The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Baseball, and All That We Leave Behind

 

Playing ball in the parking lot behind my friend Tony’s house.

Cool pavement under shady maple trees.

We had to climb two chain-link fences to get to this place.  The last car would usually vacate the lot around 5:00, so we would begin playing ball here sometime around 4:30, just to be on the safe side.

We’d already been playing all day.  Pickup games on side streets and in overgrown dandelion fields.

In the lot, we played “one-bounce” with a red rubber ball.  The pitcher would toss it, overhand, towards home-plate on one bounce.  By putting a spin on the ball, the pitcher could make the sphere either bounce away from the lunging batter, or jam it in on his hands.

If an infielder caught a ground-ball on one bounce, it was ruled an out.

Eleven-years old, I am standing on third base, the result of a hard smash I hit that made it halfway down the driveway before being recovered by the outfielder.

As I faced home-plate, I suddenly knew, as clearly as if a bell had gone off in my head, that I would remember this moment forever.

I was in that breezy, afternoon space between growing into myself, and all the trials and expectations that were sure to follow.

As I waited for the next batter to hit the ball, I happened to turn to my right and noticed something carved into the trunk of a maple tree.  Weather-worn and barely legible, it read, “J. Holvanek was here July ’56.”

John Holvanek, I knew, was one of my father’s childhood friends.  His son, John Holvanek, Jr., age nine, was here playing with me now, yelling at the batter to “just hit the goddamned ball!”

In the age of Mantle, Mays and Snider, back when this parking lot was still an open field, John Holvanek, senior, had played baseball.

Standing in the outfield grass, sun high in the sky, waiting for the chubby kid to hit one out to me in center field.

I am thirteen-years old now.  The four guys playing with me are between the ages of eleven and fourteen.  We walked three miles from our street in the hot summer sun to get to this lonesome Little League field, hidden high on a bluff overlooking the town of Fairfield.

A dragon-fly hovers ten feet away, calmly positioning him self to make his next kill.  I, too, know that I am positioned correctly to catch the fly ball that Richard will inevitably be lofting high into the muggy afternoon heat.

Richard only ever hits high fly balls to straight away center.  I know this because I’ve made a mental note of several of his prior at bats.

He always hits the scuffed up baseball off the end of his aluminum bat, partly because my cousin, Jimmy, won’t throw him anything over the plate for fear of getting decapitated by a line-drive.

I am the sole outfielder.

The August sun traces hot fingers of perspiration down my neck.

On his next swing, Richard really lays into one, sending the ball soaring high into the sepia sky.  It is a towering drive that clears the left-center field fence by fifteen or twenty feet.  All I can do is stare at it as it plunks itself down among the scrubby weeds and the vine-covered trees.

Great, now someone, namely me, has to climb the fence and retrieve the ball; it is one of only two that we brought with us, and we can’t afford to lose it.

The terrain behind the fence is extremely difficult to climb through.  Sloping sharply downward at a 45 degree angle, the topography is not unlike that on Little Round Top at the Gettysburg battlefield, with the added obstacle of a jagged barbed-wire fence that juts out randomly from under the soil.

Also, it’s hotter than hell, and the mosquitoes are feasting on my blood.

After several minutes of fruitless, frustrating searching, I spot something straight ahead of me.  It is sort of white, like the baseball, but it appears to be somewhat larger than the ball I’m looking for.

I kneel down to take a better look at it.  Using my baseball glove as a tool, I brush away the brackish, wet leaves piled half an inch thick.

It is part of an old sign.  At first, being a Catholic, I thought that it read, “Confessions.”  But this seemed rather unlikely to me, being out here in the woods and all.  And anyway, “Confessions” weren’t something you put up signs about.  Then I realized that it actually read “Concessions,” and it began to make sense to me.

On the other end of this field, there used to be a concession stand where players and fans could cool off with a bottle of Coca-Cola, and enjoy a snack of their choice.  Children and parents spent their Saturday afternoons enjoying the sounds of the crack of a bat smacking a ball, kids laughing and yelling, and cicadas screeching in the woods.

I thought about picking up the sign and showing the others.  Instead, I kicked a wet pile of dead leaves over it, and resumed my search for the baseball.

On the lawn behind my apartment building.

My six-year old boy is standing barefoot in the grass holding a wooden baseball bat behind his shoulder.  He is locked and loaded, ready to rip into one of daddy’s famous, underhand “slow” balls.  I stare in at him and say, “Hey, give me your game-face.”  My son bares his teeth at me and scowls.  He is intensely focused.

I toss the ball exactly where he likes it, up and over the plate where his small arms can extend themselves just enough to drive the ball over my head.

