“It’s hard not to be romantic about baseball.”
–Brad Pitt, as Billy Beane in Moneyball
I love purple and pink sunsets over a blue glass lake and bright yellow flowers dripping with the morning’s dew. I love all-meat pizzas smothered in cheese, fresh berries sprinkled with sugar and almost anything dipped in chocolate. I love the smell of hot dogs sizzling on the grill, bread baking in the oven and spring showers gathering on the horizon. I love movies that make me think, sitcoms that make me laugh and songs that make me remember what it was like to be young.
I love all these things.
But I love baseball more.
Baseball has been a part of some of my fondest memories as well as some of my earliest. I remember being a tiny girl in pigtails standing on a stepstool in my grandma’s kitchen, mesmerized by the movement of her wrinkled hands as they deftly stirred eggs and flour and sugar into batters and doughs that would go into the oven as runny liquids or lumpy spoonfuls and come out later as something hot and gooey and spectacular. It was my job to lick clean the beaters and bowls and then to sit patiently listening for the oven’s timer as Grandma went about her chores elsewhere. Sometimes those waits seemed interminable–except on lazy summer afternoons when I would be joined at the kitchen table by Grandpa and his portable radio, tuned to KMOX and the St. Louis Cardinals baseball game.
I loved my grandpa dearly, and because he loved the Cardinals, I loved them, too. I remember him listening intently to those games, seldom speaking but occasionally nodding his head in agreement as Harry Caray and Jack Buck called the play-by-play. When Lou Brock would smash the ball into the outfield and then steal his way around the bases, I would get a wink and a grin, and when Bob Gibson would pitch yet another scoreless inning, Grandpa would squeeze my shoulders and say, “How about that, Karen Sue? How ’bout that!” Then the cake or cookies would come out of the oven, and in celebration of a Cardinals win (or a really good try), Grandpa and I would devour as much as Grandma would allow before I scuttled outside into the sunshine, feeling warm and full and loved.
A few years later I left my grandpa’s side to play baseball with the other neighborhood kids. When two older boys picked the teams, I was almost always one of the last chosen, and I would automatically position myself in the outfield or at the end of the batting line-up because that’s where short, scrawny girls were expected to be. I didn’t mind, though, because I was in the game. Depending on the neighborhood, the diamond was in someone’s cramped backyard or a nearby stubble-ridden field, where we would run from one cardboard base to the next, trying desperately to dodge the often poorly aimed throw and to step on the base before the hot summer wind blew it out of reach. Games stretched into glorious infinity–or at least until the demolishing team lost interest or the waning light made seeing the ball impossible.
When I was 12, my parents let me play in the town’s summer softball league, an activity I participated in for the next 7 years. My legs were short, but they were fast, and I found my niche in short-center where I was kept busy backing up the infield. And even though I wasn’t a power hitter, I could usually get on base–if for no other reason than the opposing teams had a hard time pitching to a left-hander who was so short that her strike zone was almost non-existent. And once I got on base, I could fly! Every nerve ending pulsed with nervous anticipation of that split-millisecond when the ball would spin from the pitcher’s hand, that delicious moment when I could bolt like lightning for second base. By the time the ball reached the catcher’s mitt, it was usually too late for her to react–or even better, she would panic and overthrow the ball into centerfield, allowing me to just keep on going. I’m sure I must have gotten thrown out a time or two, but surprisingly those times have completely escaped my memory.
I learned a lot about the game during those years, but I also learned a lot about myself. I learned that I didn’t like group punishments or humiliation as coaching tactics; I also learned I was too lacking in self-confidence to speak out against what I knew in my bones was wrong. I had the same coach for the first six years, and he was the most competitive, most successful coach in the league. We ran laps around the field on those rare occasions when we lost, but we also ran laps on those more frequent occasions when we won but didn’t play as well as he thought we should have. It was humiliating to be forced to run around and around the field before the losing team had even left the dugout and while our parents or boyfriends waited impatiently in the parking lot. Even worse, sometimes we were encouraged to shout humiliation at the opposing team’s players. I remember one pitcher in particular, the best in the league, who was easily rattled at our shouts of “Snaggletooth can’t pitch! Snaggletooth can’t pitch!” It wasn’t enough that we shattered her concentration with our taunts and sent her out-of-control fastball into the backstop, but we also attacked her appearance. Thinking back now, I wonder why we were encouraged to be so mean, why no parent spoke up to stop us, and why I shamefully lacked the courage not to join in–and I think the only explanation (though not a good one) is that we were winning, and nothing else seemed to matter.
