Spring training

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Hal Newhouser
Hal Newhouser (source: Wikipedia)

It’s snowing pretty good now. Besides, it’s a school day. So even if the weather were clear, there would be no kids at the ball fields in Foster Park when I jogged by.

Saturday was a different story. There were kids at both ball fields and plenty of action. Adults batted grounders and flies. Moms and younger brothers and sisters sat in the family cars parked along side the ball fields.

As I stopped to observe, I thought the ball players didn’t seem to mind the 50 degree temperature. Yet I know from long ago experience that it really stings your hand when you catch the ball this early in the season.

I didn’t complain, though, when I was on the high school team for Blue Creek, a consolidated high school in northwest Ohio I attend part of my sophomore and junior high school years. Coach Ned Jay would have made fun of you if you complained.

He sure was a fine geometry teacher, though.

Watching the young ball players Saturday brought to mind so many baseball memories. When my son John played in the Little League near our Fort Wayne home, I found myself coaching the kids. I gave them batting practice and engaged in pitch and catch for hours on end. John and I even played catch daily in our side yard on South Anthony.

Years later, we’d drive to Cincinnati to see a Reds’ home game. One year, on opening day, we were in the stands to witness the home plate umpire suffer a fatal heart attack. Owner Marge Schott called off the game and we got tickets for a later game.

The only Big League game I saw growing up was in Detroit. My friend Dave’s parents drove us from Defiance, Ohio, to Briggs Stadium to see the Cleveland Indians, Dave’s favorite team, play the Tigers, my favorite team.

My hero Hal Newhouser pitched a nearly flawless game against the Indians’ Bob Feller. Needless to say, it was a quiet ride back home to Defiance. Still, I really appreciated the treat of seeing a real big league game.

My grandparents, Mom and Tom, in Latty, Ohio, listened to all the Tiger games on the radio. I’m sure they must have heard the game I witnessed. If there was a rain delay, Mom Hayes would switch her Crosley table radio dial from CKLW to WLW to the hear a play-by-play by Waite Hoyte for the Cincinnati Reds.

More recently, after I retired from writing editorials at The Journal Gazette, a guy in Defiance stopped by the main library there where I was signing books for visitors. He wanted to trade me a large black-bound book he had for one I had written.

It turned out the book contained the history of Defiance Little League games in the 1940s. His father, who had organized the league, compiled it. The box standings included the roster of my games, “L.Hayes, pitcher.” at the bottom of the list of names, names which I had long forgotten. Let the record show that while I didn’t get many hits myself, I did win a few games for my team, Schatz Motors.

I can’t say I watch ball games on TV any more. During the season, I do check the standings to see how the Tigers and Reds are doing in their separate leagues. At various high school reunions, I have enjoyed sharing ball playing memories with old friends, one a neighbor of my grandparents and another, my Little League catcher who became a doctor in Detroit.

I think that playing and, later, coaching baseball taught me valuable lessons about team playing and how to be a good loser. I learned something about the limits of my athletic prowess. I know the game had enriched Dad’s life. He often talked about driving to St. Louis to see World Series games one fall in the 1930s. Playing catch with him sure gave me quality time with a parent, time I might not otherwise have enjoyed.

Maybe by this coming Saturday, the snow will be gone and the Little Leaguers will be back in Foster Park getting practice in before the season commences later in the spring. When I see the line of cars and vans and hear the kids yelling, I’ll stop at the fence and watch the kids pitching, catching and taking a healthy cut at the ball. And remember.

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Field of dreams

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2012 Live Arm Champs - Dick's in Foster Park
2012 Live Arm Champs – Dick’s in Foster Park

When I jogged past the Foster Park ball fields yesterday, I guessed it would be too wet for the kids to play today.

Sure enough this morning, one of the Wildcat League coaches was standing on the corner to give the word to the parents driving by. No ball today. I imagine he was letting the mom or dad know that the coaches would have the diamond ready tomorrow, July 4.

I often stop at one of the three fields during my morning run to watch the kids. I love to hear the “batter, batter, batter” chatter from the infield as some tyke with a helmet as big as he is steps to the plate. I marvel at how quickly even kids of eight or nine pick up the routines of America’s pastime. They pound a fist their gloves. They search the sky for the pop ball just past second base as the hitter dashes for first. Are they born just knowing which direction to run or what it means to tap a base-runner with the ball?

In Little League, in the late 1940s, I was the pitcher for the Schatz Motors Little League team in Defiance, Ohio. Larry Pelok was my catcher, who later would go on to be a surgeon in Detroit.

A few years ago, a guy had never met came up to me at the Defiance, Ohio, public library. I was signing the memoir of my years as a journalist for the Fort Wayne, Indiana, paper. This stranger wanted to swap my book for a black-bound volume. The man’s dad had been a Little League organizer when I was a kid. He had compiled newspaper clippings that recorded the stats of each ball game over several years.

I gladly made the swap. And what a treat it was to read the record of my sports career. To my amazement, the record shows, I pitched a few winning games. That easily beat my later career. As a teenager, I pitched for one of the high schools I attended. It was a role noteworthy only for my habit of throwing the ball over the backstop.

When my son John played Little League in Fort Wayne, I was one of the coaches. One year we were assigned to the Pizza King team. Another year it was the Barber Shop team. That bunch of kids went the season undefeated. I imagine John recalls more than I do about those happy summers. But I do look back with pride at being a part of such an important time in his childhood and that of his teammates.

We are a such a country of team sports. In school, we choose up sides to play Red Rover and run relay foot races. When I was in first grade one fall, the neighborhood guys divided into teams for a scrimmage with the football. No helmets, no padding. (That’s how neighbor and best friend Davy Morehouse ended up with a broken collar bone.)

We can learn so much in sports about getting along with others. We learn about playing by the rules or get yelled at when we get caught trying to cheat. When our games are organized such as in Little League or Wildcat, we accept the decisions of the umpire – the judge – even when we think he or she is wrong.

“It was a strike,” we’re just sure. “He was out,” we’ll believe the rest of the week. No, the judge’s decision stands. No wonder that in senior government class studying the federal courts seems so familiar.

This workshop in democracy runs all year. Every American takes his or her turn one time or another at the game. It’s there we can acquire the values of democracy. It’s there we can
look past differences in background, in ethnicity, in race and gender. It’s in sports, organized or not, we learn about winning. And, just as important, we learn about losing.

So these days I find it hard not to stop and watch the kids at the ball fields. A few of them likely will end up playing ball in high school or college. Then there’s that rare player who will turn pro someday. It’s just hard to say what will become of a nine-year-old third baseman.

But every child who plays will be a better person and, I trust, a better American.

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