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Baseball: My Love Affair With America's Great Tradition
Standing on the mound sixty feet from home plate, I slowly spun the baseball in my hand as I waited for the catcher to lay down the sign. There were close to a thousand people in the stands that day at the old Sicks Stadium in Seattle because the hated Oregon Ducks were in town and that always drew a crowd in Seattle.
It was a warm day for Seattle in May, close to eighty degrees, and I could feel the sweat flowing down my back as I glanced at the runner on third who was doing his best to distract me, but there would be no distractions at that moment in time. The crowd rose to their feet as one, the noise increased and then the strangest thing happened: I couldn’t hear a thing. Not one sound entered my consciousness as my focus on the batter became so intense that all sound disappeared.
The catcher called for a curveball, low and away, a known weak spot for the number four hitter for the Ducks, and as I went into my windup I saw nothing but the catcher’s mitt giving me the target. The curveball did indeed find the outside corner, knee high, and the batter went back to the dugout shaking his head, frustrated, knowing that at that time, in that place, he had come up short in our personal duel.
It ended for me two weeks later; my shoulder finally gave out after thousands of pitches spanning ten years. The love affair, however, still remains.
So how did it begin?
THE BIRTH OF A LOVE AFFAIR
It seems like I have always had a baseball in my hand. In truth my dad bought me my first glove when I was five and every night that first summer after he got off work he and I would go outside and play catch. I suppose the love affair began then. Dad would never push me to play; in fact, I was always standing by the window waiting for him to get home so we could start our new father-son ritual.
My dad was an excellent athlete in his own right, a solid ballplayer in high school before The Great Depression sidetracked any dreams he might have had; after that the Army and World War II, so I am sure that when he and I started playing catch it was a chance for him to renew his own love of the game.
The bonding was all-important to little five-year old Billy, but an appreciation for the game quickly grew. I loved the smell of the glove, the feel of the baseball in my hands, and the satisfaction I gained when I would scoop up a grounder or settle under a fly ball as flawlessly as a five-year old is capable of doing. My father was always patient, never scolded, always nurturing the love he had and transferring it to his only son. It was a match made in heaven, baseball and me, and it only grew stronger as the years marched on.
THE BIRTH OF SELF-ESTEEM
I was a scrawny kid at a young age, sick quite often and seemingly incapable of growing, so consequently I had very little confidence. The exception was baseball. Night after night I would play catch with my dad; night after night he would hit me balls until darkness fell, only to repeat the ritual the next night. It turned out I actually had athletic ability so that by age ten I had developed a fair amount of talent. The only thing holding me back was the lack of self-esteem and the conviction I had that I would never be good enough to compete with the bigger kids.
Dad understood that of course in a way parents always seem to sense what their child is thinking. One day he sat down on the lawn after our session and told me that as long as I had a glove in my hand I would be the equal of any other kid in the neighborhood, and that it was time for me to test myself in league play.
He was right of course; he usually was now that I look back. I turned out for the local team and ended up the season as the MVP and for years that trophy sat next to my bed, watching me grow from the scared ten year old to confident high school player and then college player.
THE LOVE DEEPENS
Going to my first professional game with my dad is the stuff that life-long dreams are made of; our town, Tacoma, Washington, had a AAA farm team of the San Francisco Giants called the Tacoma Giants. Dad and I went to our first game the summer of 1960. I can still recall walking down the concourse and seeing that field before me, a veritable banquet for the senses. The bright-blue sky overhead, the lush green of the infield and outfield, the well-manicured base paths, all combined to leave me in a state of awe.
From that day on I watched every game possible on television and visited the ballpark every chance I got. I would watch the players set up under a fly ball, their feet in perfect position for the throw. I made mental notes of the infielders, the smoothness of their motions, reminding me of ballet dancers as they turned the double-play. Of course, the main objects of my attention were the pitchers, always in control of the game, locked in a never-ending battle of skill and mental toughness with the batters. I watched their steely-eyed concentration, the way they pushed off of the rubber and the way they handled victory and defeat. I was, pure and simple, in love with the game.
ALL GOOD THINGS COME TO AN END….OR DO THEY?
The lessons my father taught me served me well for quite a few years. I had a decent career in high school but not one that would even hint that I could go on to play college ball. I was a walk-on in college, never doubting for a moment that I could compete at that level. The words of my dad so long ago continued to echo in my mind….as long as I had a glove in my hand I was the equal of any other player.
All of those hours of playing catch with my dad, all of those evenings of throwing a ball against a cement wall, all culminated my sophomore year in college when I came into a game in relief of the starting pitcher. I can clearly recall standing on the mound, looking around at the field and players and thinking how much I loved this game. Five pitches later, the last of which was a nasty knuckleball that dad had taught me years before, and I had my first college strikeout.
Two years later it ended. Today they would call it a rotator cuff injury and surgery would be suggested. In those days, however, they just said you threw out your shoulder and you were done.
Or was I?
TRUE LOVE NEVER DIES
Your first love never really fades away despite the setbacks and the heartache. So it was for me! I was disillusioned as would be expected, and disappointed that I couldn’t perform any longer for my dad, but the positives far outweighed the negatives and I moved on with my life.
My father died six months later. As it turned out we really had seen our last baseball game together, but the memories of him and I playing on the front lawn will forever be with me. It is virtually impossible for me to watch a game today without thinking of my dad driving in the driveway, getting out of his car and smiling at me as I threw his glove to him for our nightly bonding.
On the morning of his funeral I asked the undertaker if I could add something to my dad’s casket. He opened it up for me and stood back as I said my final goodbye to my mentor and best friend and then softly placed my baseball glove in with him. If there is a heaven he’s up there smiling, glove on his hand, just waiting for our next game of catch.
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