Note from CM: When Michael Spencer discovered he had cancer, I made a deal with him. We set a goal — to try and go to a Cincinnati Reds baseball game in the spring. Sadly, the weekend I had set aside to go ended up being the weekend of his funeral. Michael died on April 5,2010, the day after Easter. At his memorial service, the pastor said he thought the iMonk might pass on Easter Sunday, and how fitting that would have been. After the service, I approached him and said, “Pastor, you know why he waited until Monday, don’t you? Monday was Opening Day, the Reds’ first game. Michael couldn’t go to heaven without one more baseball game.”
Apart from the grace of Jesus and the love of my family, few things have brought me more joy than the game of baseball. Today I will be in Chicago, watching the playoff game between the Cubs and the Milwaukee Brewers to decide the NL Central Division Championship. This essay was originally penned in 1996. Amazingly, the Cubs have won a World Series in the time since then. It may be too much to hope for this year, but I’ll be in my seat today, cheering them on.
• • •
Another Look: Take Me Out
One day this summer, I had the rarest of treats: a free evening. The kids were off staying with family or friends. Gail had an outing with some of her women chums from church. I was free! What would you do? I took in a baseball game.
Here in Indianapolis, we have a magnificent downtown stadium where our Triple-A team, the Indians, plays. Victory Field offers the best view of the downtown skyline available. It is one of those “new-old” stadiums that came into vogue after the Baltimore Orioles built Camden Yards — with outdoor concourses, seats close to the field, real grass, nostalgic decorations, along with modern conveniences, comfortable seats, easy access to concessions and services. The “bleachers” behind the outfield walls aren’t seats at all, but rather banks of grass where families can bring picnics and enjoy the game. There is an open, airy, satisfying feel about it all.
On this day, I arrived early, during batting practice, and discovered, to my delight, that one could stand in the outfield picnic area and retrieve balls hit over the wall. Only few kids were chasing them down, so I joined in and soon had my first-ever souvenir from a professional ball game. I stuck the ball in my pocket and schemed how to get some autographs for my son.
Next step was to buy a drink and a Baseball Weekly, take my seat in the upper deck along third base, stretch out and relax. There in the soft breeze, beneath late afternoon fair skies, I breathed deeply and scanned the paper while listening to some of the most wonderful sounds in the world — crack of Louisville Slugger on horsehide, smack of well-thrown ball in the mitt, banter of the boys of summer around the infield and batting cage.
I had forgotten how much I missed those sounds. A pretty fair pitcher when I was a kid, I quit after high school. It seemed right then, but occasionally, it’s a decision I regret.
In season at least, baseball was my life. Once, a teacher gave our class the assignment of making a collage depicting various facets of our lives. She made the mistake of assigning this project in March, just as spring practice was commencing. My collage consisted of dozens and dozens of baseball pictures, period. “Is that all there is to your life?” she exclaimed. Yep.
My folks tell of the time I was a tot, dressed in my Cubs uniform at the airport. I caused a large African-American cleaning lady laughing fits by proclaiming to her that I was Ernie Banks, the Cubs’ great black ballplayer.
I can still see the backyard lots in Galesburg, Illinois where I played (every day?). I lied to my parents and told them my watch stopped when they upbraided me for being late for supper. The Cubs once reached the lofty height of fifth place in the N.L. standings, and I can still hear Jimmy Sandberg screaming with joy as he ran over to our house with the paper in his hands to show me. Two of the older guys down the street had daily fast-pitch wiffleball games in their driveway, Yankees vs. Dodgers.
When we moved to the Chicago suburbs, the high mounds of dirt nearby from constructing our subdivision formed perfect stadiums for hard ball games. Driveways served as home run derby arenas for wiffleball warriors. The court on which we lived, sloping down to the next street, provided my dad with plenty of exercise as he chased my errant pitches when we played catch.
I played organized ball every year except for the summer between seventh and eighth grades, when exploding hormones made other things seem more important, like laying around the pool to talk with intriguing female creatures I’d never noticed before. But that was merely an aberration, a blip on the screen. Nothing, not even sex, could ultimately usurp the place of baseball.
And here I was, with an evening free. Take me out to the ballgame! All in all, it was a remarkably refreshing experience. I spent about five hours there alone in the crowd. The night stayed clear. Autographs were secured, hot dogs and nachos consumed. Pretty good pitching, a few close plays, a couple of home runs-our team won. I remembered again why I love baseball so much.
A few weeks earlier, I had taken my two sons, ages 8 and 5, to another Indians game. It was their annual baseball clinic night. They enlist coaches and players to give demonstrations of proper pitching, hitting and fielding techniques, then they invite the children to come down on the field where they get to run through some simple drills with their instructors. What I would have given for the chance to go down on a field like that when I was a kid!
I sent the boys down. Jesse, the older one, went out to the outfield to catch some flies. Isaac, who has not even started playing organized ball yet, went with him. I noticed some parents had joined their kids to help guide them around the stations, so I ambled down the steps, through the gate, and onto Victory Field.
Slowly I wandered up the baseline, looked around, and tried to take in my surroundings. A profound wave of longing and something like grief poured over and through me. For a moment I was stunned. I regained my bearings somehow and, finding Isaac, I led him to the infield and encouraged him to take some grounders from Don Buford, a player I had watched and rooted for as a kid in Baltimore. I shook his hand, thanked him for helping my son and told him of my youthful loyalty to his team. Pointing to one of the young Indians’ players, he said, “These kids don’t even believe I ever played ball.”
You did, Don. I was there.
Next day, the boys’ pictures were in the Indianapolis paper. A photographer had caught them while waiting to go on the field. He captured their personalities perfectly and provided me with a lasting reminder of not only my boys but also a deep part of my own life. Two kids in baseball caps, one with the bill half-chewed by the dog, gum filling their cheeks, chins resting on their mitts. It coulda been me. It was me. Now it was them. Genes don’t lie.
I stayed until the last out. Then, down the stairs, slowly around the concourse, through the gate. Eight or nine thousand other pilgrims and me, on our way home. A rare free evening well-spent.
Ernie, it was beautiful enough; we shoulda played two today.
Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack
I don’t care if I ever get back!
September 10, 1996