Empty Fields

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 wore thin the first couple years, 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 quickly, and leaves such a lasting impression.

We shared a lot of great moments on that field. There were countless home runs, stolen bases, and arguments about how many ghost men were on when one of us hit the ball over the fence in right field and 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 all yours.

Grandmas 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! 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.

How long has it been, now? Twenty-Five years? Thirty? Some days it seems like another lifetime, and on others the memories are so close I could reach out and touch them.

You could play a game anywhere. All you needed was a bat and 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, regardless of who had dibs.

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’d grow up one day, move on, and leave these long, lazy days in the fields of our youth 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 getting older. Maybe it’s because my eyesight has worsened and my knees creak when i walk. Or maybe its because even if I close my eyes tight and look to the sky I still can barely remember what it feels like to hit a ball and know, just by touch, it would sail over Mrs. Bradenton’s fence. Maybe it’s because Winter is upon us, the kids are in school, and the baseball season is over, but I wonder whether this game we all loved will indeed pass on, even to just 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, kids who don’t care that the sun has set, kids who just want to get in a few more innings before the sun sets, screaming with delight: “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.

Baseball, Forgiveness, and Peanut Butter Sandwiches

“Life is hard,” my Grandma would tell me. “Eventually someone will hurt you. When that happens, you get to decide: fight back, or forgive. It’s up to you. What will you do?”

As a kid, I played baseball in the field behind my Grandma’s house. We played every day, all day, and each day for lunch, my Grandma made us her world-famous peanut butter sandwiches. These were beautiful: a single piece of toast with a thin layer of peanut butter spread on top. That’s simple enough, but what made them special was she wrote your name into the peanut butter so you knew THIS one was yours.

Read the rest at Redleg Nation.

Rituals

This time of year is always tough. Football season is ramping up, the weather has hinted that it might start to cool off a bit here soon, and the kids have gone back to school. Even those of you who are not either a student or a parent have, at the very least, spent a long commute caught in the sloth-like wake of a school bus, wondering why we haven’t developed flying cars be now.

The answer: because your stupid teenagers would drive those flying cars, crashing into each other, killing thousands. Then where would we be?

There’s lots to distract us from our favorite pastime. Heck, I’ve even given up on Fantasy Baseball. My team, the Florida Dumpster Fire, has descended into last place, breaking decades-long records for ineptitude in our keeper league. It’s easy, in seasons like this, where the impossibility of a postseason was a foregone conclusion before the Findlay Market Parade took its first steps on Opening Day. Back then, we thought anything might happen. Now, we know that nothing has and nothing will. How do we keep things relevant?

Read the rest over at Redlegnation

Ron Robinson and the Near-Perfect Game

I have a lot of good Reds memories. Most of us do, I guess.

I remember sitting on the floor in my living room, watching Eric Show give up THE HIT to Pete Rose. The REAL hit came a few days earlier in Chicago, but nobody knew it then and we celebrated like we’d won the lottery. I screamed so loud, our pet beagle, Murphy, had to leave his customary spot in the sun next to the door to get away from all the noise.

I was in attendance on Johnny Bench day in the early ‘80s when Bench hung up his spikes. The game was humdrum, but they gave a Johnny Bench handout at the gates to the first X-thousand guests. I still remember how it looked, sitting in the corner of my room next to the door. No amount of music posters, Chicago Bulls memorabilia from the ‘90s MJ teams, or hastily built bookshelves could supplant it from that place of honor. I kept that handout stapled to my wall until I graduated high school and THEN I kept it with my baseball cards. I lost both it and the baseball cards when my parent’s basement flooded in 1998. So it goes. Bench was always my favorite player. I wore my baseball cap backwards from birth in deference to him. I still do, even though I’m nearly 40 and I look weird when I do it. It just feels wrong to wear it right.

Read the rest at Redleg Nation.

What if DAS PLAN isn’t working?

Ever since we started this most recent rebuild, the Reds have told us to BE CALM and DON’T WORRY, because (and repeat this with me now) “There is a plan.” This plan allegedly includes graphs and charts and other implements of destruction printed up on glossy paper in an official binder somewhere in Great American Ballpark.

Billy Hatcher and Jose Rijo stand guard over the plan when the Reds are out of town. They drink espresso and reminisce about the 1990 team. Or so I hear.

Read the rest at Redleg Nation.

The Records Fall: Ichiro eclipses Pete

Sometime this week, or maybe the next, Ichiro Suzuki of the Miami Marlins will break Pete Rose’s hallowed record for most career hits.

Before you get excited, there are caveats to that, of course. Ichiro only breaks the record if you include the 1278 he got while playing in Japan. And, if you’re going to do that, you might as well include Pete’s 400-500 hits from minor league teams. But if you’re going to do THAT, you have to take into account that the Japanese league plays significantly fewer games than the US each season. But then … and then …

I get it. This isn’t a debate about who holds the record. Rather, it’s a conversation about records in general.

Most Reds fans who were alive at the time, know where they were when Pete broke the record. We remember it like it was yesterday.

Read the rest at Redlegnation.

The Loveable Everyman

I have a soft spot in my heart for the Loveable Everyman. I don’t know why. He’s the guy who gets by on grit and nothing else. The guy who out works everyone until he wins.

Maybe it’s the idea that even an Average Joe can find success in the land of opportunity that excites me. No matter how great or how small, everyone has a chance if they’re willing to work for it.

I like that.

I published my second article with Redleg Nation today. It was about the passing of the everyman torch from previous fan favorite, Corky Miller, to the next generation.

Read More.

Something Might Happen

I just started writing, on an extremely part-time basis, for the good folks at Redleg Nation. My first article went up this morning. It’s about Opening Day, and you can read it here.

Dad said not to bring my glove. “We’re all the way up in the red seats,” he said. “No one’s gonna hit it up there.” Then, as if to emphasize the point, “No way. Not. At. All.”

But I brought it anyway.

It was an early April morning in 1988. The late ’80s were good years – the years after Pete Rose had broken the record but before the mess of banishment – when the Reds seemed to always finish second to either the Cards or the Mets no matter how hard they tried.

Dad and I rode a city bus down Winton Road from the northern suburbs, through St. Bernard, through Corryville, past UC, and straight through Over the Rhine like a Barry Larkin line drive, ending up on Fountain Square an hour ahead of the Findlay Market parade. It was Opening Day, the holiest of baseball holidays, and we reveled in our annual pilgrimage.

I held the glove under my left arm. Dad eyed me sideways. “You never know,” I said. “Something might happen.”