The first ‘sport’ I ever played was kickball. I was nine and it was during recess. I didn’t want to play. I wasn’t interested in playing sports of any kind, but some friends needed one more person to fill out their team, so I, reluctantly, said I would play. I may be wrong, but up to that point in my life I’m not even sure I had ever caught or thrown a ball, and if I had it was probably with little success.

I didn’t know the rules of kickball, which made me even more reluctant to play.

“It’s just like baseball, but without a bat and you kick the ball,” one of the other kids had said. Yeah, okay. I could do that. I thought.

UnknownTurns out, I could. The very first person to kick the ball for the opposing team kicked it right at me. There was no getting out of the way. I would either catch the ball or be struck by it. Somehow—don’t ask me how—the ball hit me right in the stomach. I cradled it in my arms, lessoning the impact. I had caught it. I was kind of dumbfounded. I was like Scotty Smalls in the movie Sandlot when he caught the ball that Bennie the Jet had hit to him in the outfield during a practice.

After staring at the ball like it had done something magnificent for me, I tossed it back to the pitcher and got ready for the next ‘at bat.’ That started me on the road to loving sports and playing as many of them as I possibly could. Baseball was the first of the sports that followed.

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I played my first baseball game at the same school I played my first kickball game: Claude A. Taylor Elementary. If you stood facing the school at the front of the building you would need to look slightly to your left toward the playground. There was a tennis and basketball court beyond it, a walking track slightly further away, and in the far corner near the back fence was the baseball field. It wasn’t much of a field. There was no fence to separate the outfield from the rest of the playground, no dugouts (though there were two wooden benches, one each on the first and third base sides. Surrounding home plate was what amounted to a batting cage, painted black with a cyclone fence ‘netting.’ The bases weren’t much more than hard pillows on the ground.

We were allowed to use the wooden bats and tennis balls from the utility building near the tennis court. There were usually only a couple of kids in the infield to go along with the pitcher. The guy catching the ball was usually on the same team as the batter. There were always three or four guys in the outfield since a tennis ball—especially a new one—would fly forever.

It was one of the very few times I could hit a ball and it would do something more than be a shallow fly out or a ground out.

DSCN3016Though we only played there when the physical education teacher allowed it, we had a ton of fun. That eventually led me to ask my dad if I could play the real game. The real game consisted of a glove, bat, baseball and cleats. I mentioned I wanted to play baseball when I was ten. Knowing we couldn’t afford the equipment, I didn’t think I would ever get the chance to play ‘real baseball.’

Then one day my dad asked if I wanted to go to the flea market. Absolutely, I did. I would do just about anything to spend time with him. We browsed the tables, me not really looking at anything, trying not to get my hopes up if I saw a toy I wanted. We stopped at this one table and Dad talked to the guy behind it. I really didn’t pay attention to what item Dad was bargaining for.

“How much for this one?” Dad asked.

“Two dollars,” the guy responded.

Dad pulled the money from his pocket and gave it to the guy. Then he handed me the first ball and glove I ever owned. I was over the moon ecstatic. Two dollars when I was ten was a lot of money and my dad had spent that two bucks on me, to get me a used baseball glove and a baseball.

I would play baseball, though not for long—I wasn’t much of a hitter, after all. I still tossed the ball around and I still tried to hit better and better each time we played pick-up games after that. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t any good. What mattered is I loved playing and I had fun and I could grab my glove off my bed or the floor or the dresser and run and go play with my friends anytime I wanted to because my dad had parted ways with two dollars so I would be happy.

The baseball is long gone. I still have the glove. It is now probably fifty or so years old.

Now you know where all of this love for baseball fields started.

DSCN3018I went back to Claude A. Taylor not too long ago. I walked through the playground where we played kickball. I walked all the way to the back corner where the baseball field used to be. The batting cage is still there, though the cyclone fence ‘netting’ is gone. The two benches on either side of first and third base are still there. There is no home plate, no bases. The utility building is gone. The tennis court is still there, though there is no net and no basketball hoops. Still, as I stood near where third base should have been, I could almost hear the sounds from my childhood. It was glorious.

Until we meet again my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J.

7/19/2017

Throwing Out the First Pitch

I have an odd passion, one that started a few years ago. As I sit here thinking, I honestly believe it started during the three years my son played baseball. I was fortunate enough to be one of his coaches during that time period, and it was an experience that I cherish to this day. It was kind of like reliving my childhood while watching my son play a game I loved—and still love to this day. I don’t know if I’ll be able to explain this as well as I want to, but I’ll give it the old college try.

