When Baseballs Hang In the Sky

LITTLE League baseball for me was less of an introduction to the sport than it was a mingling with the gestures of heroes, the postures of men who glared into a camera with their Louisville Sluggers poised or the pitchers who kicked their knees high, ready to deliver a fastball. These were movements that any boy could mime, practice, and perfect, imagining the best possible result, the clutch base hit, the strikeout to end the game ... the home run.

Although, as small boys, we dreamed of achieving these feats before our friends and our parents, our purest moments came alone when we somehow pulled through in the most difficult possible circumstance. Two out. Two on. Down by two. Full count.

"Here's the stretch." I said aloud, focusing on a maple tree growing in the center of the backyard, tightening the grip on a bat the size of myself.

"The pitch."

Swinging the bat with a great sweep of air, I fell to the ground as the soles of my Woolworth tennis shoes slipped on the wet grass; but then, jumping up in astonishment, my mouth open in disbelief, I watched into the leaves of maple trees across the street, my eyes not really seeing them, but seeing an imaginary ball disappearing over a fence.

"It's going, going ... gone! He's done it." I shouted in a hoarse seven-year-old voice, vaguely aware that my neighbor might be listening. Then I ran around an imaginary diamond within the confines of our backyard, assuming the roles of all people at once ... the crowd, the announcer, my teammates ... myself responding with humility and gratitude to the overwhelming support.

At the real Little League diamond, though, with a boy wearing a different color T-shirt from mine, throwing a ball at me that hurt if it hit my arm, the bat felt like a lead pipe. I usually swung so late that the catcher had to wait for me to finish my swing before throwing the ball back to the pitcher. Like most undiscovered Little League heroes, I hoped that the pitcher was wild and would walk me; this would at least give me the experience of leading off of first base.

Hitting the ball seemed like an impossibility in the early years, but, later, when I did hit it, I ran to first base in a flurry of arms pumping, elbows slicing the air. The shock I felt when I hit the ball right - so my hands did not hurt - was a sweet miracle.

It was during my first years as a baseball player that my father took me to a professional baseball game. I knew very little about professional baseball, except for the few games I had seen on our large black-and-white television and the baseball cards I collected haphazardly. I would ride my bicycle down to the IGA store, hoping for a Willie Mays or a Mickey Mantle - players whom I had never seen play, but whose names had assumed a magical quality because other boys talked about them with revered tones.

I carried these cards with me through my school day and occasionally pulled one of them out of my shirt pocket during difficult times.

My father usually watched Cincinnati Reds games televised from the old Crosley Field, but I had a strange disinterest in those games because, for some reason, watching one in our living room seemed to drain the magic from the game. Because I did not watch much televised baseball, it really did not make a difference to me when my father told me that we would take a short vacation to watch a Pacific Coast League game, a minor league game, at Bush Stadium in Indianapolis.

I cannot remember much about the game, who won or who lost. My sister can only remember that she was thirsty and wanted my father to buy her something to drink.

What I do remember is that the stadium was larger than any place I had ever been, larger than our high-school gymnasium or our church auditorium. As we walked in the twilight past its brick walls and through the turnstiles, I was impressed with the immensity of the structure.

We bought a program and peanuts. My father seemed to have this planned as though these were things one did at a "professional baseball game."

Walking up the ramp to the opening of the stadium was like walking into a wonderland: I was shocked by the brilliant green grass and how blue - purple - the sky appeared in contrast. Unlike stadiums I have been in since, colossal structures that sometimes block out the sky, this stadium was small, but to me, a child of eight or nine, it seemed as if the entire world had come there to watch the game.

The men in seats around us wore hats and smoked fat cigars or cigarettes, generating so much smoke that the game seemed to be played in a dreamy haze. I watched through the haze, not sure what was going on, but knowing that this was an experience I should savor, even at that young age. I wish I could remember what my father was saying to me then.

As one particular batter stepped up to the plate, my father leaned over to me (I think I was looking into the sky above the stadium at a plane flying overhead) and said: "That's Minnie Minoso. He played for the Chicago White Sox."

