In the top drawer of my dresser there is a baseball. I have no idea where this particular baseball came from and there is nothing really special about it. It has the look of a stadium or fast food giveaway ball as it has both the Orioles Logo and Bank of America stamped on it. I’m pretty sure my stepdaughter gave it to me but I could be mistaken. It is just a baseball. It is a regulation ball made by Rawlings. It has a cowhide cover over a cork center weighing about 5 ounces. It is 9 inches in circumference and has 108 red double stiches holding it all together. The baseball has never been winged around the diamond or smacked off the outfield fence by an enthusiastic bat. There are no scars or scuffs on my baseball. It is just a baseball that lives in my dresser drawer.
Sometimes, like now, I take my baseball out. I grip it like a pitcher and try recreating the grip for a fastball or the curveball I could never throw. I even grip it like a knuckleball and toss the ball up for a bit to see if I can get the motion correct. I flip the ball into the air and catch it and just generally goof around with my baseball. I have always loved the fell and the look of a new baseball. Sometimes I take that baseball out and just toss it up and down while I am working and that baseball and I go drifting back.
We drift back to a dusty filed in the Eastport section of Annapolis. It is nine in the morning on a summer day and already groups of boys are gathering in that field. It’s a grubby collection of boys ranging from 8 to maybe 12 years of age. They are wearing whatever jeans were on sale on Britts Department store, JC Penney or Sears. There are no cleats or fancy shoe wear and PF flyers and Ked’s rule the day on our little field of dreams. I am there with my dirty old glove and trusty bat. I am enthusiastic about the game and love playing it. I am not very good at this game but I do love it so. I can’t hit for shit although since I am ambidextrous I am equally awful from both sides of the plate. If I get a pitch right in the sweet spot of my swing when batting left handed I can drive a ball a little ways so no one ever throws it there. On the rare occasion I pitch the game turns into home run derby time. I can play the field without embarrassing myself and I’m pretty fast for a little guy so I am not a total liability. We will be in that field until dark if our parents let us.
On days when there were not enough kids to get up a game a few of us would grab the Wiffle Ball gear and head for the back of the Harbor House Apartments. Off the wall was a home run and only one kid could hit it. He hit it every time he came up to bat. Needless to say that kid was not me. None the less we played until the folks down the third base line had to be sick of the sound of a plastic ball whapping off the sliding glass doors and little boys arguing strikes and foul balls. When there was no bigger game in the filed we were behind the projects playing a version of baseball with rules and quirks know only to us.
The feel of that ball in my hands with fingers properly aligned for my lightning fast 25 mile an hour fastball and I can recall as if it was yesterday being in the back yard with a pitch back net. The net was stretched on an aluminum frame with springs and had a strike zone stitched in the middle. When no one else was around, or far more likely I was grounded for some nefarious crime against parenthood, I would spend hour upon hours pitching to that machine and chasing down the returns. I was Palmer, Ford, Gibson or McNally on the release and Brooks, Belanger and Mantle on the return. I have no idea what my mother spent on that damn thing but it was the best deal she ever got on a toy.
Tossing my pristine baseball gently into the air watching the spin of the seams through the air and I am carried back to my basement room in the house on Boucher Avenue. I can almost feel those little white plastic earplugs on my highly prized hand held transistor radio. I would lay on the bed and listen to Chuck Thompson call the game aided by legendary stadium announcer Rex Barney. Those earplugs drowned out the sounds of a marriage that never should have happened coming to its harsh ending over a period of a couple of years. The sounds of the Orioles whipping the snot shit out of the Tigers, the Yankees, and the hated Boston Red Sox frowned out the yelling, the tight voiced arguments and occasional breaking of dishes or whatever else Mom chose to wing at her husband that night. Listening to the White Sox, The Indians, The Angels and The A’s go down in ignoble defeat could help you forget your sister was in the hospital with yet another asthma attack. You could escape it all as Buford , Blair, Robinson F, Boog, Robinson B, Johnson, Etchebarren/Hendricks, and Belanger used superior fielding skills and fierce bats to smote the evil opposition. Palmer, McNally and Cuellar befuddled and dispatched the opposing batters and Eddie Watt would close it out of they got tired from tossing all those strikeouts. I wasn’t supposed to stay up listening to those games but my mother let me have my little escape from it all and at some point during the night she would take those plugs out of my sleeping ears and place that little radio on the dresser. That radio had the most amazing batteries too. I had it for years and the batteries always worked and never needed changing. One suspects Mom had something to do with that as well.
As I recreate the motion of throwing across the diamond to nip the runner at first with my baseball I can remember the first time I went to a game. My friend Billy’s dad took us and no supplicant ever approached the altar of St Peters in Rome with the reverence and awe which I entered Memorial Stadium for the first time. The grass was breathtakingly green and the stark white of the baselines is etched in my mind still. Right there on the field in front of us were the Gods, legends and heroes of my youth. Andy Etchebarren hit a home run and Palmer outdueled Louis Tiant for the win against the Indians and I do not think my feet touched the ground for a month.
