Lost Angels and Blackbirds Part II

It only took him around twenty minutes to get through the neighborhood and out of what he called the ‘town proper.’ It was another term Pappy had used in reference to the areas of town that actually looked like a town and not like country roads that went on forever with only fields to either side with an occasional run down house or barn to break up the monotony. Then he was driving along a stretch of road just outside of town he thought probably went from one end of the state to the other.

He came up on the dirt road to his left faster than he expected, and passed it. He drove a little further down until he came to another dirt road to his right. Ten yards off the main road was a rusty metal gate, a chain and lock holding it in place. He pulled onto the road, backed out and headed in the direction he had come, this time a little slower.

There was a road sign, but it wasn’t the normal Green background with the white lettering. It was wooden and in the shape of an arrow. It looked as old as he was. Black paint that had faded to gray over the years announced the road was Cherry Park Road. He made the turn and followed the bumpy red clay street. He passed a handful of mailboxes as he went, but he saw no houses anywhere nearby.

Must have fallen down, he thought. Or been torn down.

DSCN2720Two miles fell away beneath the wheels of the old truck. Then, as if he had gone over a hill, a baseball field appeared off to his left. He pulled the truck into the tall grass and shut off the engine. To his right were trees and a set of wooden bleachers that faced the field. A mailbox leaned to one side, forced that way with the growing tree beside it.

As he sat in the truck, he looked through the windshield at the tall grass and the run down dugouts (one of which had the words HOME OF THE CHERRY PARK ANGELS spray painted on the outside). His heart sped up and he licked his lips.

Along the top of one of the dugouts sat a flock of blackbirds, very similar to the ones that had been on the wires along his street.

DSCN2725Wendell stood from the truck, his knees popping in nothing short of sweet relief. He stretched his back and arms and then walked toward the field. There was no dugout gate, just an opening that led from outside the field, to the dugouts, and ultimately, on to the field. He stepped inside.

“Not too bad,” he thought. “I can work with this, I think.”

The wooden frame was still in good shape. The ceiling didn’t look like there were holes in it anywhere. The bench was nothing more than two wooden planks, side by side that ran the length of one wall. Chain link fencing separated the inside of the dugout from the field. Though it looked as if it hadn’t been used in years, it still looked like it could be used tomorrow (or today, he thought) by any group of kids who might show up to play a game or two.

Wendell didn’t spend too much time in the dugout. He stepped onto the field where so many kids had probably played, where so many dreams had been born and probably died, as well. He hated that prospect, but it was true. He was a living testament to that, having been a little boy with dreams of big league baseball in his future, only to realize a few years in that he would never be able to hit that little white ball with the red stitches. It didn’t matter how good he was at fielding and throwing, his coaches wanted hitters, guys who could get on base and produce runs. Wendell frowned at this. Other kids could hit, and hitting, he thought, was overrated. How many of those kids could make a diving stop at third base and still throw the batter out at first? If his memory served him correctly, the answer was not too many. The art of the diving player stopping the ball didn’t become popular, he thought, until the seventies. Now everyone could do it.

“I was cool before cool was invented,” he said as he stood where he thought first base should be, and where it clearly wasn’t. He let out another deep sigh, this one more from remembering than anything else.

DSCN2728Wendell looked back at the dugout, then back to where he stood. “First base should be right around here,” he said and stepped through the knee high weeds and grass. For a few moments he thought the bases had been pulled up the last time the field had been used. It made sense—they weren’t cheap if you bought the good ones and all the accessories that go with anchoring them in the ground. A couple hundred dollars apiece, for starters Unless they went with the throw down type that went on the ground whenever you wanted to play. They weren’t all that safe, in his opinion, but he had seen many places use them to cut back on the cost of equipment. Just as he was about to give up, Wendell saw the dirty base sticking out where weeds didn’t seem to dare to grow.

Wendell toed at the bag with one foot.

“Hard as concrete,” he said.

Wendell looked back to the dugout again. He was a lot further away than he thought he would be. He turned his attention to where home plate should have been. The back stop  was on a slight slope and covered with grass and a few weeds, but not nearly as many as the infield and the outfield had. From where he stood, next to first base, there was no way the bases were the right distances apart.

To be continued …

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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