What to write? I know, I know, it has been a while since my fingers have graced the keys of my laptop. My apologies.
This week sparks to life a piece of my childhood that stays bottled up during the harsh winter. It is opening week of the baseball season. I know there are some of you who think that baseball is boring and nothing but millionaires scratching their crotch and spitting. Well, I can’t argue with you, but I would like to share what baseball is to me. Warning: if you don’t know baseball, you might get lost, but come along for the ride anyway.
Baseball is deeply rooted in my family history. My grandfather and his three brothers played ball, and they were the infield for Rock Creek, a team of farmers in northeast Nebraska. Baseball was important to them. In fact, when Leo (third basemen of the Raabe clan) got married, it happened to fall on the day of a championship game for the team. When those in attendance asked where the other brothers (Warren, Vern, and Marty) were, Leo explained that they had a ball game to play. Everyone was okay with it except for Leo’s wife-to-be, but hey, that’s baseball. Grandma used to tell stories about the four brothers and baseball. If Grandpa had told the tales, I probably wouldn’t have believed him, but Grandma was an honest, God-fearin’ woman. I had to believe her when she told me that Grandpa drove Vern home with a double off of Satchel Paige in the first inning of an exhibition game against the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues. Then she said that the boys didn’t hit a ball fair the rest of the game. Lost 9-1.Grandpa had a slot along a wall in a barn that held all the broken wooden bats from those days. I bet there was over a hundred; you can’t throw away history. I have one downstairs next to a three-fingered glove.
Dad pitched for Concordia College in Nebraska, and he claimed he would intentionally walk batters just so he could pick them off at first. He’s left-handed, and all left-handers are cheaters. Ask any right-handed baseball player who knows anything, and they will all tell you the same thing. You can’t trust someone who always wears their hat crooked. Dad spent hours in the front yard tossing tennis balls for batting practice. He was my little league coach and my high school coach. When I was in junior high, he was so focused on a big game we had, that he forgot to pick me up at a teammate’s house. Probably wouldn’t have been a big deal if I wasn’t the starting pitcher for that game. Life was different back before cell phones. I spent hours in the summer playing three-on-three baseball at Kingswood. Pitcher’s hand and right field closed. If we didn’t have enough guys, it was homerun derby or whiffle ball in the backyard. When it rained or we hit the baseball into the creek, we had Atari baseball, and later it was the Nintendo, but nothing beat the real thing.
I spent evenings playing pickle in foul territory at men’s slow-pitch softball games or chasing foul balls for popsicles at town team baseball games. I went to the College World Series as many times as I could. I watched the Cubs, but only because the Braves were the only other team with a station that we got through our cable. I was an Astros fan growing up (don’t ask, but Craig Biggio is the bomb), and I cried in 1988 when the cursed Mets ended a bases loaded threat in the bottom of the last inning to win the series, but I cheered when the ball bounced through Buckner’s legs because I am a National League guy, and I always will be. I don’t like artificial turf or the designated hitter, and I own Bull Durham and Field of Dreams.
I have seen baseball from all sides – player, coach, umpire, public address announcer, spectator. I know what it feels like to hit a game-winning homerun and what it feels like to give one up. I have been ejected from a game for telling an umpire that 10 was way too high for him to count, and I once had a coach tell me, “Please, throw me out of this game. I can’t sit and watch my team play any longer. Put me out of misery.” To which I responded, “If I have to watch this entire game, you are going to watch it with me.” And I have told players I have coached to find ammo for the radar gun, a box of curveballs, and the left-handed fungo. You have to love baseball.
I have cried as a senior finishing my last game, and I have seen players I have coached do the same. I have lost state titles and won them. I have learned that sometimes you get a lucky bounce and sometimes you don’t, but you still play the game. But when you play, you have to have fun, and the downtime, the friendships, the adversaries, van rides, bus rides, and the laughter are all just as memorable as the games themselves.
This week is a reminder of my past. Opening week in Major League Baseball is a sign. Winter is on it’s way out, and the boys of summer are back, and every little leaguer aspiring to play on the big field one day is off to get in a pickle at Dad’s softball game or break a window in their house with an errant throw or foul ball. (I did that one, too.)
Why do I tell you this? Not really sure… I guess it’s nostalgia. Baseball is a game that provided so much and taught me so many lessons. It is that time of year again, so take me out to the ball game.