"Remember this game is more than a score."
Spontaneous and simple ballgames are the ones that remain most vivid in my memory and closest to my heart.
Mom, can you pitch to me?
He was only two years old and I was four months pregnant, and when I opened my eyes to see a small boy wide awake not long after sunrise, yellow plastic bat in hand, I knew I had to rise up, even though my body felt queasy and uncertain.
Please can you pitch to me?
I threw my best pitches with his Wiffle balls and he smacked line drives all over the room. “Atta boy!” I cried in my nightie, then fell back into bed.
When that same boy was ten years old, he needed bases for a family game that was just about to begin in my sister’s broad front yard. While the kids chose teams – cousins, parents, aunts, uncles, neighborhood kids, and grandparents too – I searched the basement. We didn’t yet have all the fancy equipment and random Nike and Rawlings stuff that now fills a big corner of my garage, but I was happy to come upon some pretty good pieces of three-quarter-inch plywood that weren’t exactly square, but they’d be okay for first, second, and third. They marked the spot and served their purpose well – that is, until my son slid hard into second, feet first, and a very sharp corner of raw wood tore a deep gash in his bare knee. A half hour later, the boy lay on our dining room table while his dad prepared to suture up the bloody wound. I played nurse in the background, thinking about how my choice of plywood bases had been so dumb.
There were always games in the yard, and the kids didn’t need much to make them happy. My youngest child brought friends home from Cape League baseball camp almost every weekday in summer, their structured morning drills and scrimmages spilling over into lazy afternoons near the beach. For hours they played pickle and web gems, chased balls across our clover and crabgrass and into the neighbors’ well manicured hedge of shrub roses, then dove or fell backwards into hydrangeas in full bloom. They played pickup games on Lighthouse Beach until the offshore winds became fierce, or out in the front yard of our suburban home until the sky grew too dark for seeing. They must have been playing by feel and sound alone, because I couldn’t see a thing except maybe a crescent moonrise out my bedroom window.
The game got bigger and more serious when we visited real ballparks, and that’s where we once spent Easter weekend. Vero Beach Dodgers @ Dodgertown. Florida State League. Class A Advanced. Once upon a time. Where the dugouts weren’t even dugouts, just aluminum benches open to the blazing sun or a night sky loaded with stars. Our kids ate hot dogs on Good Friday when they probably should have been in church, and somehow that just didn’t seem right. When a ball angled sharply off a lefty’s bat in the bottom of the third, the foul headed straight at my nephew Tommy and practically knocked the frankfurter out of his hand. Actually, what really happened was this: Tommy read what was happening right off the bat, dropped his hot dog to the ground, and snagged that ball with his six-year-old hands.
One Easter Sunday, our large extended family played a lively game with plastic bats and tennis balls. The Cape Cod weather was unseasonably warm, so we all wore shorts, ran the bases in flip flops, and felt as though we’d been born again. We shot those bright yellow balls all over the neighbor’s yard, and the day rang with sacrifice flies and laughter.
The best ball fields are often the simplest ones: a Cape Cod lawn, a front yard loud with children, a bedroom full of sunlight. Just as the best churches aren’t always the grand cathedrals. Chartres, Reims, St. Peter’s, Yankee Stadium: those structures inspire awe and maybe even godliness in many. But the sanctuary that always felt most real to me was a woodland chapel (adjacent to a baseball field), built long ago by my mom and dad and a few church folk and a large group of teenagers. They split wood, hauled logs, talked about the Yanks, carved joints, wondered about the Mets, crafted pews, imagined God, and built a durable altar of river rock and birch. When finished, they sang hymns outdoors, offered prayers, and dreamed their summer dreams, blessed by a plank that hung from the trees and offered three words carved in rustic wood:
Done in Love.
Sometimes I cherish material things, thinking they are what make me happy. Our home is full of baseball gear and fine baseball books and sports memorabilia lovingly collected over the years. Maybe I place too much value on these possessions: balls autographed by Seaver, Rice, Varitek, Bay, Pujols, and Lowe; books signed by Feller, Kiner, and Aaron; a Ted Williams photograph, a Pedro Martinez bobblehead, and Johnny Damon’s bat.
One of my favorite spots in the house is over there in the corner of my study – that basket full of random baseball treasures. Better than all the Hall of Fame collectibles are one bat boy’s helmet, a few Cape League caps, a Dodger bear, a pillow that says “Play Ball,” the Easton glove my kids gave me on Mother’s Day several years ago, and a collection of dappled composition books containing the minutes of the “Back Yard Bush Club,” established c. 1994 for kids only.
Atop this basket there’s a book that keeps calling for my attention. Its cover invites me in; its landscape beckons, reminding me of a place I once knew.
A Glove of Their Own is a brief story written in rhymed couplets by a trio of women who celebrate the yearnings of kids who have very little, yet still desire to play the game. The story is in fact a poem that takes place on a field that bears no name and boasts no painted logo. The players have no uniforms, no scoreboard or flashing signs, no fans in the crowd, no rock star taking peculiar liberties with the national anthem.
In our town there’s a park, / with an oak tree so tall.
The story’s measured tetrameter phrases and its sing-song rhymes run a bit contrary to the unpredictable rhythms and sounds of baseball - We meet there each day, so we can play ball - and the book’s tone borders on the sentimental, but its message is sincere, its imagery real: Sticks are the bases; they work just the same.
This book’s simple purpose and the worthy causes it supports have been embraced by those who know what it is to live the dream – Yogi Berra, Tommy John, Sean Casey, among others. Soft colors, earth tones, and children’s faces summon up a world that feels authentic; the images are dirt and sticks, a soiled ball, and ragged shoes. The boy in the batter’s box has both eyes on the pitcher. The girl in the ponytail takes a lead off first base.
I once lived this story – not because I grew up poor (modest, yes), but because we knew how to have fun without having much in a material way. I know that field. I know those kids. I’ve played with some of them. I feel fortunate to have lived this story.
Our ballgames weren’t organized in advance. They happened spontaneously almost every afternoon in spring, because the field was the one place where we all wanted to be. We didn’t have a formal league or a website designed to look like ESPN. No schedules or rosters posted on the fridge, nor parents whose personal and professional lives revolved around a ton of events crowding our eight-year-old calendars. Few if any spectators watched us play, but that didn’t matter; we expected no audience, because we enjoyed our freedom and the game was enough. We shared bats of various weights and sizes, and they were made of wood. The lively activity of hormones and innocent romances supplied a subtext, while the open, unnamed space where we gathered offered a sanctuary in the midst of changing lives. For better or worse, I cannot remember ever wearing a helmet on my head.
You don’t really need a lot of stuff in order to learn baseball. You don’t need a ton of money in order to love the game. You don’t need anything like a million dollars, and millions of dollars certainly don’t guarantee a winning season. The basics are what kids need, and it doesn’t take much for anyone to give back, once they've known the love of it. In the grand scheme of things, it seems to me that the soul of baseball is more about sacrifice and passion than it is about dollars.
You might want to read A Glove of Their Own to a child, give a copy to a friend, or add the volume to your own collection. On Monday when schools re-open, I’ll be over at the elementary school library; I’ll spend a short while there, and leave a baseball book with the librarian before I go.
Once upon a time, we played baseball nearly every day. We swapped gear between innings. I have no idea where that gear came from. I didn’t have my own glove then. I often shared with the boy who played third base – he’d toss his glove to me between innings on his way back to the bench as I ran swiftly toward the infield. I can still feel the sweaty interior of that boy’s glove.
The glove wasn’t even mine. But it’s one I’ll long remember.