“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
The last real baseball game I ever played was probably in the summer of 1982, just before I went to high school. I’m not sure. I don’t remember it. I don’t even remember the name of my team. Leaving the game was just not a big deal at the time.
Which today seems very odd, considering that I will never forget the moment at the end of last summer when my youngest son walked away from baseball. It broke my heart.
Baseball lends itself to two things: Statistical analysis and overblown writing. This column is not about statistics. It’s about boyhood, and summer, and growing up and growing older. It’s about hope, particularly this time of year, as spring training starts and people think of new beginnings. It’s about playing catch in the yard on a perfect afternoon, wishing time could stop. It’s about buying bags of sunflower seeds, slushies, and concession-stand hot dogs. It’s about success — and plenty of failure. It’s about me and my kid, possibilities and endings, perspective, life, death and rebirth. (Yes, I know. O-v-e-r-b-l-o-w-n. Just roll with it, please.)
I played tee-ball, coach-pitch and Cookie League baseball in City Park here in Manhattan. I made a couple of the best friends of my life on those fields. I was lucky enough to knock one over the fence while Butch Albright was watching, so I got picked for a traveling team he helped coach when I was about 11. I played on that team, “Ballard’s Sporting Goods,” as we played, oh, probably 150 games during three summers. Most were against rinky-dink town teams — White City, Americus, Dwight. We were classified as a St. George team, due to where our other coach lived, which is why we were playing that circuit. We won the state championship, held in Anthony, by beating Wamego.
I was a good singles hitter; I wanted to be the next George Brett. The scouting report: Good glove, accurate but mediocre arm, no power, little speed. I played wherever —some second, some outfield. Catcher was my favorite; I enjoyed trying to think a step ahead of the hitters and control the game. That was my other strength, I guess: thinking.
Eventually, baseball kicked me out. The pitchers started throwing curves, and as a result I wasn’t so good a singles hitter anymore. Check the list of assets above and you’ll figure out why I didn’t last. You can’t think your way to first base.
I had also discovered that I was pretty good at tennis, and I started playing competitive tournaments in the summer. So I quit the traveling team one spring; I presume the coaches were relieved to see me go. That summer, I joined a city-league ball team for fun. I hardly remember anything about it, but whenever that season ended, as summer turned to fall, I was finished.
I didn’t think anything of it at the time; you tend not to see life passing by when you’re 15, and anyway it had become obvious that I was not headed to the Hall of Fame.
It was only much later that I realized how much that all meant to me — the time with my teammates in the dugout, the feel of the bat meeting the ball, the thud of the ball in your glove, the whiff of the concession stand. Powerful stuff; I had locked it away.
Our middle boy started playing traveling baseball a few years ago. He was good, and his team was (and still is) very good. I went to the games; I smelled those hot dogs and heard the gloves popping. I felt the pull. But we still had a couple of younger kids to deal with and I didn’t get deeply involved.
I decided to try to help coach the youngest one when he got an offer to do the traveling-team thing at age 7. (Yes: Seven!) I was an assistant for a couple of years, and a head coach for a couple, too.
It completely hooked me. I cared deeply about the teaching, the learning, the life lessons — and the wins and losses. I stayed up at night worrying about lineups. I spent hours talking to parents about their kids. I guess I felt reborn. And most importantly, in that dugout, I got to see a dozen boys at their best and their worst. We became a family.
We were damn good. We won a ton of games. And yes, my youngest was good. As I