Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Game of My Life

     For about seven straight summers, from the day school got out until the day we went back, you could find me and my brothers behind our house playing together every day.  Living in a home on a hill situated along M-24, which is a state highway where cars always fly past at 55 plus miles per hour, we had no front yard options unless they involved counting blue cars that drove by.  But that was fine, because behind our house, we had place that was our own little field of dreams.  "Down the hill."  "Down the hill" meant only one thing to me and my two younger brothers:  baseball.

     My youngest brother Ean would have turned five the summer when I was nine, and by then, he could keep up with me and Aarin, our middle brother, nestled between us by about two years on either side.  I had no awareness or appreciation then for how much our summer pastime benefited my health.  All I knew, as a typical first child, was that I made the rules, and I had to win.  But it was our dad who made the whole thing possible.  Our space "down the hill" had a few large trees in it, so he situated home plate in the best place possible, all things considered.  A mighty maple occupied some of the space between first and second base, and third was right next to another, but it was a clear shot to home, where my father built us a backstop so that we wouldn't need a catcher (and probably so we didn't spend every June with a case of poison sumac).

     One of us would pitch, the other would bat, and the third would play "outfield," which meant standing anywhere behind the pitcher.  We took turns and used all of the skills our dad and the early years of organized baseball had taught us.  The area directly behind the pitching rubber sloped upward, which made fielding an adventure.  To hit a home run, one had to smack a fly ball far enough and high enough to clear the privacy fence that lined the property between us and our neighbors.  This set-up worked for about two or three years, until it became far too easy for us to send the ball over the fence during any given at-bat.  At some point, the combination of our unwillingness to go chase baseballs into the yard next door and the neighbor's distaste for three kids randomly appearing on their property became too much.  While some families would say, "Okay, enough baseball, just play something else," my mom and dad had a different response-- they bought black netting that was long enough and tall enough to keep (most) baseballs on our property.  It towered above the privacy fence and even extended further into right field so that balls hit in that direction and somehow weren't knocked down by the maple could now count as home runs.

     It was also around this time that I began keeping statistics on home runs and runs scored.  It makes it a lot easier to know if you are winning or not if you've got solid numbers to back it up.  Though the details escape me, I'm sure I had convoluted methods of determining how "ghost runners," the imaginary person who replaced one of us when we had pitch or field after getting on base, worked, and what counted as a home run to right field, where trees and the black netting necessitated something less standard than "it has to go over the net."  As the only left-handed batter, which is the only thing I'm a lefty in since I mimicked my dad when he taught me, it was particularly important to know what a home run to right field was.  Of course, despite my best efforts (or maybe because of them) there were arguments between the three of us.  And that was when it was just the three of us-- added into the mix was an ever changing line-up of children who were in my mother's charge as part of her in-home day-care.  Often there were at least one or two kids that were around our age and liked baseball, so on many occasions, our games involved four or five players.  We could have a first baseman!  I could stay on third after legging out that triple and hope my brother could knock one into the gap so I could score!  It was almost like real baseball.  

     But we didn't much care if we had teammates, or if it was just the three of us.  We just loved to play.  However, as time passed, we became bigger and stronger.  Cranking a ball over the net became too easy, and would be, at best, a hit to deep center field in our Caro Baseball Federation games.  Changing the distance between home plate and the pitching rubber meant walking up the slope and pitching downhill.  All of these things meant that, as fun as it was to play, it was no longer practical.  The summer before my sophomore year was the last one the three of us played on our makeshift field.  We still spent much of our summers competing with each other, facing off in basketball or a modified version of touch football, but the days of strike-outs, ghost runners, and home runs over the black netting were over.  I wish that we had known which day would be our last "down the hill," just the three of us.  I wish I'd realized it was the last time I'd stare down Ean and throw one inside to back him off the plate.  I wish I'd savored the final time I ripped Aarin's tricky curve ball to deep right, shredding maple leaves as it sped through the summer air.  Like so many "lasts," we didn't know we were experiencing ours until it was too late to properly appreciate them.

     My dad pointed out to me that all of these days spent playing, and my desire to win, sometimes at any cost, were a huge benefit to my health.  Daily exercise from playing "down the hill" was not only a fun centerpiece of my childhood, it was also just what the doctor ordered.  But at the time, I didn't see it that way.  I was just having fun with my brothers.

     We all have kids now.  And my son, quite fittingly, is the oldest.  When he and his cousins get old enough, we'll patch up the dilapidated back-stop, throw down some bases, and "down the hill" will come to mean "baseball" once again.  I can't wait to see them play, to sit back as my son makes up rules that will ensure he emerges victorious.  I'll even volunteer to keep be the stats keeper.

No comments:

Post a Comment