“For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two oclock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is stll time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armstead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago….” William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust.
I do not remember my first game of catch, nor does my father, certainly the only other living witness to the momentous event. That it occurred, I have no doubt, but like many true believers, I must keep faith with what I cannot know. After all, a pebble dropped into water leaves no sign of its passage after the ripples subside. Thus it was that my first memories of playing the game revolve around my glove, an outfielder’s shovel wrought from tanned hide whose very enormity lent itself to the boundaries of my confidence. However fallible the hand which it enclosed, such a mitt could never fail. My grip on the transaction that made it mine is less certain, just an ambiguous picture of a department store’s sporting goods section, and the glove that we took off the racks. There was a big leaguer’s signature splashed across the pocket, but whose, I cannot say. Sometime that afternoon, like as not in the front yard to the side of the majestic spruce whose branches obstructed future athletic feats, my father introduced me to the simple joys of throwing a baseball, and in this instance, playing drop, since I suspect that I did not catch it as often as I would have liked. All of this remains conjectural, however, and your humble correspondent is wary about saying too much more on the subject.
The next day, the next weekend, soon afterwards, I took my place on a sports field adjacent to the elementary school where I had just completed a stand-out performance in the very low A ball of first grade. “The kid can read, count, and does not fall down much, he’s got limitless upside.” The introductury practice took place on a day that was overcast and cold, with a driving wind that prevented the ball from remaining easily on the batting tee, so the more exciting hitting lessons were abandoned in favor of defensive skills. The coach would have been one of our parents, no idea which, only that he was THE COACH, like but unlike a parent, a figure only of authority. It is no surprise that his commands made a lasting impression, and that my first memory of playing baseball was quite literally drilled into me. Whatever else, I am certain that we practiced fielding grounders, dropping to one knee, glove to the ground, ready to catch or at least prevent the ball from careening too far past us if we muffed the play. The drill was straightforward, we teamed up with a partner and threw the ball back and forth. My peers were for the most part, familiar faces, neighborhood kids, veterans of kindergarten. There were a few outliers from faraway neighborhoods, but for the most part, we knew each other, as did our parents, or at least the fathers who had signed all of us up for this annual rite of spring.
Thirty years of additional experience has crowded out this particularly small market, and apart from the grounders and the venue, there is not much more that I can write about the initial practice, with one critical exception. Each one of us arrived there with whatever hat we already owned, some were bare-headed, but at the end of the hour, we were all given a blue baseball hat. It was our only uniform to begin with since a local sponsor had not yet provided us with any shirts. The hat was enough. We knew that we were a team.
As we played games throughout the season, my friends and I recognized that we were also a good team, one of the better sides in whatever peewee league governed our weekly contests. Everyone batted over .500, a menagerie of veritable all-stars, led by our most valuable player, the batting tee. Nobody ever struck out, and singles were common place, extra base hits, less so. Baseball even in its easiest form adhered to its ancient laws. What distinguished us from other teams was a core of strong hitters, capable of lifting the ball well beyond the infield dirt. Carried by those diminutive Caseys, we rarely lost, to just two teams in the league, and only one with enough consistency that they were considered worthy rivals, not that we considered them to be worthy, just rivals. One team wore mustard yellow, and our most hated foe, maroon. There was another club that made up in style what they lacked in substance and took to the field resplendent in proper baseball uniforms, whereas every other nine donned only a baseball shirt and the all-important hat. Remarkably, since this was no pitch, and at season’s end, slow pitch ball, whoever stepped into the batter’s box had to wear a helmet.
I am certain that we had a team name, something like the Bears or the Wolves or some other predator appropriate to an Alaskan club, but this is yet another detail that eludes me. The only words stenciled across our backs denoted the name of our sponsor: 1st Natl Bank. Children are blissfully unaware of irony, and sometimes it takes the passage of years for the wit of the universe to reveal itself. In this instance, my own team’s moniker is lost to the ages, but the team that my younger brother invented in order to assuage his keen sense of envy and boredom at every game and practice that he was required to attend without actually playing is writ large: the Weasels. This fantastical organization never played a game, nor did my brother, but their survival is assured in large measure to a theme song, “The Weasels, they are really keen, the Weasels, you know what we mean, the Weasels, they will never lose, the Weasels never sing the blues…” The tune is catchy enough, and although the lyrics changed from day-to-day, I heard it incessantly on every drive to the park. I even sang along.
Every one of our games was played at the same field, a humble affair that seemed a thousand miles away from the familiar streets and yards of Bootlegger’s Cove, the neighborhood that most of us called home. I had no idea just how far away it actually was from my house until halfway through high school when I had occasion to visit, for the first time, the house of a schoolmate who would become one of my closest teenage friends. As it turned out, he lived on the opposite side of town exactly one block away from the park, had grown up there, and may very well have seen me years before during one of the games. At the time, I was gripped by a sharp, sudden awareness that I had been there before, and lo and behold, confirmation of the fact was quite literally, just around the corner. Even in so small a world as a childhood spent in Anchorage, Alaska, home plate eludes the modern precision of 61°12’23.70” North, 149°49’13.74” West, but the glories of satellite imagery have enabled me to peer into the past and share the contours of a brown diamond and the dusty wasteland of an outfield that shows it age, for once it was as green as the children who played there.