My baseball and I can fast forward too. We can go all the way up to 1983 to the one and only baseball game my father and I ever went to together. We were estranged for many years and not reunited until I was in my late teens. My own travels and misadventure kept us apart for several years as well but I was back from my travels and misadventures and living in Baltimore. Dad was pretty sick by then and didn’t get around so good but he scored tickets to a game that season of Orioles Magic. We sat in the first row of the upper deck and watched the Orioles come from behind in the bottom of the ninth with six straight singles to win the game. It was the only baseball game I ever went to with my dad and I still remember it well.
A few months later as Cal Ripken caught the last out to vanquish the Phillies and win the World Series I reached for the phone to celebrate with my Dad. He didn’t answer and my joy of the victory was tempered by the fact that he never would again. He had died just a few weeks earlier and we would never go to another game or talk baseball while catching a game on the television. But I have that one game and I will treasure it forever.
My baseball and I like to visit 1984 as well. My daughter was born of May of 1984 and a more unprepared scared shitless,”what the fuck to do I do with this thing” father you have never seen. Fortunately there was a bus that stopped right outside my east Baltimore row house that dropped me right at the stadium. I packed that stroller up many times and just took her to the game, diaper bag in tow, to watch the Orioles. It was on such an adventure that I learned that no matter how exciting the game you cannot just give the baby more bottles in the heat and sun when she cries. Bad things happen when you do that and then pick the baby up after the game. The upside is that when you are covered in baby puke in the heat finding a seat on the bus is not much of a problem.
We can fast forward some more to the little league fields of Arnold Maryland watching my son play ball. He was so much better than I ever was and I loved watching him play. He was all legs and elbows but had the range and glove to play shortstop like a little Belanger. He could pitch a little too when called upon. He was a tad erratic. When he was on he was a strikeout machine. When he was off he hit every batter he faced. On the upside he rarely walked anyone. Tommy wasn’t a great hitter but he was far better than his father ever was at the plate. Eventually girls, video games and other distraction of the teenage years took him away from the game but my god I did love watching my son play baseball. In my mind’s eye I can still see his bony lanky form drifting over to snag a grounder at short and start the double play.
I made my daughter play softball one summer as well. She had a skill set a tad below her brothers. She couldn’t hit, was afraid to catch the ball and ran like a very slow turtle. But Lisa tried and even made a few plays and accidentally got a base hit once. The other girls on the team were incredibly supportive and I can still see her with her multicolored braces and early teen awkwardness in her Arnold Orioles uniform giving the game a try for dad’s sake. She declined the opportunity to play the next year.
My baseball sparks more recent memories as well. I think about taking my wife and stepdaughter to a game right before we got married. Maeve still wasn’t too sure about this whole stepfather thing but she had a ball at the game and just maybe figured out that the whole thing wouldn’t be so bad after all. Anyway she stills has the bright orange oversized foam finger around here somewhere so it was not an entirely horrible experience. She and my wife have learned to tolerate my addiction to the worst baseball team in the American League East and try not to laugh too hard at me when I am watching the games during the summer. I am pretty sure Maeve even gave me this baseball I sit spinning randomly in the air while sitting at my desk and she made me the Baltimore Orioles Build a Bear that sits on the bookshelf. Perhaps I am not the most evil stepfather in the history of the world after all.
Tommy and I catch a game or two together every season these days as well when time allows. He is busy climbing the ladder of success out there in the world it is nice to slow things down for a bit on a sunny summer’s eve and head to Camden yards. It is a chance to knock back a couple of years and enjoy the bonds that baseball has built between fathers and sons over the decades. Lisa comes along once in a while but she I suspect she doesn’t have the love of the game her brother and I do and is merely indulging us for the price of free beer. Erin and I have caught a game or two over the past two years, although again she is mostly indulging her strange little husband’s love of the silly damn game.
It is just baseball I keep in my dresser. Sometimes I take that baseball out and toss it around and grip it like the major league ballplayer I never was except in the backyard with my pitch back net. I think of the lessons of the game that have translated to my life. Practice often. Run out grounders. Don’t spit in the dugout. Always hit the cutoff man except when you a play at the plate. Watch for the signs. Sometimes a bunt is better than a home. Sometimes it’s not. Keep the ball in front of you. Know the pitch count, how many outs there are and what base the runners are on. Back up first.
As I grip that baseball I think of that little boy in torn dungarees and the amazing journey his life has turned out to be. I think of the people I love and the moments we have shared along the way. I recall the joys of being at a game with friends, enjoying a few beers and the greatest game in the history of the world (in my opinion anyway). I think of my kids and my wife who indulge my baseball addiction and all we still have to experience together as a family (including the Orioles World Series games we will be attending together very soon) and how blessed and lucky I am to have them in my life. As I watch my little baseball roll across the desk after my latest error I think of all the magic of life and the pure joy that being alive can bring.
It just a baseball I keep in my dresser drawer. There is nothing special about it at all.
I think I’ll keep it.