A special gift

I recently contributed a piece to a baseball blogger who undertook a blogathon to honor a friend who had passed away. He asked for pieces about our best baseball memories, and for me it was an easy decision as to what that was. The piece appears here, and it literally poured right out of me. It was a joy to write.

I found the piece online today, and I posted a link to it on Facebook. I sometimes think I overdo it with baseball writing, but this came from my heart, and that set it apart from most of the stuff I do. So onto Facebook it went.

The piece was read and complimented by an old teammate of mine. For several years back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, we played Khoury League baseball, first for Horace Mann, and then for First National Bank of Springfield, Illinois. Other than family relations, I can’t think of a more important bond with someone than that.

The piece that I wrote had to do with my father taking me to see a doubleheader in St. Louis back in 1975. If my dad had taken me to a basketball game instead, perhaps that would be the sport I write about all the time. But my dad doesn’t care about basketball, and neither do I. Basball is his game, and that makes it mine, too.

My old teammate, who I haven’t seen or physically talked to for 30 years, recently lost his father. Not only does Facebook allow us to reconnect with people who had previously vanished into the mists of time, it allows us to keep up with what’s going on in their lives. And that’s something we probably haven’t had before, either.

I remember my old teammate’s dad. He was one of the coaches on our baseball team, a guy who was about as old then as I am now, helping to pass the game on to his son and those who played on his team. The game means something–no, it means everything–when it comes to us that way.

My old teammate thanked me for the piece, and told me that I have a gift. To someone who tries to walk a line between self-confidence and utter humility, those words meant a lot to me. And the gift, as I saw it, was hearing that something I wrote had meant something to him. Never before had I been so glad that I put something on Facebook.

For the love of the game

This picture was taken circa 1978. I was in my Khoury League uniform, posing for a picture in the back yard of my parents’ house at the time. The proverbial house I grew up in. I came across this relic of my youth a few days ago, and had I not been wearing my old uniform, I would have just passed this one by. But the uniform, and the strained expression on my face, made me pull this one aside for a scan and some commentary.

I loved playing baseball when I was a kid. I was never very good at it, and the coach of my team played me as little as possible. But I wouldn’t think of doing anything else in the summertime, either. To not play would have felt wrong, in some way.

My two daughters haven’t ever played baseball, unfortunately. They’ve played soccer over the years, and that sport has taken over the spot that baseball had for kids of my generation. I have to admit that I won’t miss soccer after this season ends, and I’ll never again have to give up a sunny afternoon to watch kids chasing a ball around.

My playing days are over–and have been for 30 years now–but the experience of actually playing baseball helped to cement my attachment to the game. And my kids, along with millions of others, won’t have that as they get older. I’m sure that they’ll still be happy, happier than I was, even, but something I would have liked to pass along to them wasn’t meant to be. At least they’ll be able to laugh at this old picture of me. That’s something, I suppose.

Reminds me of when I played the game

I have made my way slowly back into collecting baseball cards over the past decade or so. I don’t do it because I think they’re worth any money, but because it helps me to think about things that are unrelated to work, or the day-to-day issues that come up in life. Those things are important, certainly, but there are old baseball players and games that I’d rather discuss instead.

In addition to collecting Cubs cards from the 1970s onward, I also look for players that either came from Springfield, Illinois, or once played ball there in the minor leagues. One of the players in the former category is Jeff Fassero, who had a long career in the majors and is still a pitching coach in the Cubs’ minor league system.

I usually use the front of a player’s card when I write this type of a post, but in this case something on the back of his card caught my attention. In fact, I gasped for breath when I saw it, and I knew I had to share it in this space.

Beneath Fassero’s big league statistics, there is a blurb indicating that he played Khoury League baseball (along with other leagues) as he was growing up. I had forgotten all about my own playing days in the Khoury League but now, thanks to a card company’s need to fill some space on the back of a player’s card, I can recall some of my own memories well enough to put them out there for the rest of the world to consider.

I went to Google and discovered that the Khoury League¬†(it’s pronounced CORE-ee, or at least that’s how I always said it) is still in existence. I half expected it to be defunct, given baseball’s seeming decline among young kids. It was very encouraging to know that the league I played in, and all of my friends played in, and Jeff Fassero played in, still exists today.

I played in Khoury League baseball for five seasons. I began in what was called Atom II, since my parents wanted me to play tee-ball when all of my friends were in Atom I. The way it was set up, you always played teams that were your age or one year above (if you were in Atom I) or one year below (if you were in Atom II).  Those age differences can be huge, especially when it came to the playoffs at the end of the year. An Atom I team rarely, if ever, beat an Atom II team. The Atom I team just ended their season, and then came back the next year to beat up on the Atom I teams.

After Atom II, I graduated to Bantam I and Bantam II, and then on to Midget I and Midget II. There were other levels beyond that, but no one I knew continued on past Midget II. So by the time I left Khoury League ball, I had played for five seasons, from the time I was eight until I was 13. It was a lot of fun, as I recall.

The highlight of my time in Khoury League was hitting a home run in the Midget II playoffs, near the end of my career (if that’s actually what it was). My team, sponsored by First National Bank of Springfield, was playing against another team, sponsored by Fishman’s Sporting Goods, in the playoffs. Fishman’s players were a year younger than us–in Midget I–and so tradition held that it was our time to win. And we did win, but not before I blasted a home run and made it all the way around the bases without so much as a play at the plate.

We had no outfield fences in the league, so after I smashed the ball I took off running. I was the kid who usually struck out, and who the coach played as little as possible, typically in the outfield where I wouldn’t do very much damage. For that kid to run around the bases, at top speed with his head down all the way, was a great feeling for me.

Making matters even better was the fact that my friend and neighbor from across the street was on the Fishman’s team. We never really talked about it after the game, but we didn’t have to, either. The next year they probably got to beat up on a group of younger kids, as well.

I thank the Topps card company for putting the Khoury League into print, and thus dredging up the kind of memories that had long been buried in the corners of my mind. I did play a little bit of baseball after that, but the bulk of my playing days were as a Khoury Leaguer, and I’m certainly grateful for that.