October 23, 2020

The Best Game Ever

December 1, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

No, not game 6. The best game ever was played when I was eight years old on Doc Branson’s lot across the street from the house I grew up in. Excerpt from my manuscript, “Between the Lines: A Father, A Son and America’s Pastime.”

Baseball is cool. It’s way cool, in fact. As a young boy in the 1960s, cool is the word we use to describe anything we like. Virtually anything can be plotted on the coolness scale based on how much we like it. Building a fort or a tree house in the woods is cool, so is staying outside until after dark, bicycles, go carts, fast cars as long as they’re not too loud, a new pair of Converse All Stars, sports, snakes if they’re not too close and almost any type of bug. So are Christmas and Halloween. School and is not, neither are girls; not yet, unless a girl happens to be a good hitter. That’s because baseball fits into a category reserved exclusively for those things that are beyond regular cool. Baseball is “way” cool. So are best friends.

Across the street from where I live is the Kissel’s house. Beyond that is Doc Branson’s lot where my friends and I play baseball. But never on Doc’s day off because he always cuts grass when he isn’t working whether it needs it or not. A chain link fence runs along the side of the Kissel’s property that separates the baseball field from their yard. Anything hit over that fence is a home run. That is, unless you are an official Little League player or it isdecided that you are too big, like Tom’s brother. In that case it is an automatic out. Tom’s dad is a baseball coach, even though his brother doesn’t play Little League. Tom’s brother is the only kid I know who doesn’t play Little League even though he is old enough. That doesn’t make any sense to me because baseball is so much fun. The rest of us can’t wait to play Little League. Anyway, Tom’s brother still isn’t allowed to hit home runs.

I was eight years old the first time I hit one over that fence into the Kissel’s yard. It bounced underneath the low branches of the apple tree that often provides our post game snack. The strategy is to find one on the ground that isn’t too mushy and use it to throw at the best apples that always grow from the top branches. If I could hit the one I had my eye on, knock it down, and retrieve it without getting stung by one of the bees that hummed over the rotten apples that had fallen to the ground, it’s good day. Retrieving home run balls is equally dangerous. After that first home run, I skip the post game apple and ride my bike straight down to my best friend Bob’s house and tell him what I did.

In the house on the other side of Doc’s lot is where the Jochims live. Our bench is the short brick wall that runs alongside their driveway. We had to stop playing every time Mr. Jochim came home because home plate is a bare spot at the edge of the lot right next to his driveway. We definitely don’t want to hit his car with a foul tip or he might turn us inside out like he threatened to do one day when he overheard me tell my sister I was going to hit her. There is only room for one base on that lot. It is located about where second base would be on real field. So when we hit the ball we have to run around the pitcher who is directly in line to the concrete block that Doc put in the ground for us to use as first base.
The rules are simple: sliding is not allowed, though nobody wanted to slide over that slightly raised block ever since Danny tried it and split his knee open anyway. He had to get stitches and missed an entire baseball season. Anything hit to the right of the pitcher is a foul ball because that is too close to the street. Besides, any time the ball is hit across the street it rolls down the Helfrich’s steep driveway and into the drainage sewer at the bottom of the hill. Not only is that sewer is deep but we are pretty sure there are snakes in the bottom of it. Any ball that rolls in there is lost forever.
The big mulberry tree marks the foul line on the left side. Hitting a ball that stops under that tree is always a good strategy because the fielder has to run through all the berries to get it. The ball and his shoes will get purple juice all over them. Some kids won’t even run under there out of fear they will get in trouble when they return home with mulberry juice all over their Converse All Stars. If the ball hits a branch, it is still in play. Finally, real big guys like Ron are not allowed to play at all. Additional rules are made up as needed.

It’s Labor Day, our last day to play baseball for the summer. I woke up early; too early to start a baseball game because the neighbors are still sleeping, so are most of my friends. I pull on my white tube socks and stretch them until the three blue stripes around the top are just below my knees, and lace up my Converse All Stars. I grab my glove and Louisville Slugger with the athletic tape wrapped thickly around the middle section. This bat used to be my brother’s until I cracked it. I thought I had the logo facing me like he showed me – that way it won’t crack – but I guess not. I wrapped it with white athletic tape and hoped he wouldn’t notice. He did. I survived the yelling and threat to my life. Now it’s mine. With all my gear in hand I hike to the field. I do not want to miss any of it.

By the time I arrive at the field my Converse All Stars are soaked from kicking up the dew while walking through the tall grass. The bottom of my right foot is wet too. Water got in through the hole I wore in the bottom of that shoe this summer. I have to wear them anyway because mom said I can only wear my new pair to school, which starts tomorrow. She says I am growing so fast that she is spending all her money on new shoes and clothes.

Except for the path that leads from home plate straight through the pitcher’s spot to the lone base, there are two other bare spots in our one-base infield – one for the first baseman and one for the third baseman who is sometimes the left fielder too depending on how many players we have. I claim the spot near the base. As first baseman I won’t have to run as much with a belly full of breakfast.

I pull the bill of my cap down to block the sun from shining in my eyes. I pop my fist into the web of my glove to wake it up. I look down and spit on the ground between my feet like real baseball players do. My shadow does everything I do out in front of me. I practice the ready position I learned by watching my brother. I have all day to play baseball. I’m ready.

Within a few hours the neighborhood is awake. Cars pass back and forth. Some of the dads have fired up their lawn mowers. The sun is directly overhead and the air is “close,” as my grandma says. I don’t really don’t know what “close” air is but I know it makes me sweat a lot. All the boys are at the field playing baseball, along with a few cool girls. My breakfast has digested so it’s safe to play the left field/third base position. I squat down into my ready position. As I look down at the dirt, a drop of sweat rolls from my forehead, down my nose and falls to the ground. It lands on my shadow, exactly where my nose would be. My mouth is too dry to spit like the pros anymore.

We’re forced to take a break every ten minutes as Doc Branson makes a trip around our field pushing his lawn mower. We forgot it was a holiday so he’s off today, so his grass gets cut twice this weekend. He doesn’t make us quit, but we stop playing because he says he prefers not to get hit with the ball. It’s difficult to tell where he has cut, but the remaining square of slightly taller grass in the middle of the field gets smaller each time he passes. Finally, we have to stop the action while he finishes the last patch of grass around first base. A few kids take a break and go home for lunch or to get a drink or to go the bathroom. I take a sip from Mr. Helfrich’s garden hose across the street. I’m not hungry and, for me, running home to use the bathroom is a waste of time when we have that big mulberry tree to hide behind (another reason many of us won’t run under there).

Most of us soon return to the field for more; new players arrive throughout the day. The shakeup in teams sometimes means some of us ended up on the opposite team that we started out on. I declare that I am on Bob’s team. Bob is far too big to be allowed to hit home runs, but he always hits really hard grounders. Now that the grass is shorter the ball won’t slow down as much, so all his hits go to the fence.

No one really knows what inning it is or the score of these all-day games. We simply play until we are done. I eventually have to go home to eat dinner, but I hustle right back afterward. Aside from that, I have been there for the whole game. Mom informed me I missed my swimming lesson because I didn’t come home earlier. I explained to her how important this game is, especially since this is the last day of summer and I won’t get to swim anymore anyway. Besides, it’s a holiday; even kids should get holidays. I think that made it okay.

Just as I return to the field after supper, Tom’s mom yells from their back porch that it is time for him to come home. I quickly take his place on base even though I was on the other team before I left. I am right back in the game. With my right foot on the edge of the buried concrete block that is first base, I use it like a sprinter’s block and face home plate where Pat is batting. The sun feels much hotter now and it is shining directly in Pat’s eyes. I turn my hat around backwards to protect the back of my sunburned neck. Before I ever move, the sweat is dripping down my back.

Pat dribbles one to Dan at third base/left field. He picks it up and throws it to Mark who is covering home in attempt to throw me out. From near the pitcher’s spot, I stretch my arm over my head and hold my hand up as high as I can. From there the shadow of my hand extends to home plate. I position it so that it appears to touch home just before Mark catches the ball.

“Safe!” I yell. I cite the shadow rule that we sometimes use when we played against big guys. Even though we haven’t invoked that rule since we used to play whiffle ball in Jay’s back yard against his big brother, it surely still exists in the official rules.
“What? You’re out!” Mark exclaims.
“Nope, we’re playing shadow runners.” Pleased with my strategy, I take my seat on the low brick wall along Mr. Jochim’s driveway. “I was safe.” I glance over at Pat who is smiling like he does when he says a cuss word without his mother catching him, “Shadow rule,” I repeat.

The sun finally drops behind those big trees that drop acorns on my mom’s car and their long shadows reach across the street, through Kissel’s yard, and over the chain link homerun fence that separates our field on Doc Branson’s lot from the rest of the world. Mike has to leave because his mom told him to come home when it got dark. It is a school night. We tell him it isn’t really dark yet, but he leaves anyway so he won’t get in trouble.

Pat hears to his father’s whistle. The whole neighborhood knows that whistle means that it is time for him and his brothers to come home. Mark leaves when he hears the ring of his mother’s dinner bell. Only four of us remain. We decide there is time for one more inning.

By the time I get to bat again, the shadows have engulfed home plate. I am glad the sun isn’t shining in my eyes and that it’s a little cooler. But it is getting dark. We have been using the same ball all summer. It is so dirty that it is almost brown. That makes it even harder to see. We can hear the steady buzz of the street light on the corner across the street from my house. It doesn’t help us much. Mostly, it attracts bugs and reminds us that the day is almost over.

We decide that the score is100-100 and the next run wins the World Series. So it is up to me. I walk to the plate with my wooden Louisville Slugger with the tape on it. I swing at the first pitch even though I could barely see it. I missed. The next pitch is on the way. It is a little outside, so it passes through the glare from the street light. I swing where I think it should be and make contact – a pop-up that lands to the right of the line from home directly through the pitcher’s spot and on to the base. Foul ball. Strike two.

The last pitch of my last at bat of the last game of the summer, of the world championship is, next. To speed things along, after dark there is a “must swing” rule, and even a foul ball with two strikes is an out. Two strike pitches under the must swing rule are hardly ever good ones; that’s a great strategy. I swing blindly in the area I think the ball might be and somehow make contact again. Except for me running to the base, everyone freezes. None of us could see where the ball went. The two fielders do not want to be hit by it. They listen closely in hope of hearing it land, sort of like a game of Marco Polo only without the swimming pool.

I was sure I had hit this one a long way. I started hitting home runs earlier this summer; now it is a regular thing. It is that short window of time when I am big enough to hit home runs but small enough that they are not automatic outs. I yell out, “It went over! We win!”
“No way,” said a voice in the dark. “It landed in the street. Foul ball, you’re out. We win.”

I tag first base, turn around, and run home and tag the plate with what I feel is the winning run before helping find the ball. I look in what is the obvious place to me: beyond the outfield fence. They stay near the street in foul territory.
“It’s lost,” someone eventually declares.
“It’s a tie,” someone else proclaimed. With our enthusiasm waning, we all agree that a tie is the best solution.

We pack up our equipment – everything except the ball – and head for home. That’s okay because it is this summer’s ball. Each spring we find a brand new ball and start all over. Except Jay doesn’t like baseball as much as the rest of us and says he probably won’t play anymore. Tom’s mom said they might move. By then I might be too big to play on this field. Besides, they won’t allow me to hit any more home runs because I’ll be old enough to play Little League. And there is a “For Sale” sign near the street in Doc Branson’s lot. If someone buys it, I wonder if they will even let us play there. What if they build a house on our field?

No matter what happens the next year, we had fun this summer. Today we played the best game ever. Nobody really knew how many innings we played, what the final score was or even who won. Like every game, we played until we were done. An empty feeling comes over me as we split off, each of us in a different direction. School is about to start and this is the final game of the season.
“What’s wrong?” mom asks when she sees me walk in the front door.
“Oh, nothing.”
“Did you have fun?”
“Yeah.”
“Then why do you look so sad?” she asked.
“Because now it’s over.”
It was the best game ever, but it’s over.

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