Spring Training

Spring training is underway, the beginning of another (let us hope) magical baseball season.  The boys of summer are gathering once again to ply their athletic gifts, and to amaze us with their exploits on the diamond.

And every spring, their gathering reminds me those happy days, just a couple of years ago, when the annual softball season opened in our Florida retirement community. A mob of elderly, erstwhile ballplayers would converge on the local park for the opening games of the season.

Most of us had spent a good part of our lives playing ball, while others, newly retired, had taken it up only recently. But we all shared the same enthusiasm for the game.

We enjoyed swinging the bat with wistfully-remembered power in the on-deck circle, we loved the anticipation of waiting in the batter’s box, and we cherished the elusive base hits we sometimes might stroke. There was always an exhilarating feeling of freedom in running ‘round the bases at top speed, or in chasing full-tilt after a long fly ball in the outfield—the wind rushing in our ears, visions of grace and glory forming in our mind’s eye.  At such moments, nothing else mattered in the world but the game.

My beautiful picture

Play Ball!

The game was the thing. We wished it could last forever.

But it couldn’t, of course. Even then, most of us could see the end approaching—still hazy on the far horizon, perhaps, but in sight, nonetheless.

The signs were small, but the start of each season brought more of them. The bats seemed heavier, the balls smaller, the bases farther apart. There appeared to be more holes in the infield for opponents’ ground balls to skip through. The throws in from the outfield lacked some of the crispness that was seen in other years.

In fact, I discovered I’d become a centre-fielder with a second baseman’s arm!

The most significant sign of all was the constant aching in our legs, our arms, our backs—lasting just a little longer than it ever used to. We feared for the day when it would linger all the way into next week’s game.

I guess that’s why we switched to a tamer version of the game, limited to those sixty years of age or older. Gone were the young, aggressive Turks who had overtaken us on the base paths. Gone, too, were the strong-armed pitchers who had overpowered us in the batter’s box.

And gone with them, unlamented, was the notion that winning was the only satisfactory outcome.

Our game had morphed into slo-pitch. The ball would float in from the mound to the waiting batter, crouching, bat-cocked, in gleeful eagerness. When he hit it, more often than not it was to one of the waiting fielders, of whom there were ten (in deference to our declining ability to cover the whole field).

Many of the old softball rules were changed, or at least modified for our game. For example, a team’s turn at bat still ended when three players were tagged ‘Out!’, but no team could go through its batting lineup more than once, even if everyone batted safely.

The best part, though, was that no one seemed to worry too much about winning. At the end of every game, the players would file past each other across the middle of the infield, laughing, shaking hands, and complimenting each other on a game well-played. When asked later (perhaps after a brew or two) about the outcome of the game, we often had trouble remembering the final score.

Most of us always loved playing ball, and we were awfully glad there was still a game for us to play. Because playing, far more than winning or losing, was the elusive reward for our efforts.

After all, it’s not who wins the game that counts—it’s who shows up to play!

Keeping Track

We worry about getting old. And we bemoan the passage of time.

But once upon a very long time ago, nobody kept track of the years. People in their nomadic, tribal clusters got up when the day dawned and went to sleep when it got dark. They did it every day, over and over again, until, inevitably, they didn’t awaken from their final sleep. Nobody ever worried about getting old; they just lived until they died, and the tribe moved on without them.

Even today in this wide world of ours, there are countless numbers of people who don’t worry about aging. They live in unforgiving climes where their every effort is bent toward eking out a subsistence-level existence. Or they’re driven from their homes by ravaging armies—persecuted for their beliefs, their skin colour, their ethnic origins, and often enslaved by their captors. They, too, live only until death frees them, far too burdened to bother about the realities associated with getting old.

Yet here are we, inured from such extreme conditions—secure, some of us, in our developed, civilized world, inundated by the availability of all the essentials and luxuries we might desire—and what do we do? We worry about getting old.

Not all of us, of course. Many young people appear to have the same nonchalant, carefree attitude I probably had at their age. Immortality is a given. The halcyon days of youth are destined to last forever. Only old people are old.

