Do not tell me it’s just a game, where grown men try to hit a ball by swinging at it with a rounded stick. Baseball has been part of my life as far back as I can remember. It is my sport and I will defend it.
One of the sharper memories from the blur of early childhood is a spanking from Miss Katherine Shepherd, the old maid school teacher from central casting, because I ran—without looking first—across the gravel roadway between the grade school building and the gymnasium. I was running after a baseball. That school building is now the central office for the Henry County Board of Education and the old gymnasium was razed years ago. Although the game of baseball continued to get me in a fair amount of trouble as I came of age, it has also given me more happiness than I’ve deserved.
My first hero—way before girls and the Fab Four—was a ballplayer named Vada Pinson. He roamed centerfield like a gazelle for Cincinnati in the early 1960s. I clipped his pictures from magazines and taped them to my bedroom wall. I always thought it odd that my Dad never said much when I talked about my hero Vada; I just remember a puzzled expression and a vague, uncomfortable smile. I think now that my father had a hard time processing my admiration for this black ballplayer—after all, at the time, we weren’t much more than a decade removed from Jackie Robinson. I just didn’t know any better—or, should I say, any worse.
My mediocre (good glove, no hit) high school career ended rather ignominiously. To make a very long story short, I lied to my coach and, before the start of my senior season, he kicked me off the team—the same team that went on to win a district title without me. Humbled, I learned that life does indeed go on. But I am one of few living souls who can say that they saw the amazing Kevin Flood pitch two perfect innings ambidextrously on a rainy afternoon in the spring of 1968.
Watching my son play and coach baseball has given me a trove of memories. My daughter did not play softball with the girls; she played Little League baseball with the boys. Let me say this about that: If your daughter is the only girl on a team of undomesticated young boys, it will make a feminist of even the most unenlightened fellow faster than you can say ‘Gloria Steinhem.’
I am now of the age where I have seen my grandson in rightfield, glove at his feet, back to the batter, throwing dirtclods at a bird perched atop the scoreboard. Yet, I am at peace. Amateur ornithology is very important to a five-year old, and the vicissitudes of life come soon enough.
Baseball, with its pastoral setting and absence of a time clock, lends itself, I argue, to deep reflection or, on the other hand, simply being in the moment. Note the contrast, the yin and yang, if you will, of the following:
“Baseball is a work of imagination whose deeper structures and patterns of repetition force a tale, oft-told, to fresh and hitherto-unforeseen meaning. But what is the nature of the tale oft-told that recommences with every pitch, with every game, with every season? It is the story of going home after having left home…of how difficult it is to find the origins one so deeply needs to find. It is the literary mode called Romance.”—A. Bartlett Giamatti, from Take Time For Paradise: Americans and Their Games.
Nowadays, once or twice a summer, I manage to corral my young’uns for a trip up I-71 to see a Reds game. As we rise for the national anthem—yes, we liberals love our country, too—and with my family gathered around me, I realize in my heart, standing in this cathedral of American excess, this arena of jumbotrons and over-priced beer, that I am a very lucky man. Life is good. Play ball!