Of course, there are those who learn after the first few times. They grow out of sports. And there are others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun.”— A. Bartlett Giamatti
We were ordinary kids who wanted to play ball. We didn’t discuss politics or finances or anything heavy. We just wanted to play ball.
When I was 11 years old, the kids in my neighborhood gathered almost daily at an open lot to play baseball, football, or whatever the sport currently in season. About eight of us kids lived in the neighborhood at the time, and we were like something out of central casting for The Sandlot. We had a pecking order just like any other neighborhood crew — we had the older kid, the talented kid, the big kid, the fast kid, the smart kid, the small kid, the shy kid and of course, the younger kid whose mother rarely allowed him to go outside. Not an evening passed without some combination of our group playing ball while our parents circled the neighborhood block, quietly making sure our childhood bickering didn’t need an adult referee. Our neighborhood was our village. Our field was maintained by the kind man who drove his riding mower down the street every few days. We tracked time by the adults driving by our game on their way home from their jobs, and everyone in the neighborhood knew to keep their eyes out for an errant baseball or even a stray kid when passing that open lot in their car. Every day, we met and played ball.
One particular Saturday afternoon, we were playing when we noticed another group of eight kids edge up to the lot. They were walking so softly you couldn’t hear their feet shuffle on the pavement, as if they thought if they walked quietly enough, then no one would see them. In hindsight, these kids had only traveled from maybe three blocks away but, at that time, in our history, they might as well have traveled from another planet. Like the Greasers and Soc’s in The Outsiders, sixteen kids sized each other up in complete silence as if we were about to rumble. These new kids were basically the same ages as us, and had their own pecking order of ages, sizes and skills. But these kids were different.
These new kids were black.
After a couple awkward moments of staring at each other, which would have been more awkward had we understood it should be awkward, I recognized someone from the park commission soccer team I played on the previous spring. His name was Joe.
”Joe, do you guys want to play baseball?” I asked.
Joe nodded and looked at his group. They nodded. Not one of them had bats or gloves with them. But they were kids, and we were kids, and that’s all we needed.
Silently, their group walked out to the field while our group dropped our gloves and walked towards our makeshift homeplate. My friends grabbed bats to hit. Joe’s friends all took their positions wearing the gloves we left at our positions. Thus began a bizarre sandlot baseball game featuring two teams divided by race. With the exception of balls clinking off an aluminum bat or the thud of that ball hitting a leather pocket, the game was initially played in silence. Then, as the contest progressed a little, a chatter began— first to our teammates and then to the other team as we passed each other after the third out of every half-inning. Our game continued at that same pace until someone suggested we re-pick the teams and start the game over. Thirty-five years later, I don’t remember the suggestion arising because the game wasn’t evenly matched. Instead, I think it was made because boredom comes quickly to children, and we were always trying to do something more “fun.”
The two best players, one black and one white, were naturally elected as captains and after a quick flip of the glove (we didn’t have a coin), new rosters were chosen. The result? Teams were no longer split along racial lines. Instead, sixteen kids, eight white and eight black, were completely mixed between two teams. We laughed and argued over balls and strikes and safe and out like all kids do. We marveled at how far some kids hit the ball, and we snickered when someone struck out. Just as we were before, we were ordinary kids who just wanted to play ball.
All of us quickly became friends that afternoon. Our group of eight was now a group of sixteen and it remained that way the rest of the summer. We would meet every afternoon to play. It might have been the best summer of my life. In the years that followed that summer, some kids moved away or some lost interest in sports. Boys will be boys and we all fell for the intoxicating combination of girls and gasoline. To this day, though, I still think about those guys. That open lot in our old neighborhood, the scene of so many simple games that unknowingly taught me so much, is no longer open. On it sits a beautiful brick house, a home filled with love and the scene of a new set of memories for another group. But in mind’s eye, I still see the open lot and my friend David’s sweet lefty swing sending another ball into orbit with my other friend Joe chasing down that same ball as it returned to earth. I see myself pulling down my red cap over my eyes and slipping on my brown Rawlings baseball glove, broken in to perfection for another epic chance to pretend I’m the second baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals. I remember everything about the best summer of my life. I learned a little bit about baseball but a lot more about life.
Pitchers and catchers have reported to their ballclubs for the spring, and it’s nearing Opening Day. My attention is everywhere and nowhere all at once, and I haven’t played in a baseball game since the Reagan administration. My eleven year old self would be disappointed that I really can’t tell you who plays in the middle infield now for the Cards. But no matter how times change and life gets busy, the game stays the same. Like James Earl Jones says in Field of Dreams, “one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past.”
Gosh damn that’s accurate. Let’s play ball.