Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Boy in Summer

It was late summer 1985 when I gave up on baseball. Three years after a strike suspended play in the major leagues, two humiliating events occurred that made me realize that I wasn't going to play baseball professionally afterall, and to make matters worse, my beloved Houston Astros were battling the New York Mets in the national league championship series for the right to go to the world series for the first time in franchise history.

Nolan Ryan was still playing in those days and the Astros had a pitching staff that was the envy of the league: JR Richard, Charlie Kerfeld, Mike Scott, and Phil Neikro complemented the "Ryan Express".
But, alas, the Astros lost to the Mets who went on to win the world series against Boston with the infamous Bill Buckner error on a single to first. I never watched another baseball game again, even when the home-run derby that was Sosa and McGuire started shattering records. Steroid scandals and congressional intervention sealed the deal for me. Even when the Astros made it to the World Series a couple of years ago I didn't really care. I knew they would lose - they did - and, well, it was over.

I grew up a Cincinnati Reds fan during the reign of the Big Red Machine. Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Davy Conception, Joe Morgan, et al. Dad and I would watch every game we could on the television. Always the coach, Dad would quiz me on the game situation and what would I do if I were playing second base with a man on first and third, one out and the ball is hit to me.

"Throw to the short stop covering second, the short stop would throw to first for the double play." was the right answer.

After moving to Randolph AFB in San Antonio I joined up with the little league on base and began my early career in baseball. Dad, of course, was the coach of our team, the Randolph Giants. I thought my Dad just wanted to be with me, that's why he volunteered to coach, but I later found out that, as a recruiter, he got promotion points for community service. My being on the team still was a little more than serendipitous, in that it was he that drafted me when the league set up for the year. I was the best player on a last place team. Even back then it felt strange to receive a trophy for 9th place during the awards ceremony at the end of the season. Everyone gets a trophy now days...

As I grew into middle school age my love for baseball increased. This increase was due largely to the fact that Dad was no longer my coach. He is not a bad man and he was a good coach. But I found that he was only a coach during that period in my life. And because of his overdeveloped sense of honor he was always harder on me than the other players. We moved to Cable Ohio and I immediately joined the league there. I was considered among the best second basemen, a good hitter, and base stealer as I had always had good speed and due to my Dad's drilling I "thought" during the game and its various situations more than my peers. We won second place in the league one year and because of my speed and fielding ability was moved to centerfield. One highlight I remember vividly was a fly ball hit well to my left. As a right hander, I would have to not only make the catch but twist and throw across my body to catch the runner leaving second after tagging. I ranged to my left in a dead sprint, dove to the ground snagging the fly ball, tumbled over in  a neat summer-sault, sprung to my feet, shifted to the right, and fired a cannon of a throw to third to snag the base runner, ending the inning. The crowd gave me a standing ovation.

Shortly thereafter we moved back to San Antonio - It was as if Dad's career looked up and saw that we were starting to get comfortable and said "Time to Move!" So as a sophomore in high school, we went back to Randolph AFB where I attended and eventually graduated from the high school there on base. The school, however did not offer baseball as a sport, and I was relegated to joining the base Pony League which was for high school age kids. This was the first blow to my dream of a professional baseball career. It is hard to get noticed by scouts in the secure and hidden confines of a military base if you are playing in an unofficial league. I was nothing more than an intramural baseball player at this time.

There are two instances that occur in my memory from time to time that eventually let me see that baseball would not be my profession. One game, while playing my favorite position, second base, I had forgotten that we already had two outs. Our opponent had a runner at third. The batter pegged a line drive directly to me, which I caught for what was the third out, but as I had forgotten this important point, I fired the ball home to try to get the runner. All of my teammates had started for the dug out because the inning was over. Our catcher had taken off his mask. My throw hit him in the head. The crowd, applauding my catch and the end of the inning, became suddenly quiet. I grew suddenly embarrassed. I never had a good game after that. I lost something of my mental edge - I was never really into the game.

The second occurrence, was equally as humbling. It was my senior year and I was struggling with my game. We got a new coach, the dad of our first basemen. For the first time in my young career, I was not the coach's favorite player. I began to realize why my dad treated me harsher than the other players when he was my coach. It was not a good feeling to the other players to never get praise or a preference when the lineup was created for each game. We were at one particular practice, after school had let out for the day and my new coach was throwing batting practice. It was my turn and for the first time I experienced a curve ball. Up till then I had never seen one. Up until that time, pitchers did not try to deceive you with special pitches. They just reared back and tried to throw it past you and always tried to throw it over the plate.

The first pitch came at me as I stood in the batter's box. It had the sound of sizzling bacon and was spinning oddly. It was headed straight for my left shoulder. I cowered and backed out of the box thinking I was going to get hit by the fast moving projectile. It was then that the pitch curved up and then across and down to the middle of the plate. It would have been a strike if it had been in a real game. I still remember the laughter of the coach, his son, and all of my teammates. I still remember the coach saying, "You ain't going no where unless you can hit a curve." I never could hit a curve ball. Something about the way it acted, malevolent, feigning like it wanted to bruise me, but then mockingly veering away from me as it sailed harmlessly over the plate.

That coach - I use the term loosely - never tried to teach me how to hit a curve. He seemed to enjoy making fun of my inability to hit it more than any desire he may have had to make me a better player. I knew then my career was over. It was then that I laid down my glove and cleats, and attempted to excell in basketball. That attempt was filled with more comedy than achievement.

I am slowly recovering my love for this ridiculous game. I listen to every Razorback baseball game I can, while out working or relaxing in the evening. Slowly the good memories are coming back.

The things I love are coming to light again. The feeling of freedom as I stepped over the first base line to take my position in the manicured centerfield. The feeling of my cleats gripping the spongy turf. The comfortable feeling of the stirruped socks nestled securely in the arch of my cleated feet. The feel of the thin cotton uniform, the snug cap upon my head. The wrist bands, the smell of the leather of my fielder's mitt, the soft leather touch of a lightweight batting glove. The cheers from the crowd when I would reach first base on a single. The tension of taking a lead, daring the pitcher to make the throw. The wind up, the set, the pitch. I would take off in this two man battle to see which would get to second base first, me for the steal or the catcher's throw for the out. The smell of popcorn, hot dogs, newly mown grass, leather, ash, the red clay infield. It all comes alive again through the radio. The relaxing drone of baseball conversation which is unlike any other commentary in sports. Abruptly punctuated my the call of an exciting play. It goes like this...

"Top of the second inning and James Mcann steps up to the plate. A beautiful day here at Baum stadium... the pitcher comes set and delivers, a fast ball high and outside, ball one... the rain that came through last night has cleared out and the fans are really starting to show up...the pitch, a curve ball inside, ball two. When you are in Fayetteville, be sure to stop by the Catfish Hole, here's the pitch, Mcann swings...a long drive to dead away center field, the outfielder is back, back, back, and this ball is gone! Mcann puts the Hogs up 1 to 0 on a deep fly ball! What a hit! Last night with all the humidity in the air, that ball would have died out around mid depth of center field. Up now, Bo Bigham who is working on a 16 game hitting streak. The Catfish Hole's legendary hushpuppies come with every meal, the pitch, strike one."

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