Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Old Ballpark

In the eternal green pastures of my youth there is an old ballpark. Where all games were competitive, every day was Sunday, and there were no rain outs.

My dad had just finished cutting the grass when I noticed he was painting “Cubs Park” on the front of the corn crib. I ask dad what he was doing, and he replied that he was building a ballpark. I was only ten, but knew we lived out in the boondocks. Long before “The Field of Dreams” my dad believed that if you built a diamond, people would show up to play.
It was the park where at ten years old I was jerked out of the lineup for booting three balls in an inning. With my tear-stained face humiliated by having been jerked out of the lineup, I spent the afternoon glaring at the second baseman.

There was a backstop made of saplings and chicken wire about eight feet wide. It protected the ball from rolling into the dry creek bed that ran parallel to the field. The huge sycamore tree marked the leftfield foul pole. In the leftfield power alley a second dry creek bed marked the home run boundary. On the fly into the creek there was a home run (watch out for the snakes when retrieving the ball). Our ground rules were a little odd when it came to the centerfield to rightfield foul line. The boundary was marked by buried ceramic blocks. Outfielders were allowed to run beyond the boundary but anything that landed or dropped was considered home runs.  Dad made bases out of feed sacks filled with dirt: The field was ready for the games to begin.

It wasn’t long before the field was noticed, and we started playing both slow and fast pitch softball on Sundays. Family, friends, and strangers now stopped to play the game.

When I pass the field today, I often think of those times. I can hear the cheering, cussing, and the sound of the crack of the bat. Nature has reclaimed her field: It is now overgrown with weeds, saplings; the bases are occupied with field mice, rabbits, and snakes. The backstop is gone, no signs of any games ever being played. Now my dad is gone as are most of the older men who played those games.

The summer before my father’s passing we stood where the backstop once had its place, and looked over the field. Neither of us said a word. We just looked at each other and smiled.


The Pick Up Game

Long before PlayStation, video games, and 400-cable television stations occupied the time of a teenager, it was the time of sweltering monotonous Indiana summers, sun, and new friendships.

It was the early 70’s; my parents were divorced. Mom had just remarried, and we moved to town. We were pleased to find the neighborhood was loaded with kids. It didn’t take long to realize there were guys who liked to play baseball. The caps indicated their favorite teams. Taking a quick census I noted four Reds, four Cardinals, and one lone Braves fan in the mix. When they found out that my favorite team was the Cubs there was a collective sigh. The kind of uncomfortable sigh you might get when someone finds out you recently lost a loved one.

The call came early in the morning (9:30 is really early for a 12 year-old). It started with a simple “you guys wanna play some ball?” My brother told me to get my glove: We were invited to the pick-up game.

I donned my beat Cubs cap, and well worn-out Cubs t-shirt, while my brother wore his Pittsburgh Pirates t-shirt. We wanted to show these town boys that we were serious ballplayers. I grabbed the Mickey Mantle model my dad had given us: We were sporting the “latest technology” as aluminum bats were called.

On the way to Mr. Anderson’s field they informed us it was best to get in a couple of games before it was too hot to play. There were 12 or 14 of us with bats slung over our shoulders, and gloves on our hands. Mr. Anderson’s field was actually was a very large well-manicured lawn. He informed us with a kind but stern demeanor that we would have to alternate home plate as not to wear bare spots in his yard.  We accepted his terms.

Big Mike still suffered from the near-miss in the spring. He had launched a line drive down the right-field line, and straight through the window of Widow Jones. They were certain he had killed her.  Worse off he had to cut her lawn all summer to pay for the damages.

The neighborhood rules were addressed. The most important ground rule was the pitcher’s hand. You had to get to first before the pitcher got the ball in his glove. Hitting into the stand of trees was considered a home run. To this day I don’t think anyone got close. I would find out that it was a ritual to address the ground rules before the games could start.

And then came the time to address the picking of teams. The guys looked at me and my brother with suspicion as to whether we possessed any ability. On that first day, we were picked second to last. A couple of brothers without gloves or bats were picked after us.

We played until the sun became unbearable and called it quits for another day. We would walk a couple of blocks to the neighborhood grocery. While enjoying a cold soda or an ice cream, we discussed the prowess of our game, made fun of each other, and swooned over the high school girls who were regular sunbathers in our neighborhood. In a short time though the girls, cars, and jobs would win over playing ball...

