JM 4-10 Column

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 14, 2004

No politics. No community problems. No justification for jokes. Just a ride back to the park when nothing smelled better than the stench of a sweaty baseball cap.

Earlier this week, mom called to inform me of the family’s Easter plans. As usual, I informed her of the trite addiction to work.

During the conversation, mom gave me the weekly update on my two youngest siblings — both still in high school. Doug Jr., 16, had two golf tournaments this week. Keren Emma, 18, had just won a public speaking competition and finished second in a debate contest in Naples, Fla.

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With Emma’s performance in Florida, she now advances to a national competition in Charlotte, N.C., for which mother will provide the ground transportation.

“It’s really not a bad trip,” mom said. “I drove them last year.”

As frightful as the proposition might seem, mom’s pending trip to Charlotte got me thinking…

Nothing angered me more as a 10-year-old than mom’s fixation with losing car keys. Never mind that it was 3:45 p.m. and my baseball game wasn’t until 7:15 on Field B at Bowers Park. The tight pants were belted, both batting gloves were in the back pockets — fingers dangling at exact measurements — and the black magic marker had performed its pre-game ritual of staining the wristband with my No. 10.

Find the keys, for goodness sakes! We’ve got a ballgame tonight, mom.

If mom hadn’t arranged a carpool for baseball games, I normally nagged my way to the field at least two hours before game time. I needed to watch the YMCA groundskeepers chalk the lines. The infield had to be watered, and my supervision was required. Most importantly, my field position most nights — number 1 — required an extensive array of mental preparation before I took the mound.

In hindsight, I suppose the Y needed no extra supervision. And if I were forced to write a paragraph on my 10-year-old pitching philosophy, you’d get a blank page.

The reality, as experience would warn, was my infatuation with youth baseball. If I could have conjured a way to leave school at lunch and walk to the baseball field for a game at dusk, you can bet your sweet sunflower seeds I would have.

I cherished — still do today — the friendships I made kicking dust around the diamond. One of my old catchers, Eric Chandler, is a salesman who calls on Demopolis. To this day, Eric trumpets the notion that no better catcher graced the youth baseball fields of Tuscaloosa. As a guy who delivered wayward breaking balls to Eric for four years, I still agree.

Friendships inside the fences of the baseball fields have lasted a bit longer than the ones I tried to make outside of the fences. As a sprawling kid with a growing respect for the opposite sex, there was no better place than a baseball game to find the girls of summer. Most of them pretended to watch their brothers play. All of them smiled and said “Hi” when I struck out the best batter in the league. (That didn’t happen often.)

After friendships, nothing meant more than winning. During one season as a member of the Astros, I vividly recall the utter disdain our team felt for the Cardinals. Those guys — the modern day New York Yankees — had more all-stars than the rest of the league combined and didn’t understand the meaning of the words “salary cap.” If I had to guess, I’d say their coaches paid for pre-game massages and post-game dinners at Pizza Hut. We got pre-game lollipops and off-brand soft drinks afterwards.

Back then, we didn’t know the meaning of “politically correct.” Sure, we had rules for getting every kid in the game, but I don’t remember them. And I’m glad.

Coaches like Jerry Plott — one of my favorites who deals with too much nonsense these days on the Tuscaloosa City Council — wouldn’t admit, today, how much he wanted us to win. Joel Williams, Randy Smalley, the late Charlie Hughen and former Judge John Karr, all of those coaches tried to laugh off a loss as their players — including me — cried them off. They cared. Trust me.

As my mother planned another trip for another child’s extracurricular activities, most of the youngsters in our area began youth baseball this week.

Caring parents will spend the majority of the next few months sitting in hot parking lots. Coaches will rush away from work to exchange evenings at home for volunteer hours coaxing young boys to stay down on ground balls. And every adult will sacrifice personal time for an experience these kids won’t soon forget.

In some ways, I envy those kids. I miss the sunset over left field, the dirt on my arms and the stench of that sweaty baseball cap.

More importantly, I trust every kid out there builds the same friendships I built. And I hope — two decades later — they, too, will remember the name of every coach who made an impact on their lives.