Monday, March 05, 2007

One Man's Love for Basketball: First, Baseball

It's about time for a series of essays. I want to write on a topic that has long been close to my heart: basketball. Those who know me well know that I've long loved this game. Over the next few days, I want to try and write a few meaningful thoughts on my love affair with roundball, which begins with my love for baseball. What one finds in such an exercise is that the story ends up not so much as a recounting of an affection for a sport, but of a retelling, from an angle, of one's life.

Growing up in coastal Maine, I initially loved baseball. Before I knew the value of particular baseball cards, I collected them and tried to get an entire team's worth of cards. I can still remember trading cards with my next-door neighbor, Michael. Michael persuaded me to trade some good cards for some Angel cards. For some reason, I was into the Angels. My interest cost me dearly. I can still remember gradually discovering that I was being taken advantage of. It was probably the first time I realized that such an experience existed.

I loved baseball and memorized countless statistics. I'm not sure why, but young boys love memorizing sports statistics. In retrospect, it doesn't make much sense, but the relatively low long-term value of the practice didn't occur to me then. I remember asking for Bill James' book of baseball facts and stats and, once I had gotten it, poring over it time and time again. When my parents, my sister and me traveled on long car trips to our grandparent's homes, I looked forward to the opportunity to spend hours reading and memorizing and thinking about baseball. Though I had never seen a big-league game, baseball had touched something in my soul.

That intangible quality became practical when I entered my Little League years. That's ages 9-12 for those who don't know. I loved Little League. I was one tiny Little Leaguer. My father coached my Little League team, earning my undying favor. We were the Redwings, and we won zero games our first year. Our next year, we won one game (over the other expansion team). Our third year, I don't remember how we did, but I made the Junior All-Star team. I played second-base. My senior year, I made the All-Star team. I played second base on that too. Though I was an unspectacular baseball player, one of the athletic highlights of my life occurred in the All-Star season. You who are reading this probably don't know how big Little League All-Stars used to be in my hometown. Both of the local papers devoted much coverage to it, and tons of folks came out to the games. I grew up in a small town, and there wasn't much going on. So when All-Star season hit, it was big news. People lined the little field, people of all ages, buying cheap candy, young kids dashing around, parents straining to see their child perform.

In one of our games, we were playing a tough team--Hampden, I think--and the batter rocketed a line drive off our pitcher's ankle. I scooped it up, touched second base, and threw to first. My first and only unassisted double play. It made the headline in the local paper. I can still hear the roar of the crowd and feel the pound on the back that my coach gave me. Even as I write this, my spine tingles. Moments like that stick with you.

Baseball was a fickle friend, though. I recall seeing my best friend get hit in the eye with a 60 mile an hour fastball. That may not sound bad, but he was a nine-year-old, and it was from 46 feet (or thereabouts). It was horrifying. It scarred him, and me, for the rest of our careers. I never was a hugely confident hitter, and I think seeing him lying on the ground, screaming, had a profound impact on me. After all, I was the next kid to hit. My legs trembled so hard I'm surprised I could stand up. That was athletics--like so much of life, beauty mixed with pain.


Blogger Jed said...

I never knew you liked baseball THAT much as a kid. It's a shame that basketball replaced baseball as number 1. After all, we'll all be baseball fans in heaven--phillies fans, to be precise. Although the late Dr. Ronald Nash would have disagreed, arguing for the Cleveland Indians instead, I remain convinced that we will all be Calvinistic paedobaptist national league devotees.

9:17 AM  

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