Whether it snows next Monday or the temperature blows past 90, that special feeling is in… Whether it snows next Monday or the temperature blows past 90, that special feeling is in the air. All 30 Major League teams will be suiting up, which means it’s time for baseball.
The smell of the freshly cut grass and the cool spring breeze that oftentimes blows through the air bring the promise of a long summer spent listening to the crack of a wooden bat and the smack of a leather glove.
There really are no finer smells and sounds than the ones that baseball brings with it.
This time of year always brings back memories of younger days: the first time I put on a glove, the first time my bat connected with a ball, and the last time I ever stepped up to the plate.
But one memory that stands out makes my passion for this game even greater than any sight, sound or smell ever could.
It was my last year of little league, and my team stunk. Actually, most of our league did.
The city that I grew up in divided up its youth league into four sections — north, south, east and west.
Although the location of my parents’ house put us in the southern part of the city, they decided that my younger brother and I would play in the eastern district. The competition in our district was fierce, and rather than teach us that winning was the only thing, my parents wanted us to go out and have fun.
My first two years of little league were spent cowering in the far corner of the batter’s box, scared to death I would get hit by a pitch and die. I must have set some kind of world record for plate appearances without ever having the bat leave my shoulder.
Finally, in my last at-bat during that second season, I flailed at the ball and actually got a hit. My parents and coaches were shocked. So was I, as I just stood there in the box, not quite sure what to do.
Fast-forward a little less than two years. I had gone from being one of the youngsters on the team to the oldest. I’d say I was one of the bigger guys on the team, too, but you’d never believe me.
I had gone from being the kid the coach stuck in right field to the team’s regular catcher.
In those days, playing the outfield was either a punishment or the spot where you put the kid who couldn’t catch or throw. Hardly anyone hit the ball out of the infield on a consistent basis — especially to right field — and playing an inning out there usually meant kicking at the weeds.
Like I said, our team that year was bad — how fitting was it that we were named the Bears? We had one pitcher who could consistently get the ball over the plate and there were only three of us who could hit the ball out of the infield on the fly.
Among my teammates was one guy who couldn’t have stood more than four and a half feet tall. He looked so young that it didn’t seem possible that he could have made the age requirement to play in this league.
But he was — the number of kids with false birth certificates was fairly low that year — although I never knew exactly how old he was.
I always thought he was much younger mainly because of how short he was. I’m not close to being tall, and this fellow barely came up to the top of my chest. Tough to strike out someone that short, but just as difficult for him to get a hit.
But that — along with the position in right field — sure didn’t keep him from trying.
As the season wore on, we became friends, chatting it up when our team was at bat and throwing each other words of encouragement on the field. But while I was having one of my best seasons on the diamond, he struggled, mainly due to his short stature.
I wondered why he never seemed frustrated and how he could continue. After striking out three times on my birthday that year — which I thought had to be the worst birthday present in the history of the world — I nearly decided to quit out of frustration. But he kept going.
Two things happened toward the end of that season that helped me understand why.
With about eight games left in the season, I was hit square on the ankle with a pitch — what a surprise, I didn’t die. The other catcher on the team didn’t show up that day, so I had to continue playing the rest of the game.
My ankle swelled up to about the size of a baseball, and I had a hard time buckling the guards on that leg by myself. Seeing how much pain I was in, the kid helped before and after every inning — he didn’t make it into that game, despite our team having only 10 players — making sure they were fastened and secure before I went out on the field.
Then, in the last game of the season — my final little league game — our coach became ill and sent his wife to the field in his place. Having never really watched us play before, she put together the lineup on a whim.
Rather than playing my final game behind the plate, I was stuck in no man’s land — right field.
I couldn’t believe it. Four years later, and there I was, back in the same spot I had started out in. I sulked; I complained; I went back to kicking the weeds.
Running onto the field near the end of the game, I looked over towards center field, which was where the kid was playing. I wondered how he could take playing the outfield every game. Didn’t he get bored? Didn’t he want to be involved in more of the action?
I watched him, in between pitches, how he’d run in behind second base, just in case the catcher’s throw got past the pitcher and the second baseman. Before every pitch, he’d crouch down, just in case the ball came to him — which it didn’t. And he did all of it with a smile.
As I watched, I began to understand that he didn’t care how far below .300 his batting average was or if he made the game-winning catch. He was enjoying himself whether it was standing on top of the mound or sitting on the bench, cheering on his teammates.
It wasn’t just a game — it went beyond that. And I’m sure he wasn’t the only young child in this country that felt that way.
That’s why, today, despite the millions spent and supplements popped, people still go out to baseball games. They can’t relate to the players on the field — how many fans are millionaires?
But they can relate to the game, and what it has meant to them since those early days, when they were kicking the weeds.
Joe Marchilena is the sports editor for The Pitt News and wants to let everyone know about his secret love affair with baseball.
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