Aside from the warbling of sand-hill cranes and the trilling chorus of tree frogs from a cypress bog up the road, nothing speaks so convincingly to me of spring than the thwack of a bat against a ball. Stepping out to collect the mail last week, I heard the first solid hit of the season from the diamond on the rural schoolyard across the road, and thick sweater notwithstanding, I felt the seasonal shift to be complete here in south central Indiana.
I played baseball on an almost daily basis as a child and still know how to swing into and connect with a pitch. I have always, always owned a mitt. Small wonder that I relish having an active playing field so close to home. During years of dairy farming I'd keep an ear to the action from across the road as the cows filed in and out of the screened parlor for evening milking. When a good base hit interrupted the rhythm of the vacuum pump, I didn't just hear it, it seemed to resonate through my already occupied arms. The one thing more satisfying than the sound of a good hit is how it feels when you make it.
I might have made an early career of baseball had Little League been open to girls in the 1960s. But it was not until the next decade that a lawsuit on behalf of Maria Pepe of Hoboken, N.J., successfully challenged the boys-only institution to add a program specifically for us. In lieu of more formal opportunities, I joined my male peers in after-dinner sandlot games, where I was both welcomed and fully competitive. I cherish the memory of an overheard remark from one dad to another: "She looks like she's not even gonna swing – then wham, at the last second she sends it winging past the third baseman." I would not have traded that commentary for a jeweled tiara.
I began to enjoy local league play vicariously as soon as my son could join up, investing in his equipment and uniform with almost giddy anticipation. In after-school practice sessions, I batted grounders and pop flies for him to field, pitched to him, called strikes and balls (not always unchallenged) and, of course, sat in the bleachers for all of his games (and, a bit wistfully, for several in the girls' league as well). Whenever Tim came to bat and connected with a pitch, my day was made, whatever else had happened. If he and The Royals never blazed a trail to championship glory, they gave it their all, seriously losing focus only once, when a yard-long black snake invaded their dugout (had they all moved with such fluid synchronous motion on the playing field they might have been unbeatable).
My grandson was just 2 when I presented him with his first glove. Now 4, he has almost grown into it and knows how to position his hand – even if those fingers don't quite spread far enough or close fast enough to capture a slow-pitched ball. He's trying – and prime for a day trip to the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, which has produced bats for Major League Baseball since 1884. Site of the world's largest baseball bat (an outdoor landmark and navigation guide visible from down the block as it juts out over the roof of the five-story complex), it houses rooms of baseball memorabilia and hands-on exhibits. Daily factory tours give visitors a close-up look at the production process that turns chunks of wood into sleekly shaped professional bats – and gifts of miniature souvenir bats (Tim has his to this day). In short, the Kentucky venue is excellent indoctrination for young minds not yet bent on a particular sport.
My grandson really doesn't have a choice not to try baseball. And if he doesn't take to it, I can still step out to the porch on a spring evening and enjoy the sounds of a game from across the lane. As the Louisville Slugger Museum notes on its website, the "crack of the bat remains one of the sporting world's most thrilling moments." It wouldn't be spring without it.