Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Baseball Fan?

It seems to me there are plenty of people around who want to be arbiters of who is a true fan. In Chicago you hear the true fan discussion a great deal.

"If you don't sit out in the frozen Tundra of Soldier's Field and like it, you are not a true Bear's fan."

"If you haven't sat out in the bleachers at Wrigley field all summer, you are not a true Cubs fan."

"True Sox fans don't just come when the team's in first place."

On and on it goes. I am not sure why, but people like to exclude people from groups at one time and include them at other times. Everyone has their own ideas.

Growing Up Baseball

When I think of being a baseball fan, it is often without thinking of a specific team. I believe I became a true baseball fan growing up. When I was growing up in Chicago, we would walk up to Kennedy Park and play baseball hour after hour, day after day in the long hot summers. Only swimming and meals would interrupt our play.

In the early morning before all the neighborhood kids gathered, my brother and I might play catch in front of the house. When a third kid showed up, we'd play running bases. After all the guys got together, we'd head over the park and play baseball until lunch then go back and play until dinner. We'd head back over to the park after dinner and play some more, but if we didn't have enough players for a game, we'd play home run derby or "500."

The only activity that competed with baseball was swimming -- especially in the dead of summer. We were lucky to have a pool at Kennedy Park, so many times we would swim and then play ball--or play ball and then swim.

Little league was fun. You had uniforms, coaches and a nicer field to play on plus there were always enough players for all the positions. But the Little League season was short and the games were not nearly as much fun as our regular "sandlot" games.

When we were kids, we never excluded other kids from our games, but we expected guys to play regularly because there was a certain chemistry to those games. We knew each other in every way and we knew the fields, the grass, the trees, the base paths, and the water fountains. We played in the same corner of the park for many years and for us that little corner was our natural setting. Between games, we would sit on the grass under a tree and talk about everything from astronauts to our neighbor's Studebaker. We'd kid each other, tell stories and just "goof around."

In our neighborhood, our baseball rules were so well known and accepted that we seldom argued over a play. If you were out and didn't believe it, every kid on the field would tell you so regardless of whose side they were on. Most of the time we had about 8 to 12 guys to field two teams, so we played "right field out" and when a lefty came up, we'd play "left field out." We pitched slow so everyone could hit the ball. We made spectacular catches that will never be seen on video tape. When we pulled the ball down the line, pounded the ball over the outfielders or poked the ball into the holes it was all for that one moment in time.

When we went home, we went home to a modest existence. Most kids had a bedroom that was so spartan it looked like a monk's cell. It was often shared with other siblings. You had a small bed or bunk bed, a few pairs of underwear, three or four T-shirts, one pair of sneakers, and maybe two pairs of jeans. In a closet you had a few games. No bedroom TV, no stereo, no computer. You could find everything you owned in about 30 seconds. It was easy to find your baseball cap, mitt and bat -- your "equipment."

We loved our equipment and often it was among our most treasured possessions. We knew our mitts about as well as our pillows. Our bats and baseballs were sacred. If a bat cracked, we taped it until it split apart. If a cover fell off a ball, we had white surgical tape or black electrician tape that we wrapped it up in - over and over. We hunted up extra balls on Saturday mornings by the railroad tracks closest to the baseball diamond where sometimes foul balls would land and get lost in the deep grass at practice the night before. Kids got new bats and balls for birthdays and special occasions. Most kids had maybe two mitts in their lifetime.

We played baseball seven days a week and never got tired of it. We all collected baseball cards and on days when few kids were around, we would listen to our heroes on the radio and play "off the steps" out in front of my house. We'd call the play by play as we threw the ball into the worn down angles of the wooden steps in front. The ball would most often shoot out as a "grounder" towards the street at the opposing player. Once in a while the ball would arc up over the fielders head onto the other side of the street for a home run. Some days it was Ernie who hit it. Other days it was Billy Williams or Ron Santo. We'd sit down for a tall glass of Kool-Aid after the game just long enough to catch our breath before the next game.
When we got much older, we would sit on the same steps after a softball game and drink a cool beer.

When someone asks me whether I am a baseball fan, I never know exactly what to say. My connection to baseball is more personal than being a fan. I don't follow the teams as well as many people or attend games as often certainly, but I am one of those people who is linked to baseball for life. It will always be a part of me because in many ways, baseball was a very good friend to me. You don't forget your friends.
Copyright 2009 by Sporting Chance Press, Inc.

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