15 Apr

Field of Dreams

Two boys and their field of dreams.

“One baseball field, two different dreams” on Philly.com (April 15, 2015).

Lying on the grass, heads perched on palms, the boys gazed through the chain link fence at the field before them. Older versions of themselves stood guard at their positions: adjusting caps, pounding fists to gloves, jawing on Hubba Bubba. An army of nine, ready to protect their turf.

Soon enough my boys would join their ranks. They would be the ones in the big leagues, standing tall as twelve-year-old boys and kings of their diamond domain. Baseball and boyhood are never better than at age twelve, a secret learned only long after one has retired from both.

At twelve, a boy darts from home at the crack of dawn, but just as eagerly runs toward it at the end of the day. The innings between seem to go on forever, for there is no time clock in baseball or in life. When one lives in the moment, the game is unending, for it makes the now eternal. Such is life at twelve.

For now, though, my boys could only watch and wait. At ages eight and four, the big leagues were still a few years off. In the meantime, they were sidelined to the smaller fields. Their dreams, however, were not.

I stood back, not so much watching the game before us as watching them watch the game.

The older of the two gazed intently. I did not need to guess what was going through his mind: the pitch count, the box score, where the ball would likely land, what the pitcher should throw, when the man on first would steal. “I’m gonna play on that field when I get big!”

Baseball is his life, and has been since his tiny fingers first fondled the stitches of a baseball. All his heroes wear numbers on the back of their shirts, and he collects their life stories in countless playing cards strewn about his bedroom. He follows their every move, falling asleep to the radio’s play-by-play each summer eve, and spending his days replicating those moves in the backyard.

The mechanical double-call of dads brought me back to the game:

“WAY TO FIRE, WAY TO FIRE!”

“GOOD EYE, GOOD EYE!”

“AT-A-BOY, AT-A-BOY.”

“LOOK ALIVE, LOOK ALIVE.”

A CRACK cut short the bleacher’s broken record, and a sharp line drive came our way, dropping in the gap in right-center. The centerfielder sprinted toward us, cut the ball off just before it could reach the fence, then turned and hurled it to second.

Stand-up double.

And a little front row action for the boys, hands still perched on palms.

It was not so obvious what the younger of the two was thinking. While his brother hit fly balls in the backyard, the four-year-old would be cutting that very same yard with his plastic lawn mower. Each hour spent by one at play was matched by the other at work. The lawn mower was followed by a toy weed-whacker, followed in turn by a rake to collect the imaginary clippings. While one collected calluses from a wooden bat, the other did so from shovels, shears, and spades.

What was he thinking? The little one did not keep me guessing long.

“Dad,” he said, jumping up and clutching his fingers around the chain link fence as he peered through.

“What’s up?”

“I’m gonna mow that field when I get big!”

I laughed, and then smiled.

Two boys. Two dreams.

They’ll make a good team, methinks, each making the other look better.

25 Jan

Harry

I am sitting, reading. My four-year-old son is likewise sitting, playing.

He glances up and looks at the man on the cover, reflections of whose life are held within.

“Why did Harry Kalas die, Dad?” he asks.

I fumble over my reply, “Well, he was a little bit old… and it was time for him to go to heaven.”

My son responded with another question, but one that told me he had it all figured out already.

“Is Harry in baseball heaven, Dad?”

I smiled, looked at the man on the cover, and nodded.

The boy was right.

Baseball heaven, where spirits play in a field of dreams and the sounds of summer echo for eternity.

30 Sep

For the Love of the Ball

"Little Champion"

Illustration by Dewey Saunders

Fathers, sons, and lessons learned…

“For the Love of the Ball” (Main Line Today, October 2009) 

Early on in my eldest son’s life, Michael decided he wanted to be a ballplayer when he grew up. Signs of his intended vocation came from the start.

Instead of sleeping with a furry teddy bear at night, my wife and I would often find him clutching something a bit less cuddly and snuggly—say, a basketball or football. Or we’d find him sound asleep in his pajamas with a Phillies cap perched on his head.

Sports were his world, and they still are.

“You have a good sleep?” I would ask him each morning when he was 2. “Have any dreams last night?”

“Yeah,” he’d answer.

“What about?”

He’d then provide a litany of sports that ran through his head as he lay in bed at night. Basketball. Football. Baseball. Soccer. Hockey. Lacrosse. Jai alai.

Yes, even jai alai.

It was the same every morning. But with so many sports, which would he settle on? It seemed like them all.

From the moment he could walk, he gravitated toward basketball. For two years, he stood in front of the net in our driveway and tried to make a basket with one of those bouncy balls you find caged up in the supermarket. Staring at the rim, the pint-sized boy would throw the ball skyward. For two years, he missed, but he got a bit closer each time. And with each throw, he fully expected to make the basket.

