On July Forth of this year, I will turn 46 years old. This means that the activities at the grapefruit league baseball parks in nearly every town or city near our home in St. Petersburg will be the 46th Spring Training through which I have lived. Obviously, I can’t remember the first few but somewhere around 1965 or ’66, I started paying attention to the game as if baseball had, indeed, more importance than any subject in school or hobby at home.
Back in those days, my friends and I hardly knew the rules of the game, the infield fly rule, for instance, made no difference to a six year old. Having a Bob Gibson, Willy Mays, Hank Aaron or Tommy Agee baseball card, on the other hand, could make or break a kid’s summer. Not to mention the value of the Mickey Mantle, always one of the high numbers released late in the season that caused me to buy so many packs of Topps bubble gum cards that I’ve paid off a few boats for dentists since then.
Playing baseball, the primary summer activity in Westfield, NJ for kids like me started just around the spring thaw. The ground felt hard or muddy. The grass remained patchy from the football season and grueling winter. We could still see our breath on those cold mornings and the bat stung our hands when it connected with a ball. Grasping, throwing, pitching had major accuracy problems in those March days but we, like the guys in the big leagues, could blame our errors on the long off-season and the rustiness that developed during those dark months when the television and radio stations didn’t broadcast baseball games.
As spring grew to summer, school let out and the pick up games moved from weekends to daily, from dawn until dusk. We’d ride our bicycles to Roosevelt Junior High which had three or four great fields for playing ball. The grass remained wet from dew which in turn would soak my Keds and socks as I walked about the field waiting for the other boys to arrive. The smell of wet grass, the smell of morning, the thrill of the grass, the smell of the leather and oil from my Felipe Alou signature baseball glove, the smells, the thrills of summer, the feeling of baseball. These constant mornings and hot, humid afternoons seemed like they would last forever.
People who understand the language of baseball can communicate without words. You can take a white kid from Columbus, a kid from the Dominican Republic, a kid from Mexico, a Japanese kid, a Korean kid, a Chinese kid and a Jamaican kid, put them together on a field with some balls, bats, gloves, caps and they will soon start a game. They can choose sides (picking me last), decide who represents the home team and start pitching, hitting catching without verbalizing more than a grunt or two accompanied by a gesture. Kids and baseball go together almost as if the rules came in their DNA. A kid alone might toss a ball up in the air, swing his bat at it and chase the ball down wherever it landed, two kids will start “having a catch” or playing one on one wiffle ball, three kids might start a game of running bases and all of the kids, no matter how many, will do so with their heads filled with dreams of their heroes. In my childhood, these included those mentioned in the must have card list plus some others mostly forgotten to history. Georgie, the half Mexican, half Greek kid from up the street loved the Yankees second baseman Horace Clark, “Hondo Hoss!” He would yell as he stole a base. Michael, his older brother, supported Mel Stottlemeyer, still a player back then and tried to pitch with Mel’s signature wind up. Billy Walsh, their next door neighbor, went all the way for Cleon Jones and tried his best at basket catches.
Outwardly, I showed my Ron Swoboda, Bobby Murcer or Joe Pepitone persona but, inwardly having never had much talent for the sport, I wanted to grow up into the broadcast booth and loved Bill White, Phil Rizzuto, Ralph Kiner and the other voices that filled the New York area nights. Still, I would attempt a miraculous diving catch like Swoboda, an over the head Bobby Murcer style grab while running for the monuments in center field (I find it hard to believe that an entire generation has grown up since the monuments were moved off the field and behind the wall, next to the bullpen in Yankee Stadium) or jumping as high as I could to bring down a ball tossed over my head just like “Joey Pep.”
As the sandlot years of my childhood faded into the occasional softball game, which had more to do with drinking beer than hitting home runs, of my high school days, I remained a hardcore fan. My glove didn’t come out as often but the dice for Strat-o-Matic or APBA baseball were never far away and my buddies and I would have a game on the television, a cooler filled with Molson and a dice game or two on the table. We didn’t go much for Dungeons and Dragons (that just seemed too nerdy) but fantasy baseball somehow still felt kind of cool.
College started my drift from the game. I would, on occasion, catch the A train, switch to the D up to 162nd Street to take in a Yankees game (the bleachers will still only a buck and a half back then) but Shea Stadium might have relocated to another planet, the subway ride to Flushing seemed so long. I didn’t follow the game as avidly though. I rarely examined a box score or the tables of the batting, pitching and fielding leaders. I had more important things to do, like sing in a punk rock band at CBGB or take a walk to cop from my man.
