The Rites of Spring and Other Seasons

Breaking in a new glove was always a thrill as a kid. (via Snapmann)

They sounded just like soldiers, a battalion of gallant troops.

They sounded, to a man, like men — the kind I needed to be. I was 12 years old and young, a kid at the edge of readiness, and while seated on the bleachers behind the chain-link backstop I watched with awe, and listened, as the team of teenagers stepped from the dugout to the walkway that separated the field from the parking lot, a place of coming and going. For me, in the minutes between their game and mine, it was a place of waiting … and waiting … and waiting for what would not come soon enough: no, not the “play ball!” of my 6:30 start time but, rather, the passage into manhood that metal spikes, and only metal spikes, would signal. Their rhythmless march — all crunch-crunch-crunch across the summer pavement — seemed the clearest indication that those 13- and 14-year-olds had officially grown up.

Rites of passage are everywhere significant and at all times in practice. In anthropological terms, they signify the transition from a lower to higher status — a more exalted realm. A rite of passage is baptism, first communion, rumspringa. It is the white-coat ceremony in medicine and the black belt in martial arts: the moment you become a doctor, the moment you can put somebody in need of one. Often it is a coming of age, marked by a formal initiation from childhood to adulthood: the bar mitzvah, the quinceañera, the debutante ball … the debut of those glorious spikes.

Baseball, indeed, has its own rites of passage, especially in the realm of Little League and echelons like it. And though they lack the formality of other such transitions, they still distinguish entry into a cool new group. With time, one can turn rubber cleats, like training wheels, into relics of youth.

Making the Team

When I began playing ball, I did so in a YMCA uniform. Correction: It wasn’t a uniform so much as a T-shirt adorned with iron-on letters and a pair of matching trousers — Toughskins, probably, with reinforced knees, no doubt.

For better or worse, the idea of “making the team” was no concern. You made the team when Mom signed you up — well, when she paid the fee.

When I turned 10, following two years of service in YMCA ensembles, I moved up to Boys Baseball Incorporated — BBI, for short. This was the preadolescent equivalent of going from short-season A ball to Triple-A. You skipped the bus rides to Batavia, basically, and went right to Pawtucket.

The problem, however, was this: Though Mom had filled out the necessary paperwork and (I assume) paid the fee, I hadn’t actually made the team.

Instead, I had to “try out.”

The noun form is the “tryout,” of course, and notwithstanding those terrifying rumors of “spin the bottle” and other such teenage undertakings, no other term in the history of kiddom had quite the same capacity for intimidation. The tryout: It promised a vicious brand of degradation perpetrated by lightly mustachioed 10-year-olds who throw rocks at a would-be shortstop sprinting in panicked retreat toward Mom’s green Caprice, a haven from the disgrace.

That, anyway, was precisely what I envisioned as I stepped onto the practice field for the initial phase of my tryout with the BBI team. Worse, the other kids seemed like seasoned … well, not professionals, that’s true, but experienced amateurs, like they’d done this a gazillion times. And they weren’t even “trying out,” not really, not like I was. All their dads were coaches. All the coaches were dads. They tugged at their coaches shorts and said, “Good job, son,” but I was never going to be a son. I was going to “get cut,” and I knew it. I could hear it now, on my street or in Sunday school. “You got cut?”

It’s hard, as you yourself might recall, to take batting practice when one foot is in the batter’s box and the other in Mom’s dented four-door. It’s harder still when the pitcher is that one kid’s dad. He wants to play shortstop, too, that kid, and his dad is on the rubber, gripping the scuffed-up baseball even as the sun has begun to go dim.

You can barely see the ball. It’s a trap!

And here comes the pitch, a heater low and away.

On Baseball, Game Design, and Output Randomness
Considering baseball through the lens of game design.

After practice the coach calls everybody in. The players all gather around him.

Here it comes. Mom, start the car.

“Okay,” he begins, “I just want to say that you’ve all made the team.”

And every kid — even every coach’s kid — goes “phew!’

Donning the Uniform

I stared at myself in the mirror, the full-length in my mom’s room. It was less an act of vanity than an expression of disbelief, that I, a kid who a season ago had worn a maroon T-shirt and (I kid you not) plaid trousers should now be seen, first by himself and soon by others, in an actual uniform. I had brought it home that evening, after the coaches had presented one to each player following our fifth or sixth practice. It still smelled of the plastic bag it came in, but in a good way, as fresh as a new toy.

