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When Baseball Was Life

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Like a monument commemorating a historic event that once happened on its soil, the baseball diamond in the neighborhood where I was raised sits silent. Even today, during the carefree summer days when school is out, the field remains empty – patches of grass growing on the infield. If you listen closely, you might hear the diamond calling out, beckoning for a return to the springs, summers and falls when it was more special to neighborhood kids than even a trip to King’s Island, the amusement park just an hour’s drive away.

An only child, my love for baseball was born at an early age, spurred by watching my dad play softball in the competitive recreation leagues around southwest Ohio, and watching the Reds on TV. I was born and raised in Xenia, a city many people know because of the tornado that destroyed it in 1974. I was 5 at the time, and the only part of our house left standing was the hallway where we sought cover. To this day, it is the most powerful tornado on record in U.S. history. The winds were more than 300 miles per hour.

My parents rebuilt on the same lot, which was in the heart of an expansive middle-class neighborhood of single-story brick ranches. Dozens of streets – all named after states – and thousands of houses composed the subdivision. Since my parents were one of the first to move into a rebuilt home that fall, at first it was lonely for me, being the only kid in the neighborhood.

My parents took me to my first baseball game in the spring of 1975, an extra-inning game at Riverfront Stadium where the Big Red Machine edged San Diego, 3-2. I was captivated. The next morning, as soon as the sun rose, I reenacted the game in my backyard with just a whiffle ball and a bat. All nine innings, top and bottom. It must have been amusing for neighbors peering out their windows seeing a six-year-old towheaded boy throwing a ball into the air, hitting it, and running around the bases for hours.

That summer, more homes were rebuilt on my block, and some of them were occupied by families with children my age. It wasn’t long before whiffle ball games became a staple of life in our little section of Arrowhead Acres. I watched my first Red Sox game that fall, Game 6 of the 1975 World Series, when Carlton Fisk launched Pat Darcy’s pitch off the left-field pole after midnight, keeping the Sox alive for Game 7. The Sox lost the next night, but I was an instant fan – my introduction to the thrills and heartbreaks of what is now Red Sox Nation.

By the summer of 1976, when I turned eight, most of the subdivision was rebuilt, and each block bustled with children. As the years passed, whiffle ball games in my backyard started as soon as the snow melted in March and continued until our own little World Series in October. We chalked the basepaths, kept score on a chalkboard and clipped mechanic’s lights onto the fence so we could play at night. We would even play in the rain and mud, at least until our parents realized what we were doing and called an official rain-out. Sometimes, games would be interrupted by arguments of whether the pitch was a strike or a ball, or if the baserunner was safe or out, and there was the occasional scuffle (our own version of a bench-clearing brawl, limited to pushing, shoving and name-calling, just like in MLB), but most days our field would be enlivened by the innocent excitement that children portray and visions of hitting the game-winning home run in Game 7 of the World Series.

My dad often served as the pitcher for both teams, and we would mimic our favorite players. Most of my friends imitated guys from the Big Red Machine like Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Pete Rose. I preferred Fred Lynn, Dwight Evans and Fisk. At the end of the season, we constructed trophies made of shoe boxes covered by aluminum foil and voted for our own Cy Young, Rookie of the Year and MVP.

Eventually, we added baseball down at the neighborhood park to our daily summer gala. Though we played organized baseball on Little League teams and then Babe Ruth teams as we grew older, there was nothing quite like pickup games at the park. No adults. Just us kids. When we were not playing whiffle ball, we would ride around the neighborhood streets in search of players until we had enough to field two teams of nine for baseball.

The next year, some parents even bought us batting helmets, and we took care of that field as if it were our own. On many summer days, the first game would start at 9 a.m. As word spread, kids on each block formed their own team. It was like our own league, much like in the movie, The Sandlot. Games would continue until it was too dark to see.

As our high school years arrived, baseball at the park and whiffle ball in my backyard were replaced by after-school jobs, school sports, girlfriends and cruising around town with our friends. In my backyard, the grass returned, covering the worn-out spots where the bases and the pitcher’s mound once were. A new generation of elementary school-aged kids kept up the tradition down at the park, but as time passed and culture changed (with the arrival of video games), slowly but surely those sounds of pickup baseball games faded into distant memory.

Looking back, now a thousand miles away in Orlando, I smile when I think of those days when the most important thing was getting up in the morning and playing baseball and whiffle ball until we were called inside by our parents, one by one. Those days have long passed, but the passion and love that I have for baseball and the Sox have grown with time. Baseball represents a part of my childhood that will remain constant until I die.

Today, I still play baseball (yes, baseball, not softball) in a 28-and-over league (I’m 38). I write about the game periodically as a journalist, blog about it regularly, pour over dozens of baseball web sites and articles weekly and closely monitor the Sox game by game.

To me, baseball is not just a game. It represents an integral part of where I come from and who I am. It represents long summer days in my backyard and down at the park. It represents the bond I developed with my dad, who spent hours coaching my teams, playing catch and sharing many of those summer days – curious about why I did not like the Reds, but content nevertheless to share a game that he spent hours playing as a child.

Baseball is a part of my childhood that hasn’t left, and it also represents the promise of future summer days when I have children of my own. Maybe someday the baseball diamond in the neighborhood where I was raised will again stir with the sights and sounds of kids playing the greatest game. Unlike hours spent in the living room with video games, baseball will allow them to forge fond memories they will carry long after the actual moment of experiencing them.

About Jeff

  • Enlightened Planet

    Jeff, thanks for this article… can’t tell you how many memories this invoked.

    My life is something of a travelogue, so I don’t have that ONE diamond in mind. Little league for me was in various places in New York and in Texas, high school baseball in Tokyo and Bangkok. My Dad and his “Mel Stottlemyre” model glove always there when I needed them.

    My first team was the Mets, in 1969 as it happens. A couple years later we moved to Houston and I adopted the Astros, and have stuck with them through thick and thin ever since. I was there, in the left field bleachers, for the “greatest game ever played”, the 1986 playoff game 6 where my OLD Mets put away my new heroes in 16 innings. Ah well.

    I live in Thailand again. When my daughter was two I found a plastic tee/bat/ball set in a Bangkok supermarket, and couldn’t control myself! I’m SURE I bought it more for myself than for her. Now she’s four, and my son is two… I haven’t seen that set in a while, but when I get home tonight I’m going to go out to the garage and find that bat and ball and we’re all going to go out in the front yard!