my yard, did. Neither were wrong, I was, but what’s a boy to do? Somebody’s gotta go out and win the World Series, and I felt that somebody had to be me.