What's great about this game

Monday, September 7, 2015

Laying there in the impossibly green grass, the Best 10-year-old Second Baseman in the World and I watched the clouds float by. The fat one looked a lot like our coach, we decided.

We went all the way to the finals that year and got our picture in the paper, mostly because of the Best 10-year-old Second Baseman in the World. We did not have miniature major league uniforms or nationally televised little league games - just a T-shirt with Sandy's Restaurant stenciled on the back, baggy jeans, those cheap fuzzy Sears Winner II tennis shoes and whatever cap you could scrounge up around the house.

It didn't matter, though, because no such thing existed as a bad day playing baseball. The Best 10-year-old Second Baseman in the World would see to that.

We played from lunch until it was too dark to see the ball, every day. If not in a Little League game, in one of those great pickup ball games on one of those great fields they used to have with just a rusty backstop and a worn down basepath in the dirt. You used whatever you could find for bases, and held it down with rocks. And it didn't matter how many innings you played, nobody ever quit while the Best 10-year-old Second Baseman in the World was on the scene. "Hey - where you going? It's still light enough to see! C'mon, let's play one more."

I was a junk pitcher with a hanging curve, a backup shortstop, and had a tendency to daydream and lose track of the number of outs. But the Best 10-year-old Second Baseman in the World was my buddy, and he always made sure I got picked higher than I deserved. Even the big kids saw the utter, unstoppable, fearless joy with which he played the game, and knew he was something special. They showed him unusual respect and at least on the diamond, didn't get in the way of the Best 10-year-old Second Baseman in the World.

It was a great season for baseball and kids - all each really has is the other. The Best 10-year-old Second Baseman in the World and I would practice in the morning out in my grandpa's yard. By early June and three windows later (thank goodness the old man was a lifelong baseball fan) grandpa had given up and nailed chicken wire over every pane of glass in the garage.

When we weren't sliding and whipping the ball around and dreaming about the big leagues, we were laying back in the grass on the field, nursing emerald-green real-glass bottles of Mountain Dew, watching the clouds go by and talking about life and baseball, which somehow seemed wonderfully intertwined back then, at least they were when you were sharing philosophy with the Best 10-year-old Second Baseman in the World.

After that season, Michael got sick. I don't remember the long name for what he had. His family moved away that winter, and the next spring, I heard through the grapevine that the Best 10-year-old Second Baseman in the World had died.

Out from under the bed, I pulled my big old glove, carefully oiled and broken in with a ball tied deep in the sweet spot every night for a month. It didn't feel right any more, somehow. Not without the Best 10-year-old Second Baseman in the World.

I hung it on a nail in the garage. Never touched it again, and I really never seriously played the game again.

Even kind of made me sad when grandpa had the Yankees on TV every Saturday. There were other friends, and other sports through the years, but there was never anything quite the same.

The grass was never quite so impossibly green as I remember it - spreading out in front of you in an endless diamond of possibility. The clouds were never quite so interesting, the game itself never quite so exhilarating again. Every kid should know that feeling, when you run out onto the field and the sun grins on your shoulders and your heart pounds like crazy and you try to kick at the dirt the way the big leaguers do though inside you are sort of a good-kind-of-nervous and you let loose with a "heybattahbattah ..."

I lost that on a spring day way back when, and never found it again.

Until my kids came along. I picked up an old very worn outfielder's glove someone had thrown in the trash at the old very worn-out field down the street from out house in Lakeside. We played a lot of catch for a time, and I even briefly rediscovered that hanging curve to throw some BP to their teams here and there. But those kids are in college now, much, much too busy for catch. There is a new grandson, though. I can't wait to get his his first mitt.

I stowed my ancient glove on the closet shelf, in case it is ever called upon again.

The excitement of major league playoffs and World Series coming up are lost on me. I have no heart for it. The Best Second 10-year-old Second Baseman in the World would laugh at guys who think an injection would make you a ballplayer, guys who sit out games with turf toe or a sprained finger, guys who hold out on their teams for a few million bucks more.

But when I make it out to watch the local little leaguers playing, the sights and sounds, the timeless appeal of baseball, comes flooding back to me.

Fans and coaches yell directions and argue the calls and plot the strategy as if the final score of a little boys' game really matters. But the Best 10-year-old Second Baseman in the World knew that all that really mattered was the grand game itself - it is in our national blood. Never quitting, getting your cuts, getting dirt in bodily places where soil most certainly does not belong, that stuff matters. Playing ball, and doing it with all the joy childhood can muster.

Even grown-ups can't ruin that.

I can hear him in their rally chatter and the rakish way they wear their caps a bit off center and the way they waggle their bats as if daring a pitch to come anywhere near them. I can see him, running the dusty bases in full gallop in the gathering dusk. And I can almost feel him, sometimes, in the warm sun and the green grass and the clouds floating by.

I have to thank the kids for reminding me of all that is great about this game. If you get a chance, go out there and watch them play, and be young again.

It's still light enough to see. Let's play one more.