pink peony

pink peony
old-fashioned peony

Friday, October 11, 2013

My Best Season

It’s Autumn, and that means baseball. I know, for many of you Autumn equals football. But here in the Midwest, for millions of Cardinals fans, a new season has just begun. Postseason! The Cards manage to get there often, and it gives us the thrill of the year when they win a postseason game. We all suffer from the same heart condition. I’ve said if I ever need heart surgery, the doctor will get quite a surprise when he opens me up and sees a strange sight. For, quite simply, my heart is round, covered in dirty white leather, sewn up with red stitching. After years of nerve-wracking games, the stitching will probably have come undone.

National anthem
Fans all have their own rhymes and reasons for loving the Cardinals, often going back to childhood. That’s true for me. My dad was the consummate Cardinal fan, as well as being a good baseball player. Mom says I love it so much because baseball games form my earliest memories. When I was just six months old, my folks were living in Springfield where Dad was finishing up college. He was part of a mixed-bag team from home (Gainesville) who traveled around to neighboring towns for games all summer. Their car was an old jalopy Dad had put together when he was in high school, an old rattle-trap with no top, and it wasn’t at all dependable. But they were young, didn’t know better, and would head from Springfield down to Thayer or West Plains or Alton so that Dad could play ball with the hometown team. As they drove back to Springfield, long after dark, Mom would hold six-month-old me close, cross her fingers, and pray that the car would hold together. I guess it did.

When battery-operated transistor radios became readily available, I received one for Christmas in the early 1960s, but I soon learned there was an ulterior motive behind that gift. Come summer, Dad would claim it, stick a piece of tinfoil on the antenna and take it out in the backyard to listen to afternoon games. Static kept him moving around, trying for better reception, but he could make out the voices of Jack Buck or Harry Carey describing the absolutely heroic pitching of Bob Gibson, the superb infield play and hitting of Ken Boyer, and the final glory days of Stan the Man Musial, a hero to all of us. Dad would sit out there for hours, smoking cigarettes in the sun, sometimes with the little box pressed to his ear to hear better. He’d groan when things went poorly, smile with each good play, and when it was dramatic, he’d holler out loud, cheering his team on from the Ozark hills. I wonder if those guys knew how closely we followed them from afar.

Grandad teased me about marrying a "Stan the Man,"and sure enough, his mom says he was named for the famous Stan. What a great role model Stan Musial was! And what a great baseball fan my Stan is!

Before Dad, it was my granddad who loved to play baseball, as a kid growing up in Gainesville and later in college. When he became a teacher and high school superintendent, he coached, and he remained a lifelong fan of the game. When he and Grandmother moved to Pasadena in the late 1940s, Grandad remained true to his hero, Stan the Man, and the Cardinals for a long time; but when the Brooklyn Dodgers moved west Grandad’s loyalty began to waiver. It wasn’t long before he adopted the Los Angeles team, and then there would be huge debates on their summer visits back home over the merits of the two teams and their players. 

While I went to games and listened to a lot of conversations about ballgames and absorbed some knowledge, I was never good at athletics of any kind; reading was my sport. But most kids could play softball, and I liked it, too, probably because of The Glove. I remember the absolute thrill of going to the Western Auto early one summer and carefully counting out the money I’d saved from my allowance, from selling pop bottles picked up alongside the road, and from doing chores for my granny – and coming home with my own softball glove. This magic piece of equipment almost promised to transform me into a player. It smelled so good, but the new leather was stiff and unwieldy and needed to be broken in. Danny Wade, my older and much wiser next-door neighbor, who was very good at baseball, knew just what to do. “Put it under your pillow and sleep on it,” he said. I took that as gospel and slept on that hard, stiff thing all summer. I also spent hours and hours throwing the ball up on the roof of our house and catching it when it rolled off, if there was no one around to play catch with me.

Just in case you aren't a Cards fan and need to know a bit of history -- this is a winning team!
We lived across the street from the school in our little town (population 300, give or take a few), and the dusty ball field was handy for playing a game of Workup. There were never enough kids around to have two teams, but you could play Workup with any number. I never even liked it when there were teams because I could be assured of being the last one chosen. My only happy memory of playing any kind of sport was one of those games of Workup.

It was a Sunday afternoon in Autumn, about like today, not too hot, sunny and bright, just right -- a really great day. But even greater than the weather was the fact that Louise Pace and Katherine Sims came home with me after church. Louise and Kat were both fantastic athletes. Kat could hit the ball a mile and run like the wind. She was pretty and blond, and all the boys liked her, so different from me, but we were still fast friends. Louise was not as physically strong as Kat, but she was all agility, quick and sure and could play the infield like a boy; Lou’s instinctive hand-eye coordination led her to eventually become a fantastic tennis player and a talented piano player. Both of my friends were good at whatever they did; I was just thankful (and surprised) they liked me.

On this particular Sunday, Ricky, Kat’s brother, came home with Larry Wade (Dan’s brother) from church, so we had a good bunch of kids for a game of Workup. I’m not sure, but I think the Tevebaugh boys came out, too, Billy and Jett. It all conspired to set an intimidating stage for me, because I know for an absolute fact that I was the weakest player there that day, which meant that I started the game in right field.

The sun was at our backs so I didn’t have the excuse of not being able to see if I didn’t make a catch. So when one of the boys hit a long, high, towering fly in my direction, my mouth went dry. Everyone turned and watched as I eyed that ball, all of them knowing I’d probably not catch it. The hitter was all the way to second when somehow, miracle of miracles, I put up my glove and made the two-handed catch. I stood there, stunned. I caught it! As I numbly moved to left (we didn’t have enough kids to have a center fielder), Louise moved from third to second (we were working up) and she came back, swatted me on the back with her glove and said, “Good catch, Ebie!”

It was the only praise I ever received, ever, for any sort of athletic move. But it was enough. I remember it clearly to this day, that feeling of belonging, being accepted, being one of the gang. “Good catch, Ebie” was enough praise on the ball field to last me a lifetime.

Fredbird, the Superfan
Now we’re eagerly awaiting the first game of the league championship series, with our beloved Cardinals in the postseason again, vying with our current enemies, the Dodgers, for the right to play in the World Series. It’s small-market baseball versus the metropolis, a classic in the making. I think of Dad and Grandad and how they would be enjoying this. We’ll watch in high definition on a wide screen, with nearly life-size images in bright color, and I think of that static-y old transistor that long ago transformed Dad’s listening pleasure. I think of Grandad playing for his college team in the 1920s, nearly one hundred years ago, and his lifelong love of a game that has seen some dramatic changes since he played. Grandad wouldn’t be able to fathom the things players do these days to be good, or the money they are paid.

Yes, lots of things about the game have changed, but surely some things never change. I hope kids still sleep with their ball gloves. I hope kids still throw the ball up on the roof to catch it. I hope every kid gets the chance to catch a well-hit, long, high fly ball once in a lifetime. And I hope, when she catches it, she has a good friend who says to her, “Good catch!”