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Thursday, April 4, 2013

A Rite of Spring in the Valley: From the Archives…

tools of spring and summerHardly a week and a half ago I posted about the fickle month of March, the changeable weather: sunbreaks one day, snow the next. Since that posting the March lion has retreated to his den and in his stead lamb-like spring has moved into the Valley. Our nesting pair of tree swallows came gliding in March twenty-fifth, checking  out their familiar summer accommodations. Three days later I was tilling in the garden and glanced up to see a flight of four buzzards wheeling against a backdrop of blue. The old saying has it that one swallow does not make a spring and perhaps it’s up to the blossoming lilacs to seal the deal, but in all the years I’ve been visiting the Valley I saw a sign of spring I’ve never seen here before.

“You throw like a girl!” I shout as Gladys and I wheel by the little house with the green metal roof, the one that’s a twin of Tony Broers’ old homestead. Two men, an older and a younger—father and son, perhaps—on this cloudless day are playing catch in the yard, tossing a softball back and forth. “That’s what I keep telling him,” the younger catcher laughs as he drops the ball. I felt like chiding him with: “You catch like a girl, too!” But I didn’t. Such sentiments are shared only among men, of course: if you’ve ever seen the Husky girls’ fast pitch softball team in action, “You throw like a girl” would not be a taunt but be a supreme compliment.

Baseball…the American Pastime, or so they say. Baseball…it used to be a passion in our household. T-ball, Boys’ and Girls’ Club league, Girl’s fast pitch Little League, Middle School Varsity, High School J.V., with a fast pitch clinic mixed in there somewhere. There were baseball card collections, season tickets to the Everett Aqua-Sox,  evening Mariners game on the radio.

What’s not to like about baseball? It’s a simple game: you throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball, but baseball is also a game of strategy, a Rubik’s Cube of variables, a chess match on a diamond playing field. In baseball three simple things can happen: you can win; you can lose; or it can rain. It is a sport where all comers can play, regardless of skill level. You don’t have to be a seven footer to participate; you don’t have be an incredible hulk programmed to bulldoze another player. The best whoever played the game failed to hit the ball two-thirds of the time. Baseball is a sport where a game’s outcome may hang on a single pitch, a single swing of the bat, a single error. After each pitch it’s “a whole new ballgame”: the strategy changes with the pitch count, with each new batter (or pitcher), with each runner who reaches base and with each base he’s reached. In theory a baseball hit between the foul lines could sail on forever fair; and a game could last forever (the longest game? Thirty-three innings between the Triple A Pawtucket Red Sox and the Rochester Red Wings, April 18-19, 1981. Sox win 3-2). The game invites interactivity: a fan who scores a game has a pitch by pitch account of the contest, becomes a statistician while at the same time keeping a watchful eye on any foul balls that may sail his way. And the best thing about baseball? It ushers in spring and the lazy days of summer.

The best sports literature by far, fiction and non, is baseball literature. This is not editorial opinion; it’s a fact. And the best sports literary characters, fiction and non are baseball characters. Some of the best writing, journalistic and “creative” concerns the subject of baseball. Just one example: in The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway’s old Cuban fisherman Santiago is following the “Great DiMaggio’s” baseball season (longest hitting streak, 56 games, 1941; the record still stands). Canadian author W. P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe which translated into the quintessential baseball movie The Field of Dreams (1989) inspired our family to take a baseball pilgrimage of a thousand miles to a cornfield in Dyersville, Iowa, a cornfield that miraculously sprouted a baseball diamond replete with field lights.Field of dreams Don Lansing’s farm became a  movie set and there, surrounded by cornfields with knee high corn, we performed the rituals of the game: played catch, shagged flies, ran the bases… the daughter disappeared into the corn rows (thanks to the fade function on the video cam)….

Early the next day we returned to the field for“extra innings.” The evening before we had met owner Lansing,  had him autograph a baseball (purchased at a Wal-Mart in Miles City, Montana), and bought a few souvenirs at his little stand. FOD sourvenirDon told us he had to hide the bases before dark so they wouldn’t be taken as souvenirs (signs directing sightseers to the field kept disappearing, too, had to be replaced constantly). He showed us where he kept the bases hidden until the next day and said we were welcome to put them out if we were the first visitors the next morning. We were…and we did. For our family the Field of Dreams was a shrine of sorts and we left Dyersville with a renewed faith in “The Church of Baseball.”awaiting the game...

Things change; life moves on; old passions wane, and new ones take their place. While the game itself remained—and still does—a constant, baseball’s appeal, at least for me, deteriorated. The game became all about money, and greed tainted the sport; players trolled both leagues for the highest salaries. Each season a fan had to build a new loyalty base to an unfamiliar team roster, acquaint himself with players who were complete strangers. baseball memoriesThe sport became more about landing an inflated contract than executing a perfect double play. Salary competition in the off season was keener than on the field of play. The players’ quest for huge salaries led to the 1994-‘95 strike which shorted the season by eighty-six games, leaving us ardent fans bereft of playoffs and the 1994 World Series. Then came the issue of “chemically encouraged” players and players who adamantly disavowed such encouragement. Time-honored records in the sport were shattered and the public’s trust along with them. All this and then the daughter’s moving away and starting a life of her own led to my estrangement from baseball.

In those days during baseball season the daughter and I had a pre-supper ritual. We’d grab our ball gloves and a softball and head for the front yard. After several warm up throws we would pace off sixty feet or so between us. “Ready?” I’d ask. She’d nod and I would begin the silent count: twenty throws back and forth without a “passed ball.” Twenty consecutive catches for each of us. Just a simple catch, it would seem, but time and again one of us would drop the ball, throw wide, sending one or the other into foul territory to retrieve it. Countless times during those evening catches I’d reach a seventeen, eighteen, nineteen count even and then the ball, as if it had a mind of its own, would sail beyond one of our gloves and the count had to be reset. Two, sometimes three times we were warned: “Your dinner’s getting cold!”  But we never left the yard until at last I yelled, “Twenty!” Then tired but exhilarated, we’d slip off our gloves and head inside to dinner. When I think back on those front yard catches I’m reminded of the poet Donald Hall’s book Fathers Playing Catch with Sons,  how just throwing a baseball around can strengthen the bonds between parent and child and etch those special moments into the memory of each .  

In the movie The Field of Dreams, after that magical cornfield  conjures up his father (“If you build it, he will come”), Ray Kinsella asks him, “Dad, would you like to have a catch?”  His father turns to his son and a smile plays across his face as he replies, “I’d like that.” At that moment—perhaps it only came from me— in that dark theatre, I thought I heard a communal sob issue from the men in the audience. I do know my vision suddenly blurred and I couldn’t read the credits. As the audience filed out silently, we men avoided making eye contact with each other and not a one turned to another and said, “You cry like a girl.”Iowa's field of dreams

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  1. Well, this one made me smile.

    1. Meant to do so..."There's no crying in baseball," you know.