A Game of Catch

In the mystic mists of my mind, baseball diamonds of summers past echo the sounds of long ago. A place where the baseball splits the humid Hoosier air, and voices of young men revel in the heat of summer. The pop of cowhide into leather is an announcement that a game of catch is underway.

Boys tend to remember a game of catch with their fathers, but for me it conjures memories of countless hours tossing a ball back and forth with my brother. Despite our sibling rivalry that exists to this day, I look upon those days with fondness. We were once told that if one of us caught a cold the other would catch it too.

I came to bat against him once with the bases loaded and nobody out. I dug into the batter’s box like the Mighty Casey, and awaited his first pitch. A high heater under my chin sent my backside into the dirt. As I dusted myself off I looked out at the mound – at my brother standing with a huge grin on his face.

In 1980, my brother was shot during an attempted robbery. I rushed home from my base in Germany to the naval hospital in OrlandoFlorida where he was stationed. He was in poor shape when I arrived. I didn’t know what to say. I was stunned by his condition. I told him: “Don’t worry - only the good die young.” He started laughing despite the pain and then proceeded to get the nurse to kick me out of the ward.

A couple of weeks later he was out of the hospital recovering at home. My leave was almost up, and he stepped into the living room with both of our gloves, and a ball. We could not toss it far because of his injuries, but I knew everything was going to be fine.

It has been thirty years since our last game of catch. I sometimes close my eyes and hear our barbs at one another as we toss the baseball. As brothers we’re very competitive, but I wouldn’t trade those hours of tossing a baseball that built a bond lasting a lifetime.

Sunday Morning With Lindsey Nelson

Former Senior Staff Writer

The first crisp Sunday morning of fall brings memories of long ago when the Notre Dame Fighting Irish rarely lost, and my cousin Tim and I relished in their victories. A simple time measured in the success of Notre Dame rather than our personal plight.
When times were hard but our family bonded tight.

Our Sunday mornings were filled the savory smells of frying eggs, grandma’s gravy simmering over on the stove. The call of her homemade biscuits baking would awake us from our sleep. Your stomach would begin to growl as the aroma drifted through the house.

Our grandparents did their best to help their two struggling daughters with seven children between them. My grandfather, who survived marching across France with Patton’s Third Army (a matter he rarely spoke of) would offer up thanks for God’s blessings. It was rare that a morsel was left on the table. It was a time of a lot of talk around the table, and no one needed to be encouraged to eat.

Following the breakfast, my grandparents were off to church. My grandfather was the pastor of a small country church. Dishes were done, and my cousin Tim and I settled in for the replay of Saturday’s Notre Dame football game. The telecasts would begin with Lindsey Nelson introducing himself “Hello, I am Lindsey Nelson.” To us he seemed like an uncle that was about to retell us of the game from the previous day. Unlike now, it was a time when we could only get three channels, and on a good day we could get Channel Six out of Indianapolis.

We would rush outside no matter the weather and begin to let our imaginations run wild with Notre Dame football. We had a well-worn football that was almost too slick to handle with our small hands from years of usage. We would toss the football all afternoon reliving the highlights of the game.

It was also the glorious time to follow the Notre Dame Fighting Irish under Ara Parseghian known as the “era of Ara.” In our minds, they never lost. On that rare occasion that Notre Dame would lose, we would run our plays that saved the game for the old Notre Dame. Occasionally, we would allow our brothers to participate, but not often. It was our imagination, our world. We were fans despite a high school kid telling us we couldn’t root for Notre Dame because we were not Catholic. It didn’t stop us. 

Notre Dame Fighting Irish football on those Sunday mornings was fuel for our imagination. No video games, computers or other gadgets kids enjoy today; just two boys, a football, and a free Sunday in football season.

We have gone our different paths in life. I enlisted in the Air Force, and my cousin Tim joined the Marines. I am quiet and reflective, and Tim is boisterous and quick to opinion. We were and are more than cousins: We are brothers. As I grow older, I fondly reflect on those simpler times and pleasures more and more often.

A Midwinter Night's Dream

My soul is trapped in a winter's maze. Arctic winds pierce my inner being. My face is glazed by a steady snow. I stare into the window of a summer past…

The heat takes my breath away, and humidity forces the slow trickle of sweat down my back. My hands are wrapped around a familiar bat. This familiar feel of wood bat in my hands... Rather than a strange feel of batting gloves – it is a touch unfamiliar to the player of today. Man and bat as one.

