Wednesday, June 08, 2011

My Life in Baseball

MY LIFE IN BASEBALL

My earliest memories of baseball haunt the side yard of the "farm" I grew up on in Troy, Michigan. Most of our 12-acre property was a corn field or lay fallow, but about two acres was laid out like the diagram below.

On this field we played softball . . . carefully. Breaking windows in the house in shallow center field could result in the neighborhood season being canceled, at least until the window was fixed and paid for out of our meager allowance. So, we all, including we right-handed hitters, learned to hit to right field (a skill that came in handy later in church league softball!). You could also pull the ball to left field, but not too deep, so you wouldn't get a muck ball from the leaky sewage drain field. (How did we not get hepatitis, dysentery, hoof and mouth disease, or some other noxious crud? But we didn't.) The barn made a decent backstop, though you had to stay out of Mom's rhubarb that grew along the barn near home plate.

Over the years from 1949 to about 1957 ten to fifteen boys and the occasional girl (there were emergencies) played ball in that side yard on Crooks Road. Eventually we outgrew that "Field of Dreams" and rode our bikes all over Troy for miles to find a bigger venue. My leather fielder's mitt, with "Tommy Johnson" wood burned into the leather wrist strap, swung from the handle bars of my red and cream Schwinn Flyer.

Speaking of the “Field of Dreams,” one summer many years later, when our family was living in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the five of us took the long way “home” through Iowa to Clawson, Michigan, where my mother had moved after my Dad died and she'd sold the "farm" in Troy. We took the long way because we (mostly I) wanted to see the movie set of the "Field of Dreams" in Dyersville, Iowa. Dyersville is not on the way to anywhere, but after the movie, to the consternation of most locals, it became a tourist destination for thousands every summer. So, we too became pilgrims, traveling along gravel roads, driving through cornfields, to spend a couple hours at the venue made famous by the Kevin Costner movie. Two different families, with two separate concession stands, owned the property. We walked the bases, played catch, and imagined Shoeless Joe walking out of the corn in left field. We sat in the stands, ate our lunch, and bought a Field of Dreams cap and a small plastic vial of genuine Field of Dreams dirt, which I still have. On the way back to I