To me, the uniform made the man

Shortly before I swelled their ranks, my family moved to Little Rock from the north-Arkansas town of Melbourne, where most of our relatives continued to reside.

Back then, small towns sustained baseball teams that drew sizable crowds and fostered enthusiastic rivalries among neighboring communities. The best of the Arkansas teams competed in a state tournament in Little Rock. And since my mother's kinfolk constituted most of the starting lineup for the Melbourne Comets, any time that team vied for the championship, they headquartered at our house.

Between games, men clad in red-and-white uniforms sprawled on our front environs. Some napped. Some visited over cold drinks. All enjoyed the shade of the two red maple trees that moderated the summer heat. To a small child, the presence of so many uniformed men - draped on the porch swing, laid out on the wooden steps, or snoring in the grass - qualified as an Event.

In my eyes, these players possessed more celebrity than major-leaguers. Thus, I felt as privileged as I've ever felt in my life when I got to ride the 135 miles from Melbourne to Little Rock with the team the summer before I started first grade.

In those days, public transportation served towns situated along US highways and the better state roads, and those on certain railroad lines. But Melbourne didn't fit any such category. To get from town to town, people tapped into networks of kith and kin to find out who was going where when, and if they could ride along. Since my folks did their share of shuttling others to and fro, they always had lots of help finding transportation for me to go back and forth to visit my cousins.

That's how I came to hitch a ride home with the baseball team.

There surely must have been a second vehicle, but most of the players packed themselves and their equipment into a huge station wagon, and they made a little space for me in the rear seat, between a bulging duffel bag and a fellow named R.J. Estes.

I recall bits and pieces of that rowdy ride. Everyone had to speak loudly to be heard over the noise from the wind that whipped through open windows. Since the first 30-odd miles were gravel road, meeting an oncoming car activated a drill of cranking up all the windows to keep the dust out. After a stifling and relatively quiet moment, it was safe to lower them. But these drills never inhibited the chatter. Mine mostly.

My seat companion went out of his way to be gracious - to engage me in conversation and keep me entertained. Before long I became quite taken with him.

Because they were going directly to a game, the men wore their uniforms, and I thought R.J. looked particularly spiffy in his. And I probably told him so, although I don't remember the conversation in much detail. What I do recall is that the other guys began to tease him about me, which I thought peculiar, given that I was only 6.

I never saw R.J. again after that ride, but I treasured my memory of him as a nice-looking, good-natured man, who unselfishly entertained a little chatterbox for three hours in the back of a sweltering station wagon full of ribbing teammates.

Then, about 10 years ago, the town of Melbourne dedicated its local ball field to my grandfather, who had donated the land for it right after World War II, and I attended the dedication. Following a ceremony at the field, my cousin Susan and her husband opened their home for a reception, complete with displays of team memorabilia.

Among the team photos was one from the era of my station-wagon ride. I searched it for faces I might recognize. My uncles were there, and one of my cousins. But where was my old friend and first crush, R.J.?

"I thought R.J. Estes would be in this picture," I mused aloud.

"He is," said my cousin Jim.

"Where?"

"Right here." Jim pointed to a vaguely familiar face, and it took me a couple of seconds to comprehend what I saw.

It was R.J., all right, looking just darling - in his batboy uniform. My baseball hero had been a youngster himself!

Now I understood why the other guys had teased him about me. To their perception we were both little kids - just as to mine all of the fellows in that car were grown men.

A few days ago, my recollection enjoyed a modicum of vindication when I learned that the likely date of the photo is four years earlier than I'd thought, which means R.J. was in his teens by the time we traveled together.

Still, I guess the umpires are right about one thing: In baseball, perspective counts for a lot.

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