Close your eyes. I mean, really close them. Let yourself drift off to another place. Clear your mind. As Billy Chapel says in For Love of the Game, ” clear the mechanism.” You’re sitting outside, leaning back in a rigid but somehow, tolerable seat. As you let your eyes close for a moment, your other senses heighten. You feel the warmth of the sun on your skin. Somewhere a switch has been flipped and your sub conscience seeks out all that is right with the world. Now smiling, you notice that your seat is more comfortable than it was a minute before, and you slouch a little easier into the seat you are glad, now, that you chose. You smell the renewed fragrances of spring. Your senses come alive as if recovering from a long winters nap. Birds nearby sing their spring song and only now you notice. You hear the enthusiasm in voices from a distance, but those are merely background for the unmistakable sounds of wood meeting rawhide in a full-speed collision. If the trained ear listens close enough you can tell which direction the rawhide sphere is headed without even opening your eyes or disturbing your sun-seeking perch. For a split second you want to open your eyes but you decide better of it as if opening your eyes would end this pleasant dream state. So, you clench your eyes tighter still and put your favorite ball players faces from yesteryear into this dream. The sounds are the same in so many ways. And the crash of the round bat into the round ball echoing around the old yard could be the sound of Ted Williams ripping a long home run, or its Henry Aaron sending a line drive through the box, or maybe its Mickey Mantle launching a towering blast, from either side of the plate, that requires patience and a good ear to hear if it ever comes down.
You are at a ball field, it is spring, and every player, every team, shares in the renewed hopes of spring. It’s a new season. It’s fresh. It’s refreshing. It’s spring. And then it all hits you, there is no place you’d rather be. Your eyes close a little more tightly, and the sounds fade a little further into the distance. Images appear in your mind as your body shifts and gently jolts almost voluntarily when the memories behind your eyelids appear larger than life. You feel like you can reach out and touch the vivid scene you see, but then you remember for a millisecond where you are, and you think better of raising your arm to swipe at the warm empty air. And you drift back into the scene that hides behind your sun-warmed eyelids. Now you’re smiling from ear to ear, eyes still closed. It’s baseball, in some elementary ways, the same as it’s ever been. A stranger makes his way to a seat nearby, he notices your smile with eyes closed, and he understands. He hurries along to his seat so he too can dip himself in the warmth of the magical transformation that only ball fields bring and clasp tightly the memories of boyhood dreams.
There you are back in your yard, at your school field, or sandlot, wherever you first dreamed of the game and played in the spaces you could find, to win all those World Series titles. When you played everyday because you loved the game, you couldn’t get enough of the game. You knew all the stats, who batted 1 through 9, who would hit for whom in the 7th, and every member of the bullpen. You knew who would pinch-run, whether it was to steal second base or score from second on a base hit. You remember the uniform you wore, right down to the trim, and the wayward stitch or two. You lift your leg for second and shake your foot remembering how fleet afoot you felt every time your old spikes were securely fastened to your stirrup laced feet. Somehow it seems like just yesterday when you would wipe the sweat from your brow and tug the bill of your cap a little lower to shield that bright game day sun. Your hands and fingers fidget slightly as you recall your ability to grab a baseball time after time and have your index and middle fingers perfectly aligned across the seams. Now your palms practically ache just to hold that old wood bat you took thousands of swings with. You can still feel the grain and the way the barrel tapered back to a handle that was much thicker than today’s bat handles. Listening closely to the sounds you fabricate in your mind, you swear you can still hear the ‘swoosh’ your mighty swing once created as it carved through the warm air.
Then, sitting a little more upright now, you roll your shoulders a few times, still clenching your eyes shut as not to disturb the calm and comfort found inside this daydream. Today there are no aches and pains, tightness won’t be thought of here, or at least not until you have to rise from your seat the next time. You recollect the days when you felt so strong, felt so right, you felt like you could throw all day, even throw hard all day. And you did. You think for a moment, trying to figure out how difficult it would be were you to try to calculate how many pitches you threw on any given summer day. Then you just smile, knowing it was in the hundreds, and it was nearly every day. A rest day back then was eating dinner, going to sleep, and going to school for several hours the next morning. Then it was a sprint to the ball, glove, and bat as soon as time would allow.
For me, it was my yard. After school it was the place I couldn’t wait to be. I recall thinking about scenarios that were soon to unfold in my yard while I was still on the bus riding home. Actually it started when I was a young boy and it continued throughout my school years. Often times, my desk in some classroom was just the place I dreamed from. My teacher could have just as easily been any Major League public address announcer. My reality was more often a slice of my imagination playing out the details of me playing, competing, and winning, than not. It’s almost all I ever thought about, and it would have been 100% of my thoughts were it not for school, church, and the occasional conversation. In my mind, in my yard, I was the greatest there’s ever been, yet I revered and respected the greats who came before me. I shook hands with Babe Ruth on the field at the old Yankee Stadium. Hank Aaron was there to acknowledge my gracious demolition of his home run record, and maybe we chatted on the field at the old Tiger Stadium where my record homer was still climbing as it crashed into the overhanging upper deck in right field. Ted Williams marveled at my swing while we talked baseball in South Florida in between his fishing days. At the old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore I sat in the seemingly vertical upper deck behind home plate and talked with Brooks Robinson who couldn’t believe my range, and I was a lefty, to boot!
On rainy days, when I could throw the ball from just inside the dry cover of our garage roof overhang, I was being congratulated by Nolan Ryan and Steve Carlton as a pitcher that was among the all-time winners and clearly the most accurate of all time. Walter Johnson and Bob Feller asked me just how hard did I throw. Ron Guidry asked me my nickname, because even though he was a Yankee, he had a pretty cool nickname in, Louisiana Lightning. After I had twirled yet another complete game, especially on those rainy days, I would grab my wood bat and start to swing. I remember vividly looking down at the broken cement of our garage floor and checking out the shadow of my swing. My swing had to be perfect, both left-handed and right-handed. I would swing at top speed. I would swing in slow motion. I would swing that bat hundreds of times over. I imagined the ball jumping off of my bat and clearing fences all over the major leagues.
After church on Sundays it was a battle for me. I had to decide whether to take the extra few minutes to change my clothes or just go for it in whatever I was wearing. I knew full well that within minutes a ball would carom off of the garage door, too far to my right, and I would have to dive headfirst on the green grass to make the spectacular play. Then I would immediately regret the choice I made, not to change my clothes first, at least for a second or two. Of course, had I not hustled right out to make the play, then someone else would have been in the lineup, so, I was right, get out there and play. Worry about the clothes later. I mean, that was just a double that I robbed down the line. Shouldn’t that cover a for a few grass stains? Some how my mom never put as much stock in my defensive genius in the yard as I did, and as my thousands of fans in the imaginary stands around my yard, did. Neither were wrong, I was, but what’s a boy to do? Somebody’s gotta go out and win the World Series, and I felt that somebody had to be me.