And that is exactly what he does.  His drive travels an estimated sixty-five feet into the tall bushes that provide our ground-floor apartment with a modicum of privacy.  He circles the imaginary bases as fast as he can.  He hasn’t yet perfected his home-run trot.

I lope over to the bush to find the baseball.  (Some things never change.)  I pluck it out easily and turn to jog back to my “pitcher’s mound.”  But my boy is already half-way back, heading towards our apartment.

“Dad,” he says, “I don’t want to play any more today.”

We’ve already been playing almost an hour, and the April sun is already hot here in South Carolina.

I begin to suggest to him that we write “First homer, April ’10” on his baseball, to commemorate his first home run, but he is already pulling open the screen door to get a drink.

I look around the yard for a moment; everything has been picked up off the lawn.

I head back in towards the apartment, and I wonder if, many years from now, my little boy will remember this moment.

On a whim, I toss the baseball as high up into the cobalt sky as I can, and wait for it to come back down into my glove.  As it hovers halfway between Heaven and Earth, I wonder how many times in my life I’ve searched the skies, the streets, and the woods for baseballs.  I often ended up finding things others had left behind.

I often ended up finding Baseball.

 

 

 

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12 thoughts on “Baseball, and All That We Leave Behind

  1. Very nice story. Reminds me, of course, of my first “homer.”

    There was a long, narrow vacant lot across the street from our house in Riverdale, Illinois. The big kids on the block turned it into a wiffle ball field. They made rules so you could play with as few as two on a team. If you hit the ball past the fielder, it was a single. Past a particular bush, a double. Past the apple tree, a triple. And into the high grass way out there, halfway to the alley, a home run. There were no bases. You had to remember where your men-on-base stood on the non-existent diamond.

    I used to like to watch the boys play, being too little to join in.

    One day, the older kid who lived almost at the end of the block asked if I wanted to play. I would be on his team. Thrilled, I jumped up and took the field. When it came time for our side to bat, the older kid handed me the thin, wooden wiffle ball bat with black friction tape wrapped around its handle. I stepped up to the “plate,” just a dirt smudge where no grass grew. All I wanted to do was make contact. There was no way I could hit the triple area, let alone the tall grass for a homer.

    The pitcher wound up and threw. The ball picked up the air currents and danced its way toward me like a knuckle ball. I swung and missed. The next pitch came in a little straighter, so I let up on my swing and made contact, but got ahead of the ball and pulled it to the left, into what I thought was foul ball territory. It flew over a chain link fence at the corner of a neighbor’s yard.

    All of sudden my teammate was screaming and patting me on the back. “Way to go! Way to go!”

    Even the pitcher and his fielder had to jog to the plate and congratulate me. “What’d I do?” I asked.

    “You got yourself a homer!” said my teammate.

    I didn’t know it, but the boys had declared that corner of the fence the “short shelf” of their field. You had to land the ball just right, and I, without realizing it, had done just that. My first home run, and to this day, over a half century later, the only one I remember.

    • Hi, That is a great story. Glad you shared it. Hope you have a chance to share it with others. Baseballisms.com is always up for a good baseball story. Check him out. And thanks for stopping by and reading my blog. Appreciate it, Bill

  2. I can remember those very same type of memories…I got together with a group of kids, I was the youngest and we lined off a makeshift field at the T-intersection …across the street was a homerun..we kept count. Gary the oldest had 100+ while I had less than 10, every one very special to me…

    A few years back, I walked the street with my son…no more drawn-on bases or home plates..in fact no kids playing outdoors at all..just memories.

    • Hi Mark, Sign of the times. I know as parents, we are all more careful these days about letting our kids wander around the neighborhood, meaning, we don’t. Now almost all kid activities are organized by parents. Kids might be a little safer today, but there is definitely a trade-off. If the nature of childhood is changing, how can it not affect the nature of what it means to be an adult? Anyway, as you said, we do have the memories. Thanks for reading, and for taking the time to comment, Bill

  3. Had those days, had every damned one of them. Thanks for reminding me about them and about why I love this amazingly wonderful game.
    v

    • One of the great things about baseball is that, unlike many other sports, you have time to think and reflect even while you are in the middle of the action. You can live in the moment, and therefore, you are more likely to remember those poignant moments. Thanks again for reading, Bill

  4. This is the true “poetry of the game” there is no better way for me to explain it. This story sparks so many emotions it has to be classified in the same category of creative writing. Baseball is a great muse because so many have had a relationship with it …

    Fantastic piece Bill .. I am going to save this so that I can revisit it often.

    Joe

  5. Kevin Graham on said:

    Hey Bill,

    We had the same childhood.

    Kevin

  6. Nice piece, Bill – enjoyed it very much.
    Rich

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