Wednesday, April 23, 2014

One summer fully spent on the sandlot

Home runs on the home field

Express Staff Writer

Summer is like a pot at the end of the rainbow when you’re a certain age. It’s something you enter with a sense of wonder and feeling of freedom. You come out on the other side a little different, newer, wiser, hopefully better.
    In this edition of the Idaho Mountain Express, there is a long list of incredible camps and programs describing the myriad of possibilities to create a template for summer. What isn’t discussed much in these pages is that empty place and unfilled space that a summer day can supply.
    It’s a place where a child wanders, often supervised by only his peers. It’s a place where learning is imprinted and a lifetime of memories can be made. All you need is the trust of your parents, a little creativity and your friends.
    My best modern-day observation of that kind of freedom is the local skate park. There, kids of all ages push each other and test their boundaries each day. Traffic busily rolls past but the focus of the kids is completely on the ramps, turns, jumps and each other.
    You find out who you are.
    For me, it was baseball. Never can I forget a summer fully spent on the sandlot. We were there, virtually every day except weekends, from morning to dinner, kicking up dirt on the dusty baseball diamond.
    No grown-ups in sight. Cellphones yet to be invented. No pressing matters. Television in its infancy. Mail delivered only by mail carriers, not by computers. Drive-in movies the hot ticket. Needing to work still a couple of years off.
    We brought banged up bats and a series of baseballs battered into yarn. Gloves filled with clouds of dirt. Occasionally, a glimpse of three or four girls of our age walking by, shoulder to shoulder, glancing our way and giggling as one.
    We couldn’t have cared less. We were 11-year-old boys. It was the summer of 1961, when teammates Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris made their memorable summer-long assault on Babe Ruth’s record of 60 home runs in a season.
    There were four of us every day, exceptions made for only sickness or family responsibilities. First order of business was securing the field itself, as if anyone else really wanted sole possession of the dirt infield and bumpy grass outfield, as we did.
    Gloves wrapped on our bicycle handlebars, where bats were carried somewhat precariously, we pedaled onto the field. We left our homes at different times, but seemed to arrive at the same time. We dismounted at the backstop. One of us spat on home plate for possession. We set up shop.
    In the year of Mantle and Maris, we had one objective—hitting home runs over a fence in left field that emptied onto a fairly heavily traveled street. Beyond the street, further back, was the schoolhouse itself—ultimately unreachable for everyone including Big Al, our ultimate home run stud.
    Big Al turned out to be our only home run threat. We all tried. One time I hit the fence on a bounce. But nobody really thought it had a chance.
    Sam, our natural athlete, drilled the fence on the fly several times and once or twice homered with a favorable breeze. Dusty, our expert at dirty work, discarded his ambitions early on and settled in as our line drive hitter and fielder who willingly retrieved balls sprayed around.
    He was a lefty, Big Al, blessed with a sly sense of humor—a fan of late night comics and the first to suggest lunch. There was no right field fence, just a distant series of tennis courts several football fields away. A drinking fountain was there, so our batted balls mistakenly deposited in that direction were collected sometime during the day.
    Because of our field configuration and for Big Al to establish the home run records that each and every one of us desired, we needed to pitch to him from third base so he aimed for the left field fence.
    That was my job. We realized early that I was our batting practice expert. Usually, pitchers try their best to get batters out by making them swing at bad pitches. My genius was the ability to, time after time, throw pitches that Big Al could positively crush.
    Big Al didn’t send every ball over the fence and cause us to watch carefully to see if it smashed into a passing windshield. Occasionally, he pulled one to center, where Sam ran at full speed and hauled it down with a spectacular grab, usually in horizontal, laid-out fashion. In the same motion, he would get up and twirl and heave the ball on an uncanny straight line to Dusty at second. It was a sight to see.

In the year of Mantle and Maris,
we had one objective—
hitting home runs.

    Dusty would then apply the tag to an unseen runner and the t-shirt we used as the second base bag would get another good dose of dirt. For his part, Dusty immediately relayed the ball on a straight line to me at third base so that Big Al could take another crack at the left field fence.
    Some of his shots were epic. His swing heated up as the summer of Mantle and Maris hit the Dog Days of August. We started each day updating stories of their home run feats.
    We were a well-oiled unit, everyone bringing their strengths to the enterprise and covering up for the weaknesses of the others. We did this hour after hour, and day after day, unmindful of the tedium of repetition. What we did wasn’t much different than the usual pre-game drills that every self-respecting baseball team does every day. To us, it just made us better.
    But we were only 11. All this was brand new, a routine originated, we thought, by us. It was scary how good we became at what we did during the course of the summer. We knew every nook and cranny of the field, every weird bounce and all the nuances. Our parents never questioned where we were or what we were doing. Complete trust.
    Yet it was bound to happen. One day, a group of boys our age from the other side of the tracks showed up, en masse, striding side-by-side onto our field. With bats on their shoulders and gloves newly bought at the store, they were clean and eager and new and posed a threat to our supremacy.
    Would we finally have to share the field and have the newcomers dull our momentum toward having the greatest summer of all time?
    Awkwardly, we crammed everybody onto the field and tried different scenarios to get all involved. It became evident that a contest would have to settle things, so we proposed a home run hitting contest. Except for Big Al, we were a little scraggly looking. They had better sight lines—fresh and forboding. But everybody agreed, and the game was on.
    Fortunately, Big Al was in his stretch-drive splendor—sending drive after drive screeching over the left field fence. The balls soared over passing cars. They whistled through the trees. Behind the fence, Big Al’s homers sent the girls scrambling and screeching to some sort of safety. His blasts were authoritative. They sounded long.
    It was no contest. They left. We stayed. And we stayed that way until school started in September. It was a glorious, rarely challenged reign that only served to improve our amazing skills and teamwork.
    Truthfully, we did get on each other’s nerves, you can imagine, for two-and-a-half months together. Yet had we assembled a record worthy of respect. No broken windows or broken promises at home. No brushes with the law. Plenty of deli sandwiches wolfed down in the cool of the corner store’s shade. We were regulars—dirty, smelly, grimy and devilishly good at what we did.
    Sam and I did have a bit of a scrap that centered on the ongoing Mantle and Maris homer race. One morning, walking to school like we always did, we strode away in a clump of four boys toward the mysteries of our new school and our new seventh grade. A city block ahead of us was a clump of four girls. We hardly noticed, discussing Mantle and Maris.
    Sam wanted Maris. I wanted Mantle, like most everybody at the time. We came to blows—sort of a harmless wrestling match—just before arriving at school.
    Maris eventually won the contest with 61, Mantle finishing with 54. Of course Maris was never intentionally walked, not once all season, in his spot as No. 3 hitter in front of No. 4 Mantle. But he won fair and square. Sam was right, as he usually was. Later, as an adult, I actually met Maris and found him down-to-earth, gracious and humble, a man who had come to terms with facing enormous odds.
    The greatest summer of our life had come to an end. But the four of us had a final swan song, in high school, in the final football game of our high school lives, our ranks swelled by many others who weren’t with us on that summer sandlot field six years before.
    Classic underachievers, we entered the game three touchdown underdogs. But they hadn’t seen Sam’s arm at quarterback, the same arm which had the kind of uncanny accuracy built on the foundations of our long summer days and relays. He threw us to victory.
    But it had started years before, unwatched by anyone except the other three members of our select group. That’s where the commitment to each other came from. That drive and focus was what we needed when the going really got tough. And that made all the difference in becoming better versions of ourselves.

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