In October of 1983, I moved to Boston to live with a girlfriend originally from Philly. Together, we watched the Phillies, during that great Pete Rose and Mike Schmidt season, win their first ever World Series and, by Spring, a curiosity for baseball and quaint old Fenway Park turned into a love affair that continues to this day. The girlfriend is happily married to a history professor in Philadelphia and I’m in Florida during spring training.
In Beantown only two sports really count – baseball and hockey. The Patriot fans live in the suburbs or Rhode Island and Celtics rooters live in the affluent Back Bay or stuffy, old money Beacon Hill. Everywhere else, the bar room conversations, no matter the time of year, dissect, debate, celebrate and mourn the fates of the Bruins and Red Sox. In most of these places, the “big three” never meant Larry, Parrish and McHale but had something to do with auto manufacturers in Detroit. Mention Teddy Ballgame, Tony C., Yaz, Bill Lee, Bernie Carbo, Jim Lonborg, Dewey, Rice, Wade, Roger and, more recently, Pedro, Troy or Manny and you’ve got a conversation on your hands.
The first game I attended at Fenway Park was opening day 1984. Bobby Ojeda, a journeyman lefty, was the starting pitcher. Billy Bucks at first, Marty Barrett at second, Wade Boggs at third, Joaquin Fernandez at short and the tremendously powerful outfield populated by Jim Rice, Tony Armas and the great Dwight Evans. Ralph Houk, who I remembered as Yankees manager from my youth, was the skipper. The Sox played the Orioles and lost by a significant margin if I remember correctly.
What I remember clearly, though, included paying $3 for a bleacher ticket, and entering the park hours before the first pitch. I remember wandering about Fenway, taking in the sights, sounds and smells of 70 year old beer spills and overflowing urinals. Up top, in the seats, though, I saw the most beautiful structure in all of baseball. The green grass running to the green monster, the manual scoreboard, the coziness of the 35,000 seat facility, the quiet before the park filled up, the over priced flat beer and the nasty hot dogs that, unlike Yankee Stadium, were definitely not kosher.
I became a regular at the park and, in 1987, after the Sox had yanked defeat from the claws of victory the season before, my wife and I started sharing a pair of season tickets with a few friends. If you were to draw an imaginary line from second base to first, continue it above the visitor’s dugout to the ninth row, you would bisect our seats. I couldn’t imagine a better location to watch the young Wade Boggs and Roger Clemmens, the aging but still powerful Jim Rice and Dwight Evans, the swooping curves thrown by Bruce Hurst and the antics of Oil Can Boyd. From those seats, I watched Roger set the record for strikeouts in a game, I witnessed Eddie Murray’s 2000th hit, Mike Greenwell hitting for the cycle (a feat more rare than a no hitter), Marty Barrett pulling off the hidden ball trick and, in 1988, in one of the strangest games I’ve ever attended, we saw Bill Buckner, after his return to the team, hobble around the bases for an inside the park home run. In the same 1988 game, Bob Boone, the 75 year old catcher for the Kansas City Royals stole third base as our Rich Gedman, probably unable to believe what he saw, threw the ball into left field.
As my vision faded, so did my attendance at Fenway Park. I preferred listing to Joe Castiglioni on the radio in the comfort of my home or listen to the television guys call the play by play at my local watering hole. I haven’t picked up a glove in years and hadn’t thought much about participating in the sport in a very long time. I thrilled and cheered at the Red Sox championship and still listen to games over the Internet.
Recently, though, Stephen Guerra, a Blind Confidential reader sent me a few pointers to web sites and a pod cast devoted to beep baseball. I had heard of blind people playing the game once before, when I saw an exhibit about it at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Over the years, I’ve heard a lot about blind cricket but this was the first mention of baseball that I had heard in a long time.
Stephen, in his “Beep Baseball Guy” persona, runs the beep baseball Podcast web site which contains a number of very cool audio bits about beep baseball and links to other resources about the sport. When I get a chance to look more closely, maybe I’ll find a bunch of guys in Florida so I can give this game a try. It certainly sounds like fun and Stephen’s enthusiasm for the game is certainly contagious.