It’s been a long time since I’ve thrown a baseball around. I used to do it all the time as a child, playing catch with anyone who would consent to chase after my wild throws. Even as a younger man—into my mid-forties, actually—I tossed the ball back and forth with a myriad of teammates, all of us chasing visions of grace and glory.
My father was one of my earliest playmates, out on the back lawn. Struggling to balance my oversized glove on my hand, I marvelled that he could catch the ball barehanded. Whenever I tried that, it hurt my hands. So instead, I’d make a stab at each toss with my glove, only to have the ball more often than not bounce off and hit me in the forehead. That hurt, too, but I was determined to at least look like a ballplayer.
We spent a lot of hours playing catch, my dad and I, but never too long at any one time. When he wanted to quit, he’d start throwing harder and harder until I suggested we take a rest. After all, I only had one forehead. My early school pictures show me with a round, red mark above my eyebrows.
My neighbourhood pals were faithful playmates, too. Two of us could while away a whole afternoon, just throwing and catching, often fantasizing that we were making remarkable plays on some distant major-league outfield. If there were three or four of us, we’d play “running bases”, where the runners would attempt to steal from one base to the other without being tagged out. It was not allowed to have two runners on one base, so when one guy took off, the other had to hotfoot it in the other direction. Once in a while, there’d be a tremendous collision in the middle of the base-path.
If five or more of us were gathered, a favourite game was “500”, usually in a park or schoolyard. One player would toss the ball in the air and strike it with his bat, while the rest of us would mill around in the outfield trying to catch it. Fifty points were awarded for successfully fielding a grounder, seventy-five points for a one-hopper, and one hundred for catching a line-drive or fly ball. The first guy to reach five hundred points would take over at bat. The batter who didn’t want to yield his spot too quickly always tried to hit a lot of grounders.
Collisions in the outfield were a hazard, particularly on long flies. For self-preservation we took to calling for the ball, as in “I’ve got it! It’s mine!” Anyone who called off the other players, but then missed the catch, lost the equivalent points. I think that’s where I first learned the concept of negative numbers.
Younger kids could play this game with us, but only if we were shorthanded. Generally, they just weren’t good enough. I remember to this day the first time my younger brother played. I patiently explained (as patiently as an older brother can) that he’d have to call for the ball so as to avoid potential injury. When the first fly ball came his way, looming ever larger as it dropped out of the sky toward him, he settled under it, planted his feet…and then, to my horror, turned away from it.
“Yours!” he shouted. The ball bounced to a stop on the grass. And my brother decided he didn’t want to play anymore.
Another game we played a lot was “Work-ups”. When we got to school in the morning, we’d race for the ball diamond, grabbing our positions in the sequence we arrived. The pecking-order ran from batter, four of them, all the way down to last-outfielder. There could be as many as seven of those. As each batter made an out, he’d trot to the outfield while everyone else moved up one position. Third base was the first infield slot, followed by shortstop, second base, first base, pitcher, and catcher. It often took a long time to become one of the batters.
When the bell sounded to start classes, someone would instantly yell, “Same positions at recess!” This was usually one of the guys who had worked his way into the infield, and didn’t want to risk losing his spot if he was late getting back to the diamond.
Although I was far from being a gifted athlete, I was good enough to play with guys a year or two older. Guys who were bigger and faster. Guys who got to the diamond to stake their positions before I did. Consequently, I spent a lot of time patrolling the outfield in these schoolyard games, only rarely making it to the infield, and almost never to the batter’s box.
But I think that paid off for me in the long run. As many of us began playing for real teams, both hardball and fastball—all the way to middle-age for many of us—I became a pretty good centre-fielder. I was fast and could track a ball right off the bat. I was never much of a hitter, though, so it was my defensive prowess that kept me in the line-up. Secretly, I would have preferred to play second-base, mainly because I didn’t have a strong throwing arm. If a fly ball got past me, the batter could scamper a good way around the bases before I got the ball back to the infield.
Nobody ever said about me, “Watch this kid’s arm! He’s got a gun out there!” Instead, I was known as a ball-hawking centerfielder with a second baseman’s arm. I got fairly good at three-bouncing the ball to my cut-off man. On one ignominious occasion, my throw actually rolled to a stop on the grass before it reached my guy.
But as I said earlier, it’s been a long time since I threw a baseball anywhere. The teammates I once played with are boys no more. My wife, who used to play shortstop for a women’s team, is into golf now. The broken nose she suffered on a bad bounce those many years ago helped convince her to take up another sport. My two daughters are grown and gone. Four of my grandchildren are old enough to play with me, but their game is soccer. They can do more with a ball using their feet than I can with my hands.
I miss it, though. There’s something about the feel of a baseball, the smell of the leather glove, the satisfying thok! as the ball smacks into the webbed pocket. It evokes wonderful memories of long-ago days. Perhaps it’s just an older man’s yearning for his youth, but it’s real, nonetheless. Watching baseball on television is no substitute; it’s the playing of the game that counts.
Recently I decided to get out there, even if by myself, and re-live the experiences I treasure. Alone on the grass, I tossed the ball high in the air, over and over again. Joyously at first, I settled under each ball as it came back down, deciding whether to try the basket-catch made famous by Willie Mays, an over-the-shoulder catch such as I used to make routinely, or even a behind-the-back catch.
But I had to quit when my forehead got too sore.