There are some dreams from our youth which are so innocent and pure they return at the barest nudge. Spring is finally here and the flowers color a brief and fragrant period before summer brings a survivalist mentality to all things striving to be green and alive. The lawn is awake and mowing is the weekly homage paid, leaving the grass blades neat and even.
As I was walking in the yard after the day’s labor of ritual beautification, the feel of the grass beneath my work shoes brought my memories immediately to a time when I was young and the grass beneath my feet was not of my yard. The feeling of transubstantiation from present to past was as long as a dream, lasting only an instant. I was ten years old again and my tender young feet were in cleats, there was a glove on my left hand, and my head was clouded with visions of being a major league ball player. When I was little, I wanted to be a short stop just like Bert Campaneris of the Oakland A’s. It is such a natural thing for every boy to want to be something most boys could not be.
I was not a very good ball player. I knew that then, and I know that now. I was a little too timid to be a good batter, I was too slow to be an agile base runner, and I was and ever will be cursed with a weak throwing arm, but it didn’t matter. What mattered was the fun of being part of the game. During my brief little league time, I played whatever position I was told to. I was a catcher (ordered not to attempt to throw out a runner because it was hard enough for me to get the ball back to the mound), a short stop, and a second baseman - my arm being so poor, outfield was usually not a consideration. I didn’t care about any of that. I was a member of a team playing the greatest sport I could imagine.
Anyone would admit that baseball is a game of infinite statistics. Those of us that love the sport cling to the statistics, embrace them, marvel at each new nugget mined by the statisticians and reported through the announcers telling us that such-and-such player has a 0.350 batting average against pitchers whose name end in a silent “e” during months with 31 days when playing a Wednesday day game. We can also tell you at least one statistic from what constituted our time spent on the diamond - whether it be high school, college, or (for me) Albergotti Park. In the dugout or on the field I never felt inconsequential or below average, I was simply part of the game.
My thoughts tumble easily back to playing little league and having my father as coach. I don’t think my dad knew that much about the game, but he was willing to give his time always to his children. When providing instruction, his swing and throws were awkward, and though it pains me to admit, this made me embarrassed. I loved him and was proud of him, but I should have realized then what I know now, his awkwardness was a badge of his strength.
On one occasion it was late in the game and our starting pitcher was flagging. I was on the bench anxious to see the field in any capacity. With one out, my father looked to the bench to send in a relief pitcher. He must have seen something in me, because he picked me to go out and take the ball. Me! I had never pitched in a game before and my father (one in constant fear of the cry nepotism) still picked me to go to the mound. I took the ball and accepted my charge.
Needing only two outs, I looked to my catcher. The first batter came to the plate, and through luck more than prowess I struck him out. Confidence swelled up until the second batter entered the box. He was a lefty. Really? Who bats left handed so young? I was shaken. Four pitches later, he was at first and I was having doubts. Batter number three came up and I could swear he was swaggering. Heart in my throat, I went into my wind-up and threw. Contact was made, but it was a grounder to the short stop (someone with a better and more accurate arm than I would ever have) and the inning was over.
My father must have seen something in me, something in my performance on the mound that gave him no hesitation about the position I should play. I never pitched again. But you know what? My statistics to this day showed that I pitched two thirds of an inning, gave up no hits, only one walk, had one strike out, and an earned run average of 0.00. No one can ever take that away.