Saturday, May 21, 2016

Baseball’s why God gave us grandchildren.

It doesn’t feel like spring yet in Wyoming but it is. How can you tell? Because it’s opening day for children playing baseball. They only do that in the spring. No less an expert than the late Major League Baseball Commissioner Bart Giamatti said so in his famous poem about the game. “The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again.”

For grandparents, baseball “begins again,” as their grandchildren begin playing ball.

This spring our family is part of the Great American Pastime. We’ve joined hundreds of grandparents in a timeless ritual. This year it’s our grandchildren’s turn to learn to play. My grandson is six years old. It’s the beginning of a long career leading to the majors. Well, who knows but it is a family tradition. 

My dad, his siblings and their parents were migrant farm workers. Summers and falls were for working the fields between Texas and Colorado. But springtime was for baseball. Dad was good enough to play semi-pro ball and the love of the game never departed his soul.

Baseball was in his DNA and genetically passed along to his children. Baseball was an important part of our lives. We played Little League, collected baseball cards religiously, and sat down as a family to watch the “Game of the Week” each Saturday. It was the only baseball game televised in those days. With no team in the Mountain Time Zone, it was also the only chance we had to actually see Mickey Mantle, Roberto Clemente, Warren Spahn or the others. We leaned more about math from analyzing their statistics than we did in school.

In the old days, there weren’t a gazillion playoff games before the World Series. The first place team in each league played in the World Series, which ended before the snow began falling.

Those were the days before Major League Baseball became addicted to the big money television contracts. Back then, the World Series was played during the daytime. School classrooms stopped what they were doing so that teachers and students could watch every game.

During the early days of our childhood we lived in a small house on 17th street in Cheyenne next door to a vacant lot. It was our baseball field. Each day after our dads got off, we played a sandlot game lasting until the sun fell so low the hitter couldn’t see the pitch. 

It was our “Field of Dreams.” If you shared the experience of playing ball with your father, you, like I, got a little teary as Kevin Costner’s movie character Ray Kinsella recognizes the ghost-like figure standing at home plate is his long departed father John. Ray regrets the two, like most sons and fathers, had unresolved issues when John died. Those issues dissolve as father and son get one last chance at a game of catch. The emotional scene leaves us all dreaming about what it would be like to play one more round of catch with a long-departed father. “If you build it he will come.”

Baseball’s why God gave us grandchildren. We get another shot at the game. We watch them and remember what it was like to don the uniform that makes you part of the team and head for the diamond. We watch them work with a coach, realizing suddenly the game doesn’t come naturally. It has inexplicable rules. You can overrun first base but not second or third. A foul ball is a strike except when you already have two strikes. Forget teaching six year-olds the intricacies of force-outs. That’ll come later as will hitting the cut off man.

There are only two purposes now. One, make sure these kids like the game, have fun, learn sportsmanship, and want to come back next spring. The second is about grandpa’s heart. Baseball, Bart Giammatti’s poem claims, “breaks your heart.” He was wrong. My heart certainly didn’t break watching my grandson walk onto the field of his dreams on opening day.

“Play Ball!”

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