My spikes glisten in the afternoon sun as I tap them with my bat. The third base coach, a ghost from my past, flashes the sign. I grin: It is good to see the old coach again. He has been gone now for twenty odd seasons. I acknowledge the sign.

I step into the batter's box, to face my old adversary: the mound. He doesn't smile, he is known to me. He knows my strength and weakness. On many a summer's day he has had my number, but now, I arrive from the future with the knowledge of his game.

Old foe, I know your plan: a hard fastball to knock me off "your" plate. You will then start by moving the ball off the plate by a few inches with each proceeding pitch. I know you, but I have come from my future, to the past.

Your plan is as expected, something I could never see in my youth. The breeze of an object passing close to my elbow, and the snap of the catcher's glove. I wait, my pitch is next, I have imagined this moment a thousand times since I last played this game.

I see the pitch as if it were a basketball being hurled at the plate. The distinct sound of wood crashing into horsehide as it drops in front of the right-fielder. Ballgame!

My teammates congratulate me. My teammates… Many of whom are now shadows in my mind. I am pulled away from the window. It is still snowing, and I am cold. It is time to go in now.

It Ain't Easy Being A Cubs Fan

It was spring. I was 9 years old, and was playing catch with my younger brother Jay. I had just finished reading “The Baseball Life of Mickey Mantle”. We went in for supper, and in all excitement of having made a lifetime choice, I announced to my dad: “I am going to be a Yankees fan!” My dad, who was skeptical of all book readers, answered just with a blunt “No.” Okay, I had been prepared – and had my second choice. I had admired the uniforms of the St. Louis Cardinals. So, gathering my courage, I proclaimed: “Well, then I will be a Cardinals fan.” The response of my dad was short and sweet: “You aren't a kid anymore. If you are going to eat at my table, we are Cubs fans in this house.”

In 1969, I thought I had caught good fortune and was onboard for the big win. I remember the old 50's radio that dad got into working order. We would listen to WGN, by August we were sweating out these young upstart New York Mets, who seemed to never lose. I remember the anguish of September as the Cubs couldn't seem to win, and the Mets couldn't lose. It cemented my dad's hate for the New York Mets forever.

The 70's made us skeptics. In the early 70's we always appeared to be contenders… all the time… only to be felled by the June swoon, or July goodbye.

And then in 1977, the Cubs announcer Lou Boudreau declared that “when a team reaches 25 games over .500, they will never see .500 again.”  It was a poignant moment for my dad and me: We both just looked at each other and laughed. We had become skeptics. Never again would we dare to believe the Cubs could win. Leading by 8 ½ games, we finished 20 games out. On the last day of the season, we laughed about the notion we could ever win. After all, we were just the Cubs.

My only outward rebellion against my dad came during the 1977 collapse. Keith Hernandez robbed a Cubs hitter by snagging a line drive. I got up and turned off the television and refused to turn it on again notwithstanding dad’s orders and threats.

By 1979, I had enlisted in the Air Force, and was gone until the summer of 1982. My enlistment was up, and dad told me of this kid Sandberg, who was struggling at the plate, and that he didn't think that the kid would ever make it. My first game I saw him play he had a couple of hits. It became a point that I never let my dad forget.

1984. The Cubs were in post-season for the first time since 1945. We used to joke and pretend to press a magic button whenever we needed a hit or double play. It was a magical time for us. Leading in the playoffs up 2-0, and going to San Diego. The moment that haunted our lives was the ball going between Leon “Bull” Durham's legs. We never blamed Durham but always felt we were screwed by the Major League Baseball for giving San Diego the home field advantage because the Cubs didn't have lights at the time.

After the 1984 season, we both never again dreamed the Cubs would win. We loved, cussed and discussed the Cubs season after season. In 2002, my dad, a heart transplant recipient, was losing his battle. His kidneys were failing, and we spent his final days laughing and discussing the miserable existence of a lifetime Cubs fan.

When pitchers and catchers report, I always think of dad.
It is spring again, and I am 9 years old. The Cubs radio broadcast plays “It's the Beautiful Day for a Ballgame,” concluding with the announcement the Chicago Cubs are on the air. We stretch on the bed to listen to the game, with me acting at times as the human antenna for that old radio. Miss you pops.

In memory of Perry Dale Glasgow, a diehard lifetime Cubs fan
(10/2/1940 – 12/13/2002)