When I Was A Kid, Baseball Was Life
As a little kid, I can remember walking up to complete strangers at Dairy Queen and, unsolicited, reciting the Oakland A's batting order including current batting averages.
I would wake up for kindergarten and read the Star Tribune sports page for the box scores over a bowl of Cap'n Crunch. If I was really lucky my dad would have a copy of USA Today's now-extinct "Baseball Weekly" newspaper, which contained more baseball information than anything else on Earth. The Sunday paper was the best, with feature stories and stats for every single team in the league.
I was more than happy to wake up early each and every Saturday morning for "This Week In Baseball" with Mel Allen where I could see highlights from all around the league. I once told a girl (to much laughter) that the saddest part of every year was when Allen signed off with "So long everybody, we'll see you next season."
When ESPN reached full stride in their coverage of MLB in the early 1990's my dad would always get me out of bed, even on a school night, to see live coverage any time someone had a no-hitter going in the eighth or ninth inning.
He also brought me to the local bar for the World Series every year, even after the time in 1990 that I cried hysterically after seeing my beloved Oakland A's get swept by the Reds.
My parents went through a breakup while the Twins were in the World Series in October of 1991. I was dropped off here and there while they went to work, with every babysitter enacting different rules. There was one thing that was not negotiable: I would stay up as late as I needed to to watch the World Series, with Baseball Weekly sprawled out in front of me until I fell asleep.
As always, baseball was the one constant no matter what was going on in my life.
I owned a Nintendo when I was little, but it only collected dust in the spring and summer when we spent hours upon hours every day playing baseball.
For years, starting around age two, my dad would take me out and practice with me every day. During the day he would work eight to ten grueling hours setting tile, but he never was too tired or cranky to take me outside to play ball.
As I got a little older, he instituted a point system to keep the practicing from getting too intense or work-like. He knew the game should be fun, so he would say "If you catch 50 pop flies in a row you get fifty points, and if you get 350 points today I will take you to the Twins game tomorrow."
I rarely got enough points for the prizes, but at the same time he usually ended up taking me to the game anyway.
When dad was tired, as rare as it was, it was up to others to pick up the slack. I sure as hell wasn't taking a day off.
Many times my grandma, Inky, would take me into the backyard to throw me batting practice.
She still hasn't lived down the time she accidentally beaned me as a little kid with a ball thrown a few steps below a lob, my trust in her forever betrayed!
Eventually summer would come and the neighborhood pick-up games would begin. I was competing with kids twice my age or older, but who would happily (and patiently) coach me along.
Usually we just played in the backyard with my mom's friends' kids, the Willbanks. There were three of us most days: a pitcher, a fielder and a batter. We were lucky to have one baseball at a time, with most of them coming from mailing in Frosted Flakes UPC symbols for a plastic ball with Tony the Tiger's face prominently featured on the sweet spot.
We never broke a window on any of the neighbor's houses (that we admitted to, anyway). We did, however, have a chronic problem with hitting foul balls backward and into the neighbor's above-ground pool, protected by a pair of fences.
Even if we did get past the obnoxious lhasa apso in the yard and over the fence to retrieve the ball, it would be five times as heavy and water-logged to boot.
On the days when we didn't have a ball to play with we would break out the trading cards and make trades. I can remember a time when Twins catcher Brian Harper came to our elementary school and signed a few autographs for some lucky kids. I was not one of them, but I happily traded a 1980 Reggie Jackson Topps card that I had acquired during the morning bus ride for a signed Harper 1989 Donruss 'Diamond Kings' card on the evening ride home.
Better yet, when we got restless or it was storming outside, we would "gamble" with our doubles by sitting at the end of the hallway and flinging them frisbee-style toward the wall. The closest card to the wall would win all the cards in play.
I can remember my dad coming home from a run to the gas station with a 1989 Topps 'rack pack' (essentially three packs of baseball cards in one) while I was on the swings in the backyard. We opened the cards together, and I pulled out a Gary Gaetti card to which my dad exclaimed "Not bad for a seventy-five cent pack of cards!"
In reality the card was worth maybe a nickel, but in 1989 cards were still for kids and I was happy to get a Twins player in one of my packs!
As we grew up, one of the Willbanks boys got tired of playing baseball and stopped coming out to join us. For a couple of years in the hot sweltering sun, we would play one-on-one baseball games at the local elementary school. That meant one of us was doing the pitching AND trying to chase the ball down while the other hit away. A pop-up back to the mound was a godsend.
As the years went on I never amounted to much as a baseball player, but I have never lost the passion I hold for America's Pastime.
It is hard to see an entire generation of kids who have no interest in gathering up their pals and playing a game of baseball on a hot summer day. No parents, no uniforms, no umpires: the game in its purest form.
You get the sense that most current professional players grew up with camps, clinics, expensive equipment and traveling teams as opposed to playing the game for fun.
I can only hope that somewhere out there plays a kid who gets as much joy from the game as I did.