I remember the morning it finally went in. He watched the ball swoosh through the basket and then turned with a big smile to see if anyone else had witnessed this momentous event. His wasn’t a look of surprise, but rather joy. He knew the ball would go in; it was just a matter of when. I was fortunate to witness it. From then on, he refused to leave the court on a missed basket.

Soon he traded the bouncy ball for a real basketball, and our kitchen floor became his court. Heck, the whole world became his court.

Basketball wasn’t his only love. I remember him playing blocks one afternoon, glancing up at the television and seeing a hockey game. His eyes lit up. He knew he wanted to play it, but he couldn’t quite wrap his mind around what it was players were chasing and hitting.

“What’s that, Dad?”

“That’s called a puck, Michael.”

After the first icy snowfall of that winter, he dragged out a hockey stick and a net. His little body too light to break through the surface, he skated around the yard in his boots, hitting slapshots, wristers and backhands.

So it went through the seasons, as he traded one sport for another. Breaking his leg at age 1 while trying to do a trick with a soccer ball. Throwing a football in a perfect spiral at 2. Switch-hitting at the plate a year later.

Watching my son on the field and court has taught me much. Perhaps most important: You can achieve anything with practice, patience, fun and faith. After all, what takes more patience than a toddler looking up at a basketball rim and waiting for the day he’s big enough to make a basket?

Practice, patience, fun and faith—not a bad formula for life. My son has indeed taught me much on the ball field. And seeing as he’ll be turning 4 this month, there’s still much more for me to learn.

04 Sep

Farewell to Veterans Stadium

“Vet memories get him back to the old ball game” in the Philadelphia Inquirer (September 4, 2003).

After the 1994 strike, I pretty much stopped watching baseball for almost a decade. I was turned off by the constant power struggles between owners and players, the quips and sound bites from Barry Bonds and the like complaining about paying local taxes, and the renaming of ballparks for condiment manufacturers and office supply stores. As the green of the fields gave way to the green of the sponsors, I fled.

There’s nothing like the pouting of millionaires and the destroying of tradition to disenfranchise an entire sport.

Way back in 1971, a revolutionary stadium came to life through the support of the city it called home, the ball clubs it housed, and the taxpayers it would seat. It was something the whole region could rally around, and ownership fell under the umbrella of “Philadelphia” – from residents to city wage earners and from players to owners. It belonged to all, and its name reflected the deep sense of tradition that is so much a part of baseball: Veterans Stadium.

Not a bad little name for a ballpark, was it? It was a place where history was made, tradition was celebrated, and memories were created. Granted, I was four years from even being born when Larry Bowa made that first hit, a single, at Veterans Stadium on April 10, 1971, but that doesn’t prevent me from cherishing its history.

I don’t know how old I was when my father took me to my first Phillies game at the Vet, but I remember the experience as if it happened yesterday. Like a first trip to the circus, it was one of wonder, mystery, and magic.

I remember walking up ramp after ramp as we headed up toward the general admission section. That voice I had heard in the background on televised games, Dan Baker, the stadium voice of the Phillies, was announcing the starting lineup; I remember smiling. After each player was announced, there was a roar from the crowd. It seemed deafening to my young ears, and I smiled even more. Televisions on the concourse level showed Harry Kalas, Richie Ashburn and the rest in their pregame banter. The smile growing, I remember thinking, “Those guys are actually somewhere in here!”

Then the ramps ended. The 700-level was reached, and I had my first glimpse of that wonderful field of dreams. The lights were brighter than they ever would be, the field was greener than it ever would be, and the crowd was louder than it ever would be. A kid from Drexel Hill, just 8 or 9 years old, I had stumbled upon heaven.

Right down there in front of me, were the heroes I watched on television each night. Here were the guys whose baseball cards I guarded with my life. There was the box behind home plate where Harry and Richie called the game. There was the Phanatic dancing on the Phillies’ dugout! Here they all were – in real life!

Over the years that initial bonding experience with Vets Stadium only grew stronger. Whether in person, on television, or through radio, I accumulated countless memories. Michael Jack’s 500th, and later his retirement. Glenn Wilson pegging runners out at first base from right field. Terry Mulholland’s no-hitter. Ricky Jordan’s first-at-bat home run. Dave Hollins getting plunked by yet another pitch. Bobby Dernier’s inside-the-parker. Game 7 of the ‘93 National League Championship Series.

Aside from the 1993 season, I am sure my die-hard years as a devoted Phillies fan (1985-93) aren’t envied by many. It seemed like a decade of struggling to climb out of the National League East division’s basement. Such was my fate as a Gen Xer. Despite all that, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Because of that first trip to Veterans Stadium, every memory that followed was special. Then came the strike…

I didn’t enter the stadium again until opening day this final season. I needed to revisit my old friend before she was laid to rest. Perched up in the general admissions section, I again experienced the stadium, and was reminded that the magic, and the memories, live on.

So long, Veterans Stadium, and thank you. You will be missed, but the ghosts of Broad Street and Pattison Avenue will continue to cheer – and, of course, boo – you.