At the beginning of every season my dad would promise me $5 for every homerun I hit. I think he knew his money would stay safely folded in his wallet, and it wasn’t until I was a freshman in college playing on an intramural team that I actually earned my first (and only) $5 bill for an in-the-park homerun. I can still remember sliding safely into home and immediately wanting to call my dad to share the exciting news–it wasn’t so much about the money but rather that I had accomplished something I had never dreamed possible. Still, I remember getting that $5 bill in the mail a couple days later, enough to buy eight gallons of gas and a bottle of RC Cola.
Years passed, children were born and I traded in my cleats for a spectator’s lawn chair and, occasionally, a coach’s ballcap–and my love for the sport grew with every t-ball game (when winning or losing was irrelevant as long as there were sno-cones afterward) and with every league thereafter when skills were honed and strategies were taught, when the smallest kid on the field could be hero for a day or the biggest kid to step into the batter’s box could be reduced to heart-wrenching tears by a game-ending, bases-loaded strike three.
The epitome of contentment was sitting in a ballpark somewhere for an all-day Saturday tournament . . . leaving home before sun-up with a sleepy but excited ballplayer and his brothers and buddies in the backseat, the van crammed full with bats and gloves, caps and cleats, chairs and blankets and coolers and sunscreen . . . shedding clothes as the morning’s chill gave way to the accelerating summer heat . . . finding a shady spot between games and forcing ballplayers to rest (or, even better, finding a nearby creek and letting them cool off) . . . watching as one of my sons tracked down a fly ball in centerfield, laid down the perfect bunt, stole his way around the bases, or executed a squeeze play that took his mama’s breath away . . . cheering and encouraging and consoling and offering not-asked-for words of wisdom . . . leaving for home at the end of a long day, sometimes with a trophy and sometimes not, but always sweat-soaked and smelly, sunburned and painted from flip-flops to sunglasses with red dust blown across the field into the stands. And always happy.
When I was 39, our small town started a women’s summer softball league, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to be a player again and relive the glory days of my youth. What a reality check to discover I wasn’t nearly as good as I remembered myself being–or that time had taken its toll–or both. I refused to slide (and I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have even if I had tried). I caught a few balls in centerfield, I hit the ball out of the infield once in a while, and even though it felt like I was flying around the bases, my sons laughed at me and said it looked like I was running in place. The next summer I played on a women’s team as well as a co-ed ragball team, but by the end of the season I realized I was spending more time recuperating between games than I was actually playing–and it was time to hang up the cleats for good.
It was about that time that my sons started following the St. Louis Cardinals, and because I loved my boys even more than I had loved my grandpa, I became a fan again, too. Bob Gibson and Lou Brock were long gone, but Mark McGwire at the plate was phenomenal and Jim Edmonds in centerfield was poetry in motion, and they were almost as much fun to watch as my sons and their buddies. Almost.
But that’s another story, one that I need to save for the next installment because my beloved Cardinals have just come back to St. Louis from a 3-3 road trip, and Jaime Garcia is ready to throw the first pitch against the Cincinnati Reds in the home opener. The Reds are always a worthy opponent, so I need to slip into one of my lucky jerseys, kiss my lucky 2011 World Series replica ring, and focus all my attention on the game (not that I’m superstitious or anything). So, until next time, Go Cardinals!
Postscript: Despite my best efforts, the Cardinals lost their home opener to the Reds. No worries, though–there are still 155 games left in the season!
The bat was almost as big as he was. Despite his short stature, he played varsity baseball all four years of high school, where his speed and agility made him a force
to be reckoned with on the bases and in centerfield.