Memories of my baseball career

Did anybody else watch the Little League World Series over the weekend? Anybody with a life, that is?

Watching children play baseball is not something you’d expect to be my cup of tea. Usually, I’d regard it as several degrees of wholesomeness beyond what my cynical, misanthropic mind can handle.

True, there were several scary beanball incidents that normally would appeal to my dark side. And there was the pitcher who almost had his head taken off by a hard-hit comebacker, and the kid heading for home who had a throw from the outfield bounce wildly off his helmet. And, of course, the threat of a hurricane.

What appealed to me most, however, was the game of baseball itself, and the way these 12- and 13-year-olds played it with such joy. I defy anyone, even the most black-hearted among us, to not be moved by the sight of the winning U.S. team bouncing for joy, and the losing Japanese boys weeping in defeat.

It may be said that “there’s no crying in baseball,” but certainly that doesn’t apply to kids. (There’s also no touchdowns, dunking or exciting action in baseball, and yet still we watch it.)

Broadcasters went out of their way to humanize the youngsters. Along with stats like height and weight, the graphics revealed personal details such as favorite food, favorite TV show and favorite musical group. As surprising as it was to learn that one boy weighed in at only 74 pounds was the news that kids from Pennsylvania had heard of the Black Eyed Peas, and that the right-fielder from the Montana squad had access to chicken nuggets.

And I’m still trying to understand how a preteen pitcher from Aruba could possibly see the value of watching “Two and a Half Men.”

(Tip to Major League Baseball: How about letting us know big-leaguers’ favorites? What is Derek Jeter’s most-desired sex act? Tim Lincecum’s preferred conditioner? Big Papi’s favorite oil-exporting nation?)

I hope that the crushing defeat experienced by most participants doesn’t sour them on what should have been the event of a young lifetime. Organizing baseball, rather than letting it happen naturally in the playground, is risky business.

I remember my own years as a young baseballer with fondness, primarily I think because we played in an unorganized fashion. There was a little league, organized by the local Optimists Club, but I only participated long enough to learn I didn’t have the proper skill level (or, in the jargon of the times, that I “stunk”).

So instead of donning a uniform and pimping for sponsors/overlords like a local moving company, my friends and I took to the street in front our homes and made up our own version of America’s pastime.

There was me, there was my best friend Larry, there was the slightly older Lloyd, and there was chubby Ricky. We played barefoot on the asphalt of Miami’s lightly traveled N.W. 197th Terrace, using tennis balls instead of baseballs and a broomstick instead of a bat. Calling balls and strikes was replaced by the occasional call of “CAR!”, which would be our signal to step aside so traffic could pass.

Our diamond wasn’t diamond-shaped at all, but squeezed tight in the middle by the need to use mailboxes for first and third base. Home plate was a wad of gum baked dry and permanent in the tropical sun. Second base was a mound of rocks we had to reassemble every time a car passed over them. The outfield wall that defined a home run was the light pole in front of Ricky’s house.

Larry and Lloyd were the most skilled players and, as such, always tried to be on the same two-person team. Ricky and I were not bad; we just weren’t as good as the “L Boys” and would inevitably be defeated by something like 112-7 if we ended up on the same side.

The team playing the field would be comprised of a pitcher (who, our chatter insisted, couldn’t be an underwear stitcher) and an outfielder. The team on offense would have a batter up, while the other player served as catcher, unless one of us could round up a spare sister to play that thankless role.

Pitching was underhand when we started playing as 7-year-olds but later became overhand. Most hits were either singles or home runs. We didn’t have enough people to allow base-runners, so instead we relied on “Invisible Men” to occupy the base paths. There was no stealing (the Invisibles could be banned for trying), no balls, and no set number of innings to be played. When someone’s mom called them in for dinner, it was game over.

Occasionally, we’d expand our rosters to three players per team, but only when Larry’s friend Ernie was visiting from an adjacent neighborhood. Then, we’d stoop to allowing Larry’s older sister Donna to play, at least till our early teen years when she developed a mysterious lump in her abdomen which turned out to be an illegitimate baby.

We had favorite players and favorite teams, and showed our allegiance to these by “being” them.

“I’m Mickey Mantle,” Larry would invariably call, while Lloyd would transform from lanky Jewish kid to “Willie Mays” in an instant. As a Dodger fan, I’d anoint myself base-stealing king Maury Wills, despite the fact I was neither fast nor African-American. Ricky, a less imaginative kid, dubbed himself “Ricky.”

We played like this for years, never keeping any records or standings, consuming huge swaths of the summer like we’d consume hose water after hours of play rendered us nearly dehydrated.

I don’t remember an exact day when the games ended. The “L Boys” were both good enough to play organized sports, and gradually moved into these as we got into junior high. The athletic, good-looking Larry developed an interest in something called “girls” and, since I was not one of these, we gradually grew apart. I made up a dice version of baseball which I’d play in my room, or head into the backyard to play catch with the wall.

None of us ended up as professional athletes. I understand that Lloyd is a retired fireman in St. Pete. I heard that Ricky ended up as some kind of music executive. Larry became successful selling Texas real estate, and came closest to the majors through his son, a reserve outfielder for the Rays.

I tried a little intramural softball in college, then hung up the glove when I left Florida State. I tried playing some with my son, since having a catch with Dad has become an almost-mythic bonding experience. But the sport didn’t appeal to him as much as his beloved video games, and I eventually relented that yes, he could go back inside now.

As for the Invisible Men, I hear they’re enjoying successful lives as jet-pack salesmen, Sasquatch trainers, explorers of Mars and moderate Republicans.

All because of the positive influence of baseball.

From left: Larry, some kid, Ricky, some other kid, me, Lloyd and Ernie (not pictured: Invisible Men)

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