On either side of the corners, two long boxes appear to a heavenly observer, the dugouts. 1st National Bank always occupied the 3rd base line. This was our turf. Quite obviously, none of us chewed anything more carcinogenic than Hubba Bubba, but there had to have been a ribald atmosphere in our domain, if only the G-Rated antics of an after school made for TV special. I stake this rather grandiose claim on the one piece of clubhouse banter that has stayed with me through the years, probably because at the time it seemed rather edgy and dangerous. We were behind in runs. Batters were not reaching base, errors were proliferating in the field, and tempers were rising in the dugout. Names were being called, and given our age, it would not have been long before somebody was crying to their eternal mortification, those closest in age to babies are apt to look down on infantile behavior from heights far loftier than the span of their years. One of the kids, I cannot remember who, but certainly not one of the team leaders, grasped the situation, and spoke out against the name calling, appropriately, with reference to our real names. “George is just a George, Mike is only a Mike, Jay is a Jay, John is a John!” At which point, John piped up, “I am not a John!” Without missing a beat, everyone cracked up laughing. Trust baseball players to relish toilet humor. I would like to say that we went on to win the game, but I would be lying, maybe we did, I have no idea. What I do know is that I have never forgotten that innocent, off-color remark. Boys playing a boy’s game, oblivious to manhood, learning the basics in every sense.
Of that magical season, just one other memory, one other quote remains. For some reason, I was missing my glove before a game. My parents were out that evening, probably working late, because it was my next door neighbor’s dad who drove us to the game. His son was an overweight slugger who would later realize his full potential as a local bully, but at the time we got along well enough. Aware that my glove had gone absent without leave, his father, a man as lean as his son was not, retired to the garage and emerged with a battered glove that had clearly seen a lot of use. I must have looked at the mitt with some suspicion, even disdain, because when he handed it over to me, he put his hand on my shoulder, looked me in the eye and solemnly declared: “This is a good glove. It does not drop baseballs.” Reassured, I tried it on, and wore it all the way to the park.
The game was close, and as it was the policy of our coach to cycle us through the positions over the course of twenty-seven opposing at-bats, I played left field in the final inning. The action was remote, and in a less competitive game, my attention might have strayed. Not this time, and a good thing too, since there was no crack of the bat to warn me that the action was headed my way, just a swing, and the ball was up, up, up, driven impossibly high toward my parcel of the outfield. I had to run for it, in order to position myself just so, which was not really a problem because the ball had been lofted with such force that I had more than enough time to get beneath it. We had been taught how to target pop-ups, and I had fielded more than my fair share over the season: frame the ball with your glove, wait for it, and then close your hands around the catch. Never take your eye off the ball. Of this last injunction there was no doubt. I was transfixed. If a bird had flown overhead, it would not have surprised me had it blocked my view, for no ball that I ever caught had tried so hard to escape earth’s gravity. I was a little scared of it, so far away that it looked like the moon against the evening blue of a cloudless sky, but my thoughts were also of glory and the accolades of my peers. The ball was falling, looming larger and closer and faster with every passing moment. I kept my eye on the sphere throughout its decent, and then felt the familiar impact in the pocket of the mitt and closed my hand around the ball. My fingers touched, the glove snapped shut, empty. The trap had sprung a moment too late and its prey lay on the ground in front of me. The batter was safe. My moment of glory had been snatched away, taken by someone else who certainly has forgotten what I cannot. Excalibur was broken. The glove that never dropped baseballs was no more. Yet there was no time dwell on the catastrophe, the ball was still in play. Without further thought, I wrenched the offending object from the ground, and threw toward the infield, anything to distance myself from a few seconds before. Another batter was already taking his stance at home plate, and so the inning continued, the runs began piling up, the game ceased to be close. This proved to be a small blessing since we were in the field long enough for the tears to dry.
After the game, the opposing coach made a point of striding over to our dugout. He wanted to congratulate the kid who almost caught the ball. I was flummoxed that the guiding hand of our enemy saw fit to congratulate me for a failure, and I was at a loss to reply. Whatever his purpose, the unprecedented gesture helped soften my mood. None of my teammates gave me any lip, for the moment I was taboo. I suppose that I was spared teasing and recrimination because everyone who has ever played baseball has feared that ball, and everyone has dropped it, I just led the charge that day. Besides, I was usually a steady hand, and even though the cynical adult who writes these words is tempted to regard the coach’s gesture in a different light, “thanks for helping us win that game,” the boy understood that this was not the case.
If there was a championship series, 1st National Bank failed to make it to the show. We performed well enough throughout the remainder of the season, but our murderer’s row lost a lot of its punch when they took away our most valuable player. The transition from a batting tee to the pitched ball, even underhand, reminds me of the tragedy that befell certain shrill actors when the talkies swept away the silent screen. I have some sense that in the end, we lost out to one of our rival clubs, the jerks in yellow. Unfortunately, there was no wait till next year, not for me at least. Over the autumn, my persistent ear infections had gotten worse, and my parents, having heard that it was an effective remedy for my particular problems, signed me up onto a swimming team, the Anchorage Aquanauts. Aqua not would have been a more accurate turn of the phrase. I hated it. For the rest of my childhood, two hours a day, five days a week, I hated it. In their defense, I never needed another operation on my poor, scarred inner ears, but my days of playing organized baseball were over just as they had begun.
Everything else is the man attempting to recapture the boy’s game, and if my sharpest memory is of failure, so be it. For the rest of my days, I shall always hold onto that moment, the one before the ball is dropped, when it is catchable, and caught.