Some people begin their new year at midnight every December 31st. Some, the first day of school in September (you know who you are). And while I really enjoy partying on New Year’s Eve–often too much–my year starts in April.
Twice actually. First, on the opening day of major league baseball, then a week later with Jah Energy’s first game.
That said, April softball in Boston isn’t much fun. Layered clothing–two pair of socks and occasional long underwear–is not the appropriate uniform for the “summer game.” But the game must go on as must I, despite my antipathy to the cold.
When I first joined Jah, a year after the league began, I had no idea how long I’d play or how important the team would become to me. As time passed, its importance increased and I began to dream of playing until I was 65. In fact, the team, league, and games grew so important that I’ve begun considerig having my ashes scattered on home field. Seriously.
I was lucky to have never missed a game due to injuries. Even luckier to have both sons, a nephew, and a niece play alongside me for many years. And even able to bring home a couple of championships.
A banjo, but steady, hitter and an excellent defensive first baseman, in tough situations I always wanted the bat in my hands or the ball to be smashed toward me at first. But a couple of years ago I started feeling the tickle of fear when an opponent’s left-handed power hitter strode to the plate. Eventually, I was forced to acknowledge that I no longer wanted them to hit toward me. I simply couldn’t cover ground the way I used to. And worse, that banjo’s strings started to break and I had more and more trouble getting on base.
Two years ago I finally admitted the obvious, talked to the manager about playing half games and coaching third the rest of the time. We also agreed that his wife Sammy and my son Jake had become much better at first than I. To say nothing about their hitting, which dwarfed my own. So the half games I played were usually at catcher, though the manager still liked the way I picked the ball out of the dirt and put me at first in particular situations.
Last season our manager stepped down so I co-managed the team with Sara. Although Jake would yell at me for not placing myself into the line-up, I had the teams’ interest at heart and felt he and Sammy were so much better it would have been unfair to sit them. I was able to play a couple of games as catcher, and one or two at first, but mostly I helped Sara and coached third. Still, the dream of playing when I became 65 never faded and I just assumed it would occur.
Then came my shoulder problems. The operation and the months and the months of rehab ahead has made it impossible for me to even coach or manage. And so, for the first time in 24 years, I am no longer a member of Jah. One of the most painful aches I’ve felt since my operation was putting my glove away.
But I’m here to praise baseball, not bury it. I often catch a lot of grief during major league play-offs because I root for other teams if the Sox aren’t in it. I’ve always rooted for my home teams so I don’t hate the Yankees or White Sox, or the Tigers in loyalty to Sue. Even the deserters, the Dodgers and Giants, which, after they left New York, I’d listen on my transistor radio to Les Keiter bang sticks together in front of a fan noise record as he called the Giant’s games from a delayed ticker tape.
For me the game is larger than any single team. Yeah, I know it’s millionaires playing for billionaires and much of the enterprise has nothing to do with anything but money. No matter. When I see players running onto the field, it’s all about what happens between the white lines. The fleet outfielder gliding, body outstretched to snare a certain base hit. A runner sliding headfirst into second safely then jumping up, pulling on his pants to get the dirt out of his crotch. The myriad of signs that emanate from the 3rd base coach, a batter lunging after a pitch that’s impossible but somehow manages to slap a flare single. Frankly, I could go on for pages. (And no doubt someday I will.)
I know baseball has lost its preeminent role as ‘America’s pastime.’ (Yea football.) But for me it will always be the beginning of my year and the backbone of my summers.
Oh. As far as Jah goes, I intend to rehab all year so next season when I’m 65 (which will be my 25th year in the league), I will play a single game then retire on my terms. Some dreams never die.
“It’s so hard to say au revoir, so let’s just say hors d’oeuvre.” Martin Mull