It was a simple field. The path to it ran past my grandmother’s house, through a set of bushes and into a circular clearing behind. First base was a tree stump. Second was a raised patch of earth that kicked up dust whenever someone ran over it with a lawnmower. We used an old glove, one we found lying underneath a rock next to a stream in the woods behind my house, for third. Home was ditch that had worn thin the first couple years we played there, and then gave up on growing anything thereafter, because when you played ball as often as we did – day after week after month after year – without ceasing, even in the cold months, it tends to leave a mark. Childhood is more powerful than Mother Nature in some ways, which is probably why it wears out so quickly leaves such a lasting impression.
We shared a lot of great moments on that field. There were countless homeruns, stolen bases, and arguments about how many ghost men were on when one of hit the ball over the fence in right field into Mrs. Bradenton’s back yard. We got there early and stayed all day. My Grandma made us peanut butter sandwiches for lunch. She wrote your name into the peanut butter with her finger nail so you knew THIS one was yours. Grandma’s are good at that, aren’t they?
There was the time Sean Hinken learned to hold a pitch just so, making the ball dance like he held it on a string. Sean threw three no-hitters in a row that day, breaking Johnny Vander Meer’s impossible-to-break streak of two. There was the time the Paoletti twins, Josh and Jeff, both chased a ball into the thicket in center field. They emerged two seconds later, a cloud of bees in their wake. And there was the time I flattened Adam Hester on a close play at home, rolling over his leg, nearly breaking it.
“Dang it, Joe,” he said. “Time to lay off the Twinkies, ya think?” Only he didn’t say, “Dang it.” Back then, we explored profanity like many of us would later explore cheap beer and frantic make-out sessions with girls. Sloppy and inartful, but electric nonetheless.
Good memories. Fun times.
How long has it been, now? Twenty-Five years? Thirty? Some days it seems like another lifetime, and other times the memories are so close I could reach out and touch them. You could play a game anywhere. All you needed was a bat, a ball, and few kids you might not know and would never see again. That, and a field, of course. Back then, everyone had a field. We ran games in back yards, parking lots, abandoned fields, and remote, wooded clearings.
We played little league, sure, but the Real games took place after practice, after school, away from the watchful eyes of rule keepers and score trackers. We argued over calls, close plays, and who got to be Pete Rose or Johnny Bench, knowing full well each of us planned to mimic our heroes when it was our turn to hit. Nobody knew how long we’d been playing and nobody cared. There was only the game, your friends, and the desire to keep moving forward for just a few more innings before the street lights came on and everyone had to go home.
We knew our time was limited. We knew we would one day grow up, move on, and leave these long, lazy days in our field behind. But we also had a sense that this game we loved and these fields on which we played would pass onto the next generation. And the one after that.
Now, when I drive past the fields I played on as a kid, I don’t see baseball. I see soccer, and sometimes I see housing developments. More often than not, I see empty fields. The well-worn patches of our youth have grown over and healed, Mother Nature outlasting the same way she outlasts everyone. Maybe it’s because I’m older. Maybe it’s because my eyesight has worsened. Maybe its because I can barely remember what it feels like to hit a ball and know, without looking, that it would sail over Mrs. Bradenton’s fence. Maybe it’s because fall is upon us, the kids are in school, and the baseball season is winding down, but I wonder whether this game we all love will, indeed pass on to the next generation.
Baseball will be around for a while, but will it be the same? Will it still be as good? All those empty fields make me wonder.
Next season, when the weather starts to warm, I’ll go out for a walk. I’ll find a clearing or a parking lot or an abandoned field with a few worn patches. I listen long and hard for the voices of children, not caring that the sun has set, hoping to get in a few more innings, screaming with delight, saying, “Ghost man on second. My turn to hit. Throw me your best and watch me hit that (stuff) into the woods.”
Maybe then I’ll smile.