When I was a kid, the first sport I recall seeing was baseball. My dad and grandfather liked two teams that were truly horrible, for the most part: The Chicago Cubs and the Atlanta Braves. I watched a lot of Cubs games with my dad, listening to Steve Stone and Harry Carey call them (Carey in a tone that sounded slightly inebriated). When I was at my grandparents’ house, it was always the Braves on TBS. Those games were usually called by Skip Carey (yes, the son of Harry Carey, and no, he never sounded inebriated), and a host of other announcers. My great grandmother was a Braves fans, as well (a big time Braves fan). I got my dose of baseball almost every day  as a little kid during the summer and fall months.

Then when I was ten, I decided I wanted to play baseball. For the record, I was never really a good hitter. To be completely honest, I was pretty bad at swinging the old bat. But I could field. I could catch fly balls and ground balls and I wasn’t afraid to dive for anything. And I could throw, though sometimes I sidearmed the ball and when that happened the ball would end up anywhere, including over the fence behind first base. On those incidents I looked like Ricky Vaughn from the movie, Major Leagues.

To speed things up, I didn’t have much of a baseball career coming up. As I stated, I wasn’t a very good hitter, but I could field. Baseball just wasn’t in the cards for me. I later went on to play fifteen years of softball, often playing two and three seasons a year. As fun as softball was, it just wasn’t baseball.

I went to a few baseball games when I got into high school and a lot of softball games (at the time the high school softball team was winning state titles on a regular basis). It was my way of staying connected to the game, the sounds and sights and the joy of a game I was just not that great at.

I got older, quit playing softball all together, and for many years I stayed away from all baseball fields.

Then my son decided he wanted to try baseball. I admit, I got really excited. For three years I was an assistant coach on the teams he played for. I not only got to see my son play, I actively participated in his growth (and the growth of the other kids on the teams). When he decided he didn’t want to play baseball anymore I was saddened a little. Though I have been asked to come back and coach on several occasions, I haven’t done so. I wanted to go to the games my children played, no matter the sport they chose. My daughter played a year of softball and basketball and several years of soccer, and a year of cheer as well. My son played baseball, flag football soccer and swim. They were active, and I didn’t want to be the parent who missed his kids events because he was coaching other kids. I never wanted my kids to think someone else’s child/children were more important than they are.

I coached other sports (my daughter’s basketball team, my son’s soccer teams, and one stunning lopsided victory for my daughter’s last soccer team—that is a long story I may get into one day), but none of them made me feel the same as playing or coaching baseball.

I often go back to the field to watch some of the kids I coached. I hope to see some of them play in college and maybe even the big leagues one day. But that is getting way ahead of things.

When I go back to the fields, I can’t help but look around and take everything in. The sounds of the kids in the dugouts, the ping of an aluminum bat on ball, the cheering of friends and families watching the games, the occasional announcer up in the booth; the many stadium chairs lining fences with parents and friends; the smell of hot dogs and nachos; the younger kids throwing tennis balls against the back wall of the concessions, right between the two bathrooms; the sounds of balls hitting gloves and bubblegum popping. There are so many things to take in at a baseball game, but the biggest and most enjoyable are the expressions on those children’s faces as they get a hit, or catch the ball, or strike a batter out, or win a game … or lose one. To me, the unbridled joy and the true heartache of losing are lost as the kids get older and the game loses its innocence.

I think that is what draws me to the little league baseball fields. Innocence. The naivety of the children when they first join a team, the excitement when they learn how to do something, the thrill of victory, and yes, the agony of defeat. In the beginning, it is all innocent.

That brings me to what I hope to do here. This is not about professional baseball. As much as I loved the Cubs and Braves growing up, I’ve never been a big Major League Baseball fan. I’ve always liked the little league and high school levels, as well as college and minor leagues (to a much lesser degree). This is about old little league baseball fields and the way I see them. Some of these fields are still in use, while others probably haven’t seen anyone playing on them in years. To me, there is a beauty to these fields and that beauty isn’t just in what they are, but in what they may have been at one time.

Just so we are on the same page, I will not just talk about baseball fields. There will probably be stories here. Most of the blogs I write will have a story feel to them. There will definitely be images, and maybe a video here and there. When I step onto a baseball field, it is magical for me. My mind goes in all sorts of directions and the writer side of me gets very sentimental. My hope is to touch you in that same magical way as these fields touch me.

I don’t expect everyone to understand my love of these baseball fields. Honestly, I don’t expect anyone to understand. It’s just something I enjoy.

If you are reading this, I want to thank you. If you enjoyed this post (and those to come) I would like to ask you to please leave comments and subscribe, as well as like and share this post and blog. If you have any suggestions, please let me know. I’m willing to entertain other people’s thoughts.

Until we meet again, my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J.

7/15/2017