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home : insight & opinion : guest columns
December 10, 2018

5/8/2018 2:47:00 PM
Baseball a journey of 'personal worth'
For the Daily News

It's good to feel the sun warm my back again as I dig in the garden. The ground is still cold beneath my knees and hands, but that will change. I am so relieved to be outdoors again and free of the burden and worry of surviving the winter. That may have been imagined, but I've had nights when I thought it likely, and lived places where it was possible. It is a relief to have that behind me. It's temporary.

Pitchers and catchers reported some time ago as another season of baseball, with its boredom and excitement, is upon us. Baseball was my awakening to personal worth. The family wasn't important in any way, although my older brother was a smart kid. I wasn't smart, apparently, not in the way he was or in a way that was considered beneficial. But I did play baseball and he didn't, and I played with a sense of relief and joy that he never managed to muster in anything but a math problem, so it may not have shown so much.

Then there is the chatter that baseball permits. After a lifetime of being told to be quiet, let a six-year-old figure out that shortstops can say things out loud to the batter at the plate and the real fun begins. "Hey, batterbatterbatter..." there's timing and emphasis to be learned to have the greatest effect, and then, when the ball is pitched and you know he's thinking about whether to try and hit this one as its one it way, I would yell, "Swing!" and sometimes they would.

Even if they pretended they meant to swing later, you know it bothered them on some level and it was irritating, yet that had to learn to take it because it was part of the game. I learned that from Mr. Bandy, who was the umpire I first played with at the park in Robinson in any organized way. The kid playing shortstop on the other team when I got up to the plate wouldn't stop saying things at me, and I asked Mr. Bandy if that was allowed. He held his hands up and called time out, and then looked at me and said, "It's all part of the game," and then yelled, "Play Ball!" and we did.

Once back in the field at shortstop I did it, too, only I actually wanted the batter to hit the ball - because then there was some chance that it would come to me and I would get to do something that I dearly loved to do; charge a ground ball, scoop it up, and throw it over to my friend Donny Ewing at first base. I might have to wait a beat for him to get there, but he was taller than the rest of us and sure-handed, and would stand in there with a runner coming right at him and wait for the sidearm slider I'd sent his way to curve up and over to him from where I'd thrown it.

Some guys on the team just wanted to bat, like Donny Mark Davis, our second-baseman, but I was not one of them, I'd rather field the hot grounder and be part of a double play or maybe catch a pop up over my shoulder hoping the center fielder could hear me calling him off as I did so running as fast as I could and yelling, "I got it!"

As soon as I did have it I ducked away and covered up, knowing they either may not have heard me or cared, after standing out there out of touch with everything all this time and now having one hit at them only to be told to not go after it. If they didn't go after it and it fell to the ground where they could have caught it, who's gonna get yelled at then, huh? So in they came, yelling, "I got it," themselves, only they didn't; I did. Luckily I caused no collisions but my poaching in the outfield was mentioned to me more than once. Just catching the ball wasn't enough apparently.

It was all just good fun and springtime to me; when summer came, and it got serious, I liked it less. Then the coach moved us around in the batting order for some reason of his own or thought he was the one running things, and if we did or didn't do what he wanted when we got up to bat or out in the field he just replaced us with someone who would. That wasn't any fun.

It was finally mentioned to me that I was not a "team player." What the coach meant by that was: 1. I wasn't going to play much anymore on his team and; 2. He didn't understand the game like I did. Of course, when I reached those conclusions I was in the fourth grade, had several seasons under my belt and had managed to hit more than a few home runs and played several seasons without a throwing error, but that didn't matter as much as the scorebook and the way he wanted the game played.

By the time I got to high school the writing was on the wall for me in the baseball dugout. I was "not a team player" so I never played in a single game. I would go out in the spring, do the drills, run the laps around the diamond, and watch other guys take batting practice. Although I had been a good hitter in the summer league at the park, I never got to take batting practice. The coach said it would be a waste of time.

I went out every year, and while I got to play in the summer where everyone got to play, I didn't ever make the cut for the final roster for the school team and would then move over to the track team, which was always glad to have another body to fill a slot in an event.

I move over to the next row and dig my claw-fingered trowel into the dark earth of the potting soil and mix it into the flower bed, churning it with a rolling of my wrist that reminds me of turning the bat over after a short swing meant to be a seeing eye single. I can smell the dirt and feel the cool dampness of the earth in spring beneath me. I remember the excitement of a new season beginning and the song of summer to come;

"Hey, batter; batter; batter... Swing!"

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