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The Game We Played

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An empty ball field in reasonable weather conditions is a sad sight I think, a statement against a healthy and functioning society. My wife, Kyle, and I walked past three of them the other day as the sun shone, the ground was dry enough and the air crisp and hovering in the low fifty’s. They were in beautiful shape, the diamonds cut with precise lines between the infield dirt and the grass, perfectly domed pitcher mounds visible from a good distance and the overlapping outfields manicured and verdant.

That ball complex is in Westlake Park in Lake Oswego, Oregon – my hometown for two decades now – and is surrounded by a tightly constructed, tall chain link fence with the gates padlocked against any and all intruders. Why would a town not have its fields open 24/7 for its kids to play ball? Why are the kids not indignant and in search of bolt cutters or scaling the fence – flinging their mitts, balls, bats and bodies in soaring arcs to the other side – and commandeering a field for a good game or two? Let the cops come. And if they can’t play here, where are they playing? More to the point, what are they playing? I don’t want to know.

But I do know that ball fields for kids shouldn’t be empty on a playable day. They shouldn’t be enclosed within padlocked, chain link fences. They shouldn’t be verdant and manicured with crisp lines between the infield dirt and the grass. Ball fields should be worn and tattered from the incessant wear and tear of play; they should be endlessly populated by exuberant kids fully in the joyous throes of sport and competition and rivalries and flare ups and make ups and friendships and varying degrees of prowess playing ball until dinner or dark or sheer exhaustion force the end the game.

Westlake Park in Lake Oswego, Oregon. Photo: By M.O. Stevens via Wikimedia Commons

There were really only four or five things on our minds back when I was a kid in the 1960s: fast food, bikes, comics/books (Hardy Boys, Chip Hilton) TV and, above all, sports. We were not, most of us, consumed with girls just yet; we were not disinterested, mind you, they just hadn’t reached the top of our priorities, throwing everything else into disarray for years to come. Those hormones would rage soon enough. The food and books were considered discretionary spends not funded by the powers that be – newspaper routes took care of those – TV was free and bikes were a necessity to free our parents from any chauffeuring responsibilities. Only sports, baseball in particular, required negotiation for subsidies from the family’s executive committee, mom, to keep us going.

Fortunately for us, baseball was proximate to religion and we were expected to attend to it in much the same way we did in the insular Catholic world we inhabited.  The fields were churches and we treated them with a tough reverence, the games were Mass; in season, we never missed a week and attended with a fervor equal to, if not more than, what we brought to our Sunday mornings.

The rules we played by were our catechism and we had a book of saints all our own: Mickey Mantle, Tom Seaver, Willy Mays … from which we chose our patron to look over us:… in my case, Jim Gosger, patron saint of children in need of a little kindness.  So mom subsidized us a bit with the helmets, the mitts, and maybe a bat or two to keep us in good stead with the almighty who presided over all things, including baseball. Especially baseball. Mom did not shortchange on the spiritual side.

Baseball was more than an obsession then, more subtle and far deeper than that. The game was an essential part of what we thought about and what we did, everyday, and what we aspired to be. It was deeply embedded into both our conscious and unconscious language and behaviors. When I think about my friends from those days, – Jackie Devine, Donnie Ressell, Pat Hickey, Jacky Baillie and others – invariably I picture them at the Newbridge Avenue School ball field in North Bellmore, Long Island, and recall their prowess and demeanor at the plate or on the field. I see them slumped against the 7-11 wall, post game, bikes strewn on the sidewalk, gulping down jumbo cherry and coke Slurpees,  shooting the breeze about big hits, great catches, calamitous errors (usually mine), heroes and villains.  Baseball was the center of our existence. Nothing else came close.

Outside of Little League, it wasn’t easy to put together a game, especially in the summer months when we all dispersed into smaller groups and didn’t have the luxury of planning during lunch break. The ball fields were limited in number, though never fenced and padlocked, and we weren’t the only kids with access to them and even when we did find one open, it was difficult to muster two teams quickly. But nothing would deter us and we found that baseball was a sport that had an interesting ability to be deconstructed and put back together in select pieces making facets of the game available to us in ways that brought much of the same satisfaction as playing nine against nine on an official diamond without playing nine on nine on an official diamond.

We played stoop ball, curb ball, grounders, stickball (‘spaldeens’ only!), catch, rundown (‘pickle’), one-a-cat, whiffle ball and ‘wires’, the latter a most innovative urban solution for two players with a ball and nothing else but a street with layers of power lines strung between telephone poles. Each wire represented a potential hit; the lowest to the ground was a single, the next above it a double and so on. The ‘batter’ threw the ball and was awarded the appropriate base determined by the wire he hit if the defensive player did not catch it before hitting the ground; a throw that missed a wire was a strike. With these simple rules, we could compete for hours.  We were determined to play ball with whatever flimsy pieces of the game we had.

There were other challenges, too, though none that we couldn’t overcome.

We tolerated a ripped cover on a ball – they were always in short supply – until its airborne trajectory was compromised, fluttering awkwardly and making odd whirly-wig sounds. Then, finally, reluctantly, we would deem the ball unplayable and replace the cover with black electrical tape and put it back into play, transformed now, taking on the look and feel of an iron cannon ball. The game became a little bit more dangerous, a little less fun and we played with a greater degree of wariness. But we had a ball and we played on.

Tape was used on bats as well. Bats were expensive and we grew attached to them in ways that made parting difficult. Leaving their broken bodies behind in some anonymous garbage bin felt wrong and had the sting of loss to it. The sound of one cracking was instantly familiar to us and we would halt play and examine it as if we were first responders on the scene of a car accident, hoping for a small injuries – slivers – at worst.  In those cases, out came the tape – electrical or duct – and we meticulously attended to it as if we were setting a broken bone in the emergency room.  Still we knew its end was near and began to practice our ‘but mom, I’ll pay you back …’ speeches for another one; in my case a Louisville Slugger, size 32, with a thick grip.

We had a good solution when an open field couldn’t be found. We would build one on the street, make the silver handle of Mr. Caputi’s black ’65 Fleetwood first base, that pothole out there in the middle of Catherine Place second, and that bush leaning out over the street on the west side of the Bartram’s house a curious interpretation – you held onto a branch – for third.  And these home-made street diamonds, such as they were, resolved those situations when we wanted a full game – three bases and home plate – but we didn’t have enough players to manage the field.  The street was so narrow that only a few of us were required for an adequate defense; one person could play third, short and second at the same time.  We had rules that helped fill the gaps: ‘invisible men on base’ when we there were so few playing that a base runner was back ‘up’ at the plate and quasi-intricate algorithms how those invisible men would advance when the batter got a hit.

There was no playbook on any this though I don’t think we invented any of it either. But we did understand the fundamental principles of this magnificent and simple – but oh so complex  – game and we claimed it as ours and freely tweaked it, adjusting the rules, the roles, the fields, the accessories and whatever else needed to adjusting so we could get down to the business of playing it.

But we walk silently by Westlake Park, Kyle and me, our arms locked, pulled by our dogs on a playable day and the fields are empty and silent and I explain to Kyle what baseball meant to me once and I realize that I forgot how much I loved the game and I am surprised to hear my own voice crack a little as all the names and stories and hits and diving catches and laughs and arguments and postgame Slurpees come flying back into memory. I can see them, I can hear them, I can smell them and I want to cut those padlocks and fling them and rip down those fences and free that field.

By Joe McAvoy

Reach Joe McAvoy at jmmcavoy@gmail.com

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