I did not know who Minnie Minoso was, but at that time I believed what my father said to be the ultimate statement on things, and I realized then that this was an important moment in the game. What was the difference to a nine-year-old boy from rural Indiana, living on a steady diet of radio broadcasts and bicycle rides around the block?

Minoso or Mays? What I knew was that this was the moment of suspense we were all told to wait for by the baseball announcer's pause.

The home run he hit took my breath away as it seemed to rocket like a star over the 20-foot brick wall out of the stadium, out of this world.

That was be the last time I felt the mysterious pull of baseball for many years. Things seemed to move too fast after that. Kickball disappeared from my summer activity when I realized it had no pragmatic value. My father took a new job in Cleveland, and we passed Municipal Stadium on the banks of Lake Erie - our station wagon packed with all our suitcases, our dog, Happy, sleeping on my sister's lap, and our youth, in one sudden summer, disappearing.

We discovered our limitations, all of us, and we retreated into personal worlds of routine and fantasy tempered by the daily grind of city life. My father sometimes took me to baseball games after work, and I couldn't explain what the change was when we sat together, silently most of the time, but trying to make conversation. Somehow the sudden thrill of the home run dissolved into my worrying about whether I could thank my father enough for taking me and, for my father, thinking probably that he wasn't doing enough for me at a critical stage in my life.

OVER the years I attended games in warehouse-like domes in Houston and Seattle, watching the players run out onto the astroturf like figures on a video screen. From the bleachers in Detroit's Tiger Stadium, I watched Mark Fidrych talk to the baseball. I broke up with a girlfriend after watching Cleveland defeat the Red Sox in Boston's venerable Fenway Park. The games all seemed somehow frivolous, players wandering out onto the field, dashing for first base in a spurt of speed - the backdrop to all of our

lives being lived in our heads up in the stands.

I was almost always glad to be on the freeway after a game, even a close one, thinking as I listened to the postgame recap, that I was happy to be out of there.

Nearly 25 years after my Little League days, I became the coach of a high school baseball team in Pe Ell, Wash., a logging town not far from the Pacific coast. Our team practiced in the soggy Northwest spring, sliding into mud puddles, hugging our arms during hail storms, practicing in the infield while a bald eagle swooped over the pitcher's mound or higher up. Jets from the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station tipped their wings as we all stretched our arms to wave.

In my third year of coaching, I was blessed with a powerful team that included a boy-man of imposing dimensions - 6 feet, 5 inches, and 220 pounds. He was an intimidating figure, and there was always anticipation as he stepped to the plate.

Our team played the other high schools that bordered the Pacific coast. At North Beach High School you could almost see the ocean from the first base dugout. The players hated the ride to North Beach High - many of them had taken it since ninth grade - but I relished the chance to play on a field across the road from the Pacific, to feel the salt breeze from the water blowing across the sandy field.

On one of these days at North Beach, this boy-man stepped up to the plate and, after several off-target pitches and a few balls fouled against the backstop screen, launched a baseball high against the blue Pacific sky, higher and higher until it landed with a hard knock onto the school's roof, then dropped behind the building on the other side.

FROM my position at third base, the ball seemed to hang against the sky with the sliver of the moon that was still there. The players clutched the chicken wire covering the opening of the dugout, looking skyward, stunned, until one of them - a skinny kid whose voice was changing - laughed a laugh of pure joy, amazed that this could happen, that miracles still happen. Here on the edge of America on a dusty afternoon, some boys and some men who were once boys received proof that baseball can still deliver the pitch, can ignite our imagination, that with one swing of the bat, with one pitch, things can change for the better.

That evening, after I had told my wife about the home run and how it seemed to arc across the sky like a star, I walked out onto the porch and looked out into the apple orchard beyond the barbed-wire fence in time to see the setting sun wash the shining leaves with orange light.

As the air turned cool, I took an invisible bat into my palms, took a few practice swings, then watched above the darkening outline of the hills, whispering to myself, "He steps up to the plate ... the crowd silences ... here's the pitch ... and ...."

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