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play ball!

April 21, 2018

Baseball season is underway. There have been a few delays because of snow and cold weather, but the boys of summer are at it again for another season.

Baseball is a sport that has long been one of my favorites. I played the game as a kid. Tommy Stokes and I were teammates and have remained life-long friends. Tommy played second base and sometimes catcher. I alternated between third base and right field.

I remember well the trip my grandfather and I took to Florida when I was in the tenth grade. The venture was a fishing trip, but my grandfather had previously suffered two heart attacks and a stroke. His health problems prevented him from driving. Since I had recently obtained my South Carolina driver’s license, I drove his 1955 Oldsmobile. His doctor told him he could fish only every other day. He complied, but on the off days we traveled all over the Sunshine State to see spring training games. Spartanburg County native Art Flower was a pitching coach for the Dodgers. We visited him in the dugout before a game and then watched the Dodgers shut out the Phillies.

My wife does not share my fondness for baseball. She has endured a few games but would just as soon watch corn grow. Clare has three suggestions as to how baseball can be improved.

  1. Baseball players need uniforms that fit. They spend entirely too much time pulling and tugging as they adjust their uniforms.  The gyrations of baseball players trying to get comfortable are unsightly if not obscene.
  2. Clare suggests that every team ought to be required to have a dentist to advise the players on their unhealthy habits of chewing and dipping. Spitting is another problem.  Seeing players expectorate on the field, in the dugout, and on their gloves is disgusting.  Why, she wonders, should a spitball be illegal when all other spitting is permitted?
  3. Clare believes baseball would be a better game if a clock were used to time the contest.  The fans could be assured that time would eventually run out. Clare has never understood extra innings.  To her, they only prolong the agony.

I have invented a game — ceiling fan baseball. I offer it tongue-in-cheek. It requires three or more players and a ceiling fan with adjustable speeds, allowing the game to be played at beginner, intermediate, or advanced levels.  Advanced, of course, uses the highest speed. Caution: the ceiling fan should not have a light bulb beneath.

The game is simple. A Wiffle ball or a Nerf ball is preferable. The pitcher stands directly under the ceiling fan and tosses the baseball up into the whirling blades of the fan. The other players are fielders. They take their positions around the room with their baseball gloves. The only person who can score is the pitcher.

If the ceiling fan misses the ball, that is a strike. The pitcher earns five points for a strikeout.  If the ball hits the floor after being whacked by the ceiling fan, the pitcher gets one point.  If the ball hits the wall, that is a home run and the pitcher is awarded three points.  The first player in the outfield to catch the ball three times becomes the pitcher.  If the pitcher throws a ball into the fan and the fan hits the ball and breaks out a window, smashes a picture, or breaks a vase, the pitcher is ejected from the game, loses five points, and is responsible for cleaning up the mess.

As the season progresses there will be teams at the bottom of the standings. Fans of those teams can console themselves with ceiling fan baseball. After all, it is the only version of the national pastime in which the fan gets to hit.

Several years ago I opened a brand new box of shredded wheat.  As I poured the nutritious squares into a bowl, a small pack of baseball cards fell out of the box.  The cards were made by the Topps Company.  Among them was a Chipper Jones card.  Finding the surprise was an early morning experience that would have gladdened the heart of any Atlanta Braves fan.  Chipper Jones had been a perennial all-star as a third baseman.

I can remember the first baseball cards I collected.  They, too, were made by Topps.  Each pack included a flat piece of stale, pink bubble gum.  The adventure inherent in opening a pack of baseball cards was discovering the pictures of the best players.  Those little pieces of cardboard were treasures.  Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Duke Snider were among the cards I valued most.  I kept them in an old Tampa Nugget cigar box on the closet shelf.

Sometimes my friends and I would choose a less desirable baseball card, fold it in half, and attach it to our bicycles with a clothespin.  The sound made by the rubbing of the card against the spokes of the wheel mimicked the roar of a motor; at least it did in our imagination.

After I left home to go to college, my mother, in a flurry of closet cleaning, got rid of my cigar box full of baseball cards. I couldn’t believe it! I was bereft. In today’s market, that small collection would have been worth a king’s ransom.  I am amazed at how the value of cardboard can appreciate.

Our son, Kris, was our baseball card collector as a youngster.  Among his favorites was the rookie card of Cal Ripken, Jr.  He even has a Chipper Jones rookie card.  It was autographed by the future Major League star when he played a game at Duncan Park in Spartanburg. Then Jones was a first-year player in the minor leagues, playing shortstop for the Macon Braves.  One night when the Spartanburg Phillies were playing the team from Macon, Georgia, Kris took his prized rookie card and an indelible marker to the game.  While the Phillies were at bat, Kris handed the card and marker over the fence behind the visitor’s dugout.  A very young Chipper emerged, signed the card, and handed it back to Kris.

Kris and I have spent many hours together talking about baseball, cataloguing cards, and enjoying the national pastime on television.  At the time, Ryne Sandberg was his favorite player.  Sandberg started his career with the Spartanburg Phillies.  He was traded to Chicago and played his major league career for the Cubs at Wrigley Field.  Sandberg was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.  On Kris’ tenth birthday I gave him a Topps rookie card of the Cubs’ second baseman.

The following year, I got a surprise for my birthday.  I opened a small package from Kris.  Inside was a Topps baseball card picturing Rocky Colavito, my favorite baseball player when I was a kid.  Rocky was the center fielder for the Cleveland Indians, a power hitter who hit four home runs in one game as a major leaguer.  When Rocky Colavito was in the minor leagues, he played for the Spartanburg Peaches at Duncan Park.  Rocky lived in a spare bedroom at my grandmother’s house on South Converse Street while he played in Spartanburg.

The other day I enjoyed a bowl of shredded wheat with a perfectly ripe banana sliced on top.  I remembered the surprise of finding the cards and thought about the way our lives are enriched by small things like cardboard pictures of baseball players.  Though they have some monetary value, their greatest value is in the memories they create.

A parable in the Bible says that the kingdom of heaven is like a man who finds a treasure hidden in a field and goes and buys the field.  Maybe the kingdom of heaven is like a grown man who finds a baseball card in his breakfast cereal and, for a moment, feels like a kid again.

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