It’s baseball season – everything after the Superbowl has the whiff of the infield grass and a well-oiled glove about it. It’s my game. Much more than football, more than basketball by a long shot, and I can’t even spell socqueer. I’ve been playing ball since I was old enough to swing the 14″ silver wooden bat that Mr. Storm carved for me when I was still in diapers. The handle had a swirl and a raised knob on the end, and just below the barrel so my hands could grip without slipping. I couldn’t wait until I turned 9 – that was the age when boys became real baseball players. When a boy turned 9 he got to try out for one of the 4 Little League baseball teams: The Lions, The Broncos, The Rangers, the Apaches.
The Lions’ blue and gray uniforms were my favorite, though I was tempted by the stark, Yankee-like black and white of the Ranchers. But the Lions had my heart. They were coached by Mr. Robins, the dad of my best friend, David. I figured it would be just about as close to heaven as I could get if I made the Lions team coached by Jerry Robins. I had seen him driving the guys on the team around in the bed of his old black truck with the windows rolled down – the one my mom called “The Symbol of Baseball.” More than anything in my 9-year-old world, I wanted to ride around in that old heap with Mr. Robins and his pride of Lions.
The problem was, as much as I loved – and I mean LOVED baseball, I wasn’t very good at it. Nowhere near as good as David and the other boys my age. Still, I went to tryouts with hopes that were a lot higher than my double-digit batting average. I tried as hard as I could, but I didn’t make the Lions. In fact, I didn’t make any team. Not one single coach picked me.
It may be hard for some to imagine the crushing weight of “not-being-picked” on the shoulders of a skinny kid. But I bet it isn’t that difficult for anyone who wasn’t picked. That memory is seared onto our souls. If I could have talked to the Mick or Bobby Richardson about it, it would have made things better, but they were busy playing for the Yankees. I was too embarrassed, anyway. I had let them down.
Dad didn’t say much. He never was a talker. He was a petroleum engineer cum Rancher. He wasn’t very good at ranching at first – he had inherited it as a result of being married to a rancher’s only child – but he worked hard at it and he learned. The day after my Utter Failure, Dad disappeared for a few hours. I remember as clear as that spring day – I was standing in the “Milk Room” where my Grandmother used to churn milk into butter. I heard Dad’s truck pull up outside and I turned to see him come through the gate. He was holding something in both hands.
He stopped about halfway down the walk and saw me through the screen door. “Reggie boy, come here.” I went outside to meet him. He was holding some clothes, all folded. Blue and gray. “I had a visit with Mr. Robins,” Dad said, still holing the uniform of the great, the mighty Lions. “He said that if you were willing to work really hard, and not miss a practice, you could be the batboy. Maybe you could even play in a game or two down the line. How would that be?” I could barely speak. “Yes, sir. Yes, sir, I will. I promise. Thank you, Poppo.” He half-smiled, which was about as good as it got with Dad. “All right then,” he said. “You better go try this on. It’s the smallest one they had, so Mom might have to sew it up a little if it’s too big. I’ll show you how the sox go.”
Then he handed me my life.
The Great Satchel Paige reminds me of why the Greatest Game Ever Played provides such joy to this Grandpa.
“How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?”
My answer: In my heart of hearts, I’m about as old as the Lion in the picture below, which Mom took on that day in 1963.
I plan on playing a lot of ball with Evan. I’ve got an old uniform that just might fit him.