Play ball and change your life

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Few things have made as big a difference in my life as playing ball.

I’m reminded of that every day when I jog in Foster, the city’s premier park near our Fort Wayne home.

Early each morning, I pass two ball fields in the park, the larger one where South Side plays other high school teams in the spring. But in summer this is the field for the older Little League kids. On the corner, at the intersection of Hartman Road and the paved path that weaves along St. Mary’s River, I jogged past the field where later in the morning the cheers will be from younger players, whose yells are higher pitched.

On a recent weekend morning, four boys, I’d guess about 10, pretended to be playing a game on an otherwise empty ball field. One would yell something, then the other three would run the bases as fast as they could go. I stopped to watch. They paid no attention to the bald old man in shorts. You see, every diamond in summer is a field of dreams.

The games can be quite a spectacle of red and white uniforms vs. green and grey uniforms dressing these white, black and brown kids of all shapes and sizes. And why is it that colorful uniforms make little kids look bigger and older?

In my Little League career so long ago, I was a pitcher for Schatz Motors in Defiance, Ohio.
An early season newspaper clipping introducing the upcoming season from the Crescent-News featured a photograph of me at bat, my number “7” proudly displayed on the back of my uniform.

I think Dad came to most if not all of my games. He used to encourage me to think of playing baseball in the big leagues. Back when I was just 10 or so, playing ball wasn’t so glamorous. We won some games. But we lost some. And that hurt.

A few years ago, I was signing books at the public library in Defiance and a guy in his 50s I’d guess offered to trade me a binder full of old newspaper clippings for my memoir, which made a few references to my growing up in Defiance. The guy’s dad had been the director of the city’s Little League program, which is how he happened to have what to me was a treasured archive.

I opened the binder and examined the contents. To my amazement, I discovered page after page of newspaper accounts of the Little League season from the Crescent-News sports section. And there was my name in the box scores, usually coming last with “p” to designate that I had been the pitcher. I usually didn’t get any hits. No wonder I got to pitch.

Somewhere, I’ve still got the binder. Somewhere, I still have a team photograph. In that 1940s black and white picture you can see Mike, our manager, and another fellow, college age I’d guess, who was our base coach. I recognize a few of the players, including my catcher, Larry Pelok, whom I’d meet again years later in high school Latin class.

I must have played Little League a couple or more seasons. But the lessons I learned playing ball have lasted a lifetime, from the importance of teamwork to making friends to the value of practice. More than that, Little League gave me a big boost in confidence. I felt a part of something that was pretty big. Indeed, as long as we lived in Defiance, I kept a life-size photograph of my favorite pitcher Hal Newhouser of the Detroit Tigers hanging on my bedroom wall.

When we moved away, I attended a small consolidated high school in Haviland, Ohio. In the spring of my sophomore year, I found myself billed as a relief pitcher. Our geometry teacher, Ned Jay, was also our baseball coach. And though he teased me to death, he got better pitching out of me than I thought possible.

Sometime later, when my son John was old enough to play, I signed on to help coach his Little League teams. He had a lot more natural ability than I did. I’ll never forget his instant reflexes. Or his willingness to play catch in the side yard for seemingly hours. In one season, his manager of the “Barber Shop” team was a Magnavox engineer whose name was John Brown. What a natural he was at managing and inspiring kids. Firm, direct, always positive. Brown was a first-class roll model for the parents that season. His leadership paid off. That season, Barber Shop went undefeated!

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when I checked out the research on the benefits for kids playing team sports. Here’s the the story not only of Little League alums but Pee Wee football and soccer. Kids who have played team sports are more likely to finish school, go to college, earn more and participate in civic affairs. They’re better citizens.

No wonder. On a team, you learn to play by the rules. You learn to work hard for success. You learn to accept failure with a measure of grace. You learn that lots of other people are rooting for you to win. So I applaud all those parents and other volunteers who teach and coach the kids and give them something of great value that will last them the rest of their lives. So this summer, every morning, I’ll be jogging back past the ball fields, remembering my own career and cheering this generation on.

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