Others of us, the more elderly, have learned a sterner truth. Youth lasts only until it’s over, only until our bodies begin to betray us. The rosy morning of youth gives way, grudgingly, to a more austere noontime of life, and then, inexorably, to a deepening dusk we all must enter.

Some people accept that more gracefully than others, some more stoically, some more fatalistically.

Some, of course, do not accept it at all. In the words of the poet, they rage, rage against the dying of the light. Nips and tucks; silicone, botox, collagen, and dye; enhancements and reductions; diets and purging; even exercise—all undertaken by men and women in a fruitless pursuit of everlasting youth.

Why does this happen, here in our world of plenitude? It happens because we measure time’s passing. After all, time itself is neither our friend nor our enemy. It’s just there, it’s always been there, and it will forever be so. No, it’s the keeping track of time that plagues us, wreaking havoc on our youth, eventually forcing us to an acceptance of the stark reality that we are going to get old. And we are going to die.

But remember, we are the first cohort of people since the dawn of time who has ever had the luxury of worrying about that.

Perhaps we shouldn’t.

Secret Valentine

In a recent long-distance telephone conversation, one of my granddaughters reminded me that Valentine’s Day is coming round again.

She didn’t ask if I would be her valentine again this year, as I have been for most of her six years, which would have been nice. No, instead she mentioned that she’d be giving a valentine to every one of her classmates at school.

“Every one of them?” I exclaimed, mildly astonished. “Don’t you have, like, one special valentine?”

“No, Gramps,” she replied. “That’s not how it works. In grade one, you give everybody a valentine. All the kids do.”

I wondered how many youngsters there were in her class for whom she was planning to buy a valentine card. After all, how many valentines can a six-year-old handle?

“How can one person have so many valentines? I protested. “Being somebody’s valentine is supposed to be a special thing. Won’t people wonder why you’re giving everyone a card?”

“Gramps! You don’t understand! They won’t know who gave the valentines to them. Mummy’s going to help me print ‘Guess Who?’ on all of them. My name won’t be there.”

“Okay, wait a minute, l’il guy,” I said. “Let me get this straight. You’re going to give valentines to every kid in your class…”

“And my teacher,” she cut in.

“And your teacher,” I continued. “But, you’re not going to put your name on them, so nobody will know that you gave them a valentine. I don’t get it.”

“Oh, they’ll know, Gramps. Everybody knows. They just won’t know which valentine I gave them. That’s the fun of it.”

That’s the fun of it! Back when I was a kid, the fun of it was in deciding whom I would ask to be my special valentine. To which little girl would I dare to offer a valentine card? Who would accept it without laughter? Or worse, not accept it at all?

There was a certain delicious risk involved back then, a risk that made the whole exercise worthwhile. After all, asking someone to be your special valentine meant you were sort of sweet on her (or him, if you were a girl).

But, times change, and so do valentine cards. Now, they don’t ask someone to be your valentine; instead, they proclaim ‘Happy Valentine’s Day’! They’ve become indistinguishable from birthday cards, for goodness’ sake.

Anyway, I wished my granddaughter well with her plans. I harboured the faint hope that perhaps I’d still receive one from her—with her name on it!

Afterwards, I kept thinking about our conversation. Anonymous valentine cards made no sense to me. But, my granddaughter had stated, “They’ll know…”

Well, who’s to say? Maybe they will. It occurred to me that I’ve always sent anonymous, loving wishes to my own two daughters—back when they were growing up, and even now, as they raise their own children. I never thought of that as silly.

At night, after they were asleep, I had the habit of whispering in their ears, to tell them how much I loved them. They hardly stirred as I did it, and they never mentioned it the following day. And, every day now, when thoughts of them cross my mind, I still send little messages of love their way. I always believed that, somehow, they would know I was telling them. Anonymously, as it were.

So, maybe my wee granddaughter is right. Perhaps it isn’t such a ridiculous notion. In fact, I’m even hoping to receive a valentine this year from ‘Guess Who?’

I’ll know.