As the crowd and cheers diminish and the home team disappears from the pennant race, I try to remember why baseball is still so important to me. I think the love of the game lies in my childhood memories.
I grew up in Philadelphia, a city boy at heart. To give me a taste of country life, my parents sent me one summer to stay with my older brother, then a minister in a small town in West Virginia. He was and is a baseball fanatic, so it was almost fateful that he would make me play in the church softball league.
There were many teams in the league, but the two biggest rivals were from the town itself and from a small village whose main industry was tanning leather for coats and shoes. The urban and rural people seem to occupy different planets, although a few miles separated them.
Somehow I joined the national team, the tannery nine as I now call them. It still surprises me that children who are so separated by time and space can form a bond that transcends both. Maybe it gives a lesson on how we can overcome the boundaries that separate us now – find and work towards a common mission.
I came to the first exercise with my new, expensive glove. And when I looked around I saw that most of the other players had gloves that the mothers had sewn together. Their fathers worked in the tannery, so there was plenty of discarded leather to work from. And the bats were hardly Louisville Sluggers. In fact, some of the bats had been carved out of wood again around their cabins. And the uniforms would make opposing teams laugh, except when they saw the size of our first baseman, Wilbur, who no one dared.
Do not ask me how, but somehow the tannery nine played as if we knew the world did not expect much from us and worse, hoped we would lose so we would be put in the right place. No one expected much from us other than dropping out of school and going to work in the tannery, just as our fathers and grandfathers had done.
It turned out to be a real competition that year between the rich city kids and the tannery nine. I did not hit and made more mistakes than the rest of the team combined, but it did not matter as long as we continued to win – and victory we did, almost every game. But so did the city team, until it came to the last match of the summer with both teams just about first place with only one loss for each.
The last match was played on the city track. They had excavations and a stand to buy sausages and drinks and even an advertiser calling out our names at the beginning of the game. It was a pretty game too.
We hung on to a 2-to-1 lead until the last in the ninth round when the city team threatened to win everything by loading the bases with two outs. The cities sprang up when their best hitter strutted up to hit. He had this big bat and a disgusting look on his face and worse; he was a leftist, which meant to me that he could beat me one way at second base.
The count was full, a walk would force a run and a draw, so our pitcher hit a ball over the spot so easy to hit that I might have done it. I do not know much about time, but I know it was the longest time I have ever felt while the big old softball spun against the batter whose eyes lit up when he saw it emptying towards the home. And then he swung.
The ball led me like a cannonball. I remember I prayed, “Oh, please, let it go over my head so I do not rotate it.” The ball kept coming and I knew I could not avoid it. I closed my eyes and jumped up as high as I could, stretching mine to where I thought the ball could hit.
I felt the ball hit my glove; and then falls out, almost slowly film-like. I looked around. The noise from the crowd hurt my ears. I looked down at the ball that fell to the ground, and with my left hand I grabbed it and held it against my mitt as if it were a newborn baby. I caught it! The crowd groaned, our players and fans came out on the field and carried me away. I remember thinking to myself that this was probably why I was put here on earth, to be here when the tannery nine won the annual church softball league title a long time ago.
“It doesn’t get any better than this,” a player whispered in my ear as we ate chicken and potato salad after the game back at the tannery church. And I knew he was right, and it would never get better than this and that maybe one day, gray and old, I would tell someone about the day I took the last one out for tannery nine.
John C. Morgan is an author and teacher.