Toys were for kids, though, little kids, with sticky fingers and snotty nostrils.

Me? I had moved on. My uniform said so.

Light blue in color, the jersey featured gold-and-black bands on the sleeves. These were not the kind of sleeves a kid wipes boogers on. It also boasted my number, 29, over the left breast, legitimizing me as a singular member of a league-approved team.

I had tucked in the jersey, crisply, beneath the waistband of the bright white pants. Those pants, as yet unstained, boasted a black-and-gold stripe along each outside seam. A black belt, cinched tight, held it all in place. The pants gave way to light blue stirrups over white socks, a look that major leaguers had made prominent via This Week in Baseball. My older brother had taught me how to fold the top of the stirrups into the bottom of the pants just below the knee, and how to keep it tightly precise.

Atop my head sat a light-blue cap, poised at a major league angle and with the bill suitably curved. At the center of the cap’s panels stood the letter “T,” for Texans, in shiny gold fabric bordered by thick black thread. I stared at the mirror. I had never seen myself like this, in any reflection. I resembled one of those kids I had always looked up to, the older kids, like my brother and his teammates, playing on those bigger fields over there.

Days later, in the hours before our opening game, I stood before the mirror once more. I gazed at myself but no longer in disbelief. I believed. I had the faith — faith that I belonged in what I wore. It fit. On my feet were the cleats.

They were new, barely out of the box. You could still smell the rubber.

Shaping the Glove

Something else I could smell — and, in a way, still can — was the Glovolium, the go-to glove oil of the era. I had smelled it for years already, if not in the den then in the bedroom I shared with my brother. He had been oiling his glove for several seasons and now had taught me how to break in mine, as if this were a cultural tradition passed down from generation to generation.

And really, it was. My dad had taught my brother and my brother had taught me.

You begin by beating it, kneading it. Then you apply the Glovolium. After rubbing it in, you bend the fingers and palm: stretch, twist. You get it soft and pliable — but not too pliable, no, lest some future liner go bouncing away.

Next, you rub more oil in the pocket. You slide your hand in the glove: fingers in the fingers, palm in the palm. You pound a ball in the pocket. You get the feel of it. It gets the feel of you. This is your glove, after all. It is conforming to your hand, your way of catching. This is the way you want it. The glove has begun to match your anatomy. It is becoming a piece of you. It is almost a piece of you.

Now you remove your hand from the glove and spread more oil in the pocket. You put the ball, maybe two balls, in the pocket and curl the glove around the contour. You wrap it snugly, maybe with a necktie or belt. We had no necktie in the house because we had no dad in the house, so we had to use a belt. Then came the coolest part, the part that made no sense but that still seemed perfectly logical somehow.

You’d sleep with it. I would, anyway. I’d place it beneath my pillow and then drift to dreams that put the glove to better use — snaring hot one-hoppers, making a quick tag for the final out. The idea was to create a long-lasting pressure that you otherwise couldn’t provide. It would finalize the process by further softening the leather and securing the conformation of pocket to ball.

The crick in my neck argued otherwise, but I supported the process. I believed in it, just as any boy would believe in the rightness of the folklore he had learned. To question the process would have been to question the system, to challenge the gospel of Santa Claus and the doctrine of Sweet Tarts at Halloween. It would have been to renounce the house I grew up in.

And so I slept on it, allowing my pillowed head to connect with the glove even as I lay unaware. In sleep came the most private cooperation, a partnership gathering strength in unspoken moments. What I believe now, decades hence, is that the value of the final act came not in its science but in its art, the strange abstraction that makes a bond more solid than its molecules. I was growing up in that house. The house is where you grow up.

Wearing the Eye Black

Fed and clothed, and loved, and given rides to practice and games, and given rides back home again, I myself had something to care for: my glove, fully conformed to the shape that genetic inheritance had given me.

The purpose of equipment, though, is performance, not instruction. The glove isn’t there to teach you lessons about burden and obligation, hard truths about responsibility and the importance of safeguarding property. It’s there so you can snare hot one-hoppers, make quick tags for the final out.

To those ends came the eye black. You remember the eye black. It was, and is, dark grease applied in a stripe under each eye. Its purpose, ostensibly, is to reduce the glare of sunlight and stadium lights. Per the oral tradition of the time, it totally worked. The elders had caught high-noon pop-ups that they otherwise wouldn’t have seen. They’d snared long drives in the afternoon glare and, it was said, wheeled around to double up the runner at second.

That’s what the elders had told us, and that’s what we told the elders.

“Yeah, Mom, it’s to … uhhhhh … reduce glare. Y’know?”

The real purpose, as everyone knew, was to look like a bad-ass.

Even as a kid of 10, I understood that the purpose of playing the game was to win, not to have fun. Winning was what was fun. Playing well was fun, too, in particular if it supported the W. If I went 3-for-4 at the plate and played error-free in the field, then I had fun, especially if the scoreboard confirmed it.

To feel like a victor at the end of the game, it helped to feel so before it. The eye black served me well. It made me feel like a warrior. It was war paint, and even if latter-day tests would prove that its efficacy is no myth, that — whaddya know? — it actually does reduce glare, its potency inhered less in fact than in faith, less in evidence than in the belief that it made me better.

Once the eye black went on, I was more than the boy I was before … just moments before. Boys goof around. They play games. I was here to beat you, and my war paint said so. Those other kids, on that other team, they wore it too, the war paint. They were also here to win.

You live and learn growing older.

Defeating the Pain

I don’t remember the first time I wore the war paint. Coach Marlow — he’s the one who always applied it to our faces, dipping a finger in the grease or shoe polish or whatever it was and then exclaiming, “Go get ’em!”

And so we would go, and we would get ’em.

Still, I can’t recall when it first occurred. Was it prior to the first game? Was it prior to the second, following a poor performance on opening day? Did it come before the playoffs? Given that the memory is less episodic than explicit — that is, less localized on a specific moment than on a set of similar times — I view the eye-black applications today as a kind of a coming-of-age anthology, not a commencement exercise but a series of them.

By contrast, I do remember — unequivocally so — many of my baseball firsts. You might remember your own. Me, I remember my first base hit and first over-the-fence home run. (I wrote about them here.) Such inaugurations are inseparable from the autobiography you have in your head. They might not have made you who you are today, no, but they sure didn’t make you someone else. They were part of you then and so they are part of you now.

That inaugural base hit or home run, however, is not necessarily a rite of passage even by virtue of its prime position. Milestones, in and of themselves, do not confer upon the person an irreversible shift in status and/or maturity. Your first double? Your first double play? Look, even if you were the keystone corner on that 5-4-3 twin killing, you’d already turned two in practice, right? You had done it a gazillion times.

Muscle memory, as it turns out, is the cruel saboteur of actual memory.

Of course, some milestones do qualify as rites of passage. And not every milestone, even in baseball, is statistically quantifiable. I remember my first injury. In that time and place we called it a “strawberry.” Others, I’ve learned, call it a “raspberry.” That said, a deep abrasion by any name is just as sore.

As a leadoff hitter, I stole a lot of bases. I’d like to say that they were all of the standing-up variety, like, “Wow, that No. 29 just stole another base standing up! And speaking of standing up, let us all stand now for a standing ovation!”

But no — unless it came on a wild pitch or passed ball, every theft concluded with a slide. Back then, nobody slid headfirst. And for my part, I lacked the ability to slide on my left side. Even though the coaches had put us through sliding practice, I just couldn’t do it. And so I slid only on my right side, inning by inning, game by game, week to painful week.

By midseason I sported a massive strawberry over my right hip. Raw and red, it resisted all treatment. No amount of ointment or padding or prayer could relieve the pain or reduce the rawness. The skin around it lay black and blue and swollen. After games it would stiffen. I would limp into bed. There, beneath my baseball sheets, I’d sleep on my stomach or left side.

By season’s end, and come playoff time, a painful hip pointer had teamed with the strawberry to form a terrible twosome of torture. Did all this suffering, this agony, qualify as a milestone? Maybe. Did it rank as a rite of passage? Probably not. What made it a rite of passage, I think, came late in a game at the BBI national championship tournament for us 9- and 10-year-old boys.

Rounding third on a hit to the outfield, I raced toward home plate for the go-ahead run. Directly atop the plate, as plain as day, lay the bat of the teammate who had just hit the ball. The umpire hadn’t managed to move it.

I got closer, closer, closer. The bat stayed in place. In moments the catcher crouched to field the throw. I kept racing, racing, racing to the run. The kid then caught the throw. I had to slide. And I did — directly over the bat, on my right hip, black-and-blue, bleeding, swollen. Upon coming to a stop I screamed in agony. I writhed in the dirt and the cloud of dust. Even as the ump yelled “safe!” I just kept rolling around, and screaming, clutching my hip.

At last a coach came to help me up. “You’re the man,” he said.

Overcoming the Grown-Ups

Other men, actual men, were always in the bleachers behind home plate. In the regular season or postseason, during day games or night, they would root for their own boys by rooting against us, the wearers of other caps. Even as a child of 10, and then 11, I thought it odd that grown men with real mustaches would actively celebrate the failures of a little kid who, earlier in the day, had watched Cartoon Carnival. But such is life. You learn it fast.

You learn, too, that the dark side of all those After-School Specials, all those you-can-do-it productions wherein the kid goes yard and returns home a hero, is the kid who goes home in tears. He’s half the consequence of battle.

Such, again, is life, or life outside symbiosis, and you learn early that the 42-year-old insurance salesman directly behind home plate would like nothing better than to see you, a 110-pound sixth grader, go down swinging.

What can really bother a kid is not so much the barbs of enemy parents but, instead, the back-handed encouragement of your own pitcher’s dad, your own catcher’s mom, just as you step to the plate: “C’mon, you’re due!”

I’m what?

“You’re due!”

Whaddya mean, I’m due? Like half the kids out here, I’m batting 500!

But no — according to statistical analysis performed ad hoc by a 38-year-old dietitian, I was due. And being due was different than having ducks on the pond. Having ducks on the pond simply meant that a plurality of runners were on base, typically in scoring position. Sometimes it meant the bases were loaded, but always that I, the batter, would be wise to knock them in.

Still, ducks on the pond — unlike you’re due — exerted no undue pressure on a kid. Ducks implied opportunity. Due, on the other hand, implied a moral obligation. To be due, and then to fail, would constitute a dereliction of duty.

But such, as ever, is life. I still remember the night, at Norbuck Park, when I decided to stop being disturbed by due and, you know, do something about it. I got set in my stance, gazed at the pitcher and soon I wasn’t due anymore.

Feeling the Loss

I was crying as I stepped through the summer darkness and onto the team bus. I hoped that in that blackness, in that nearly lightless and now empty lot, the parents and coaches would not see the tears that marked me. I hoped they would not hear my whimpers, the little sounds that push back the sobs.

It had been two years since the coach told me, “You’re the man.” Now, as our team of 11- and 12-year-olds entered the Greyhound and shuffled along its low-lit center aisle, I heard little but those shambling steps and all that muffled anguish, each of my teammates’ like my own. Through shadows gray and dim I took a seat near the back, hoping to shrink into whatever is closest to nothingness, whatever is imperceptible to anyone on the outside.

Slumped against the seatback, I turned my head to look through the bus window. Through it I saw the field where my team had just been destroyed, and eliminated, in this national title tournament.

I had known grief on the diamond, and just at its edge. Two years earlier, only days after I slid into home with the go-ahead run, we had lost the national title game when our left fielder, settling under a deep fly ball for the final out, got his heel stuck in the the outfield fence. The ball dropped. We lost. Afterward, as I accepted the runner-up prize during the awards ceremony, I said thank you to the man who had presented it to me. Beside me, my coach looked down and said, “Attaboy.”

Now, two years beyond that August afternoon, I sat alone and cried.

The game was over, our tournament finished. I wanted to go back and play that game again, to make it right this time. Also, I never wanted to play again.

I sat there looking sideways.

Reaching the Spring

The day was a bright one, and warm, and with teammates beside me and the diamond ahead and I went crunch-crunch-crunch across the walkway.


John Paschal is a regular contributor to The Hardball Times and The Hardball Times Baseball Annual.
newest oldest most voted
Dennis Bedard
Member
Dennis Bedard

I know this is somewhat of a family oriented site but you forgot about a boy’s first kiss and first time waking up in the morning from a drunken stupor. For me, the “clank clank” of metal hitting concrete brings back springtime memories not of baseball but of caddying at the local country club.

hopbitters
Member
hopbitters

Nice work, John. I miss TWIB. Also, Mel Allen.