Game ready

I remember the first time I ever saw a microwave oven. It was about 1978, and my dad’s college roommate who lived in Tennessee had one. He showed my dad how to make an egg in it, which maybe took 30 seconds, and my dad was sold on the concept. As soon as we got back home from our visit to Tennessee, we acquired one of our own. Food preparation was a whole lot quicker after that.

My kids, who have never lived in a world without microwave ovens, might be excused for believing that anything more than three-and-a-half minutes is an eternity to wait for food. All of the prep work for food is done somewhere else, and all that’s left to be done is to take the carton from the box, set the timer, and wait a couple of minutes. Anything more than that is beyond comprehension to them.

That sort of mindset seems to have spilled over into sporting goods, as well. The sporting goods store itself is a thing of the past, with places like Wal-Mart and Target being the place to go for sporting goods today. This evening I was in a Target store with my teenager, wandering the aisles looking for a few things, when I came upon a by-product of the microwave mentality. I knew that I had to say a few words about it here. That’s why I do this, after all.

I was walking past a sporting goods aisle (there are two or three in the store) when I noticed their baseball gloves. I picked out a Rawlings model (left-handed, of course) and tried it on my hand. It was indicated as being for 7-9 year olds, which is about how old I was when I got my first glove. And this glove was black, too, just the way mine used to be when I was a kid. But there was a big difference between the glove on my hand in the picture above (I’m on the left, in the catching position) and the glove that was on my hand this evening in Target.

The difference was that the glove on my hand was described as being “game ready,” which is a term for a glove that’s already broken in. My glove, and the glove of my friend Scott in the picture, and the glove of every young kid in the 1970s, didn’t come in “game ready” condition. It came stiff and uncomfortable. There was one way to have a game ready glove, and that’s what we were doing in the picture.

We played catch in the back yard. We also played on baseball teams (but different ones, because I’m a year older than he is), and we played “hotbox” a lot, too. You basically had two players with their goves on, guarding two bases, and a runner trying to reach one base or the other safely. It was hours of fun for baseball-playing youth who didn’t have video games to distract them. Or sometimes, when it was dark outside and playing baseball wasn’t an option, I worked my glove by essentially pounding the ball with my left hand into the glove on my right hand. It was like playing catch with myself, really.

The payoff, after about a year or so of playing baseball all the time, was a glove that was properly broken in. That’s a lot better than “game ready,” in my mind, because an attachment to something was formed along the way. And a kid today, assuming he wants to play baseball in the first place, doesn’t have to break his glove in anymore. He can just skip the trouble and get a “game ready” model, instead. But he’s missing out on something by doing it this way, even if he doesn’t know what that something is.

This sounds like me being a humbug. And, truth be told, I love my microwave just as much as the next person does. But breaking in my baseball glove was a corner that I didn’t cut, and all these years later, I’m happy that it turned out that way.

Giving the gift of baseball

In what feels like another lifetime, I was once a high school social studies teacher. I did it for four years, which was just enough time to learn that I couldn’t do it for my long-term career. I knew the subject matter, and could recite all the eduspeak buzzwords that anyone wanted to hear, but at the end of it all I didn’t have the two things that every good teacher needs: patience and organizational skills. I got horribly frustrated as a result, and now I haven’t been inside a classroom (as a teacher) in over 10 years.

But having said that, I do have some good memories of this time in my life. And the best memory was the year that I served as the baseball coach at my school. I had to literally build our program from scratch, and it was always a struggle to find enough players to field a team, and to find enough bats, balls, helmets, gloves and cleats for them to use. I even had to enlist a seventh grader from a nearby middle school to be the ninth player in our very last game. I never saw that kid again, but he was a pretty good shortstop, as I recall.

Some of the kids on the team really enjoyed playing, and they would talk to me as a coach in a way that they wouldn’t to their other teachers. We had a bond that had been forged by our interest in baseball. It was very humbling to see the enjoyment these kids derived from playing the game.

I wish I had at least nine guys like that at our small little school on the South Side of Chicago. But in reality, I had maybe five. The others were a rotating band of guys who showed interest one day, but couldn’t be bothered the next. Or guys who thought that baseball teams scored “points.” These guys had never played baseball before, and weren’t quite sure that they enjoyed it very much. Benching a player on the team was never really a deterrent, because otherwise we would have to forfeit.

When my first daughter was born after the season ended, I knew that I wouldn’t have the time to coach anymore. The team soldiered on for another season after I left, but then it faded away as the guys got older, and nobody came in to take their place or mine. But all of the running around to whatever batting cages we could find, or trying to hold indoor practices in a tiny little gym, or waiting another day for the field to dry out after a big rain had fallen, all seemed like it was worth it somehow.

On a handful of days in the springtime, these guys were afforded an hour or two to enjoy being kids and competitors. And there’s nothing I could have done for them as a teacher to compare with that.  These games were a gift to them, and getting to witness them firsthand was a gift for me, too.