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Saturday, Dec. 20, 2014

Eternal: kids and baseball

Thursday, October 10, 2002

The best 9-year-old second baseman in the world and I were laying there on our backs in the sweet-smelling, impossibly perfect grass of the outfield, watching the clouds float by like cotton candy.

He was going to be a big league baseball star, and I never doubted it for a moment. In those days, when a Little League uniform was a T-shirt with "Sandy's Restaurant" stenciled across the front, jeans and a pair of Converse red-balls, he lived and breathed baseball.

The best 9-year-old second baseman in the world would be at the field about the time the sun came up, to play pepper with anyone who would oblige. He was still there after dark, when the last of those lazy pick-up games slowly broke up.

He would have absolutely blown a cog to hear major league baseball players talk of going on strike this season. Having a chance to play ball, and not wanting to? He wouldn't have believed it if he could hear it. But he can't.

"Where's everybody going? There's plenty of light left to play," he would cry every night. I nearly had to peel him off the field. We would stop by the Art & Mary's for an RC Cola and a chaw of Bazooka Joe for the walk home.

He would talk baseball, and I would just listen. He loved the game, and made major league statistics and hitting strategy sound like music and poetry. I just let it wash over my good-kind-of-tired body.

The best 9-year-old second baseman in the world usually went pretty high in our version of the "draft" - choosing up the teams behind some rusty backstop somewhere in town. I was a middle-of-the-pack choice as a serviceable pitcher, but he would always lobby to make sure I got chosen by his team.

He was a fierce little bundle of baseball determination, loping around the field after any loose ball, batting almost on top of the plate with his cap pulled so low over his eyes you had to wonder how he could possibly see. By the second game of the evening, he was afforded the respect due to the best 9-year-old second baseman in the world, even when we played with the hulking 12-year-olds. And when Michael was playing, there was always a second game of the evening.

Rain was no excuse for stopping The Game; lightning was only good for a brief delay. "Where's everybody going? There's plenty of light left to play!"

I can't picture the best 9-year-old second baseman in the world without a worn-rough, too-big baseball glove dangling from his belt, and without grass stains and infield dust over his best keep-them-clean-for-Sunday pants.

He was going to be a big league star, and I think it is the game's loss. I'd like to get into the playoffs this year, but I just can't find the pure love for the game there any more.

The best 9-year-old second baseman in the world wouldn't scream at fans, pout about salary, sandbag on runs down to first, and I sure can't imagine him taking drugs.

One summer, the best 9-year-old second baseman in the world moved away, and the grass never seemed as perfect again, and the clouds never looked quite so much like cotton candy.

Then, they told me that the best 9-year-old second baseman in the world was sick, and very soon, that he was gone.

I took my glove, the one that I'd worked weeks to make the sweet spot in, from the foot of my bed. I hung it up on a nail in the garage. I never took it down again.

Just wasn't enough light left to play.

The game didn't seem to mind. I told my friends I had something else to do, took up shooting baskets and throwing footballs. I think they knew the real reason, but they were friends, and so they never hassled me.

Then one day, my daughter - the one with the wild yellow pony tail and big blue eyes full of trouble - asked me to teach her how to hit. Then her little brother wanted to pick out a glove to join Little League. Every window in the house has been threatened, and ball games blare again from the TV.

And in a flash, I'm back again, laying in the impossibly perfect outfield grass with the best 9-year-old second baseman in the world. It has been way too long...

The intoxicatingly leathery smell of the baseball glove aisle hasn't changed any.

Somewhere, I can almost picture the best 9-year-old second baseman in the world, smiling like the first inning of a July triple-header.

It's the American eternal - from Shoeless Joe to the Yankee Clipper to Ripken to Bonds. The feel of the stitches on young fingers and the sting of a good hit shocking all the way up your arms. It's stumbly 5-year-olds running the bases backwards at T-ball.

In their bodies is a little of the spirit of the best 9-year-old second baseman in the world.

Watch the playoffs, and enjoy. Better yet, turn them off and find a kid to play catch with.

Funny, after all these years, the mixture of baseball and kids is still just right. The best 9-year-old second baseman in the world was right all along.

I guess there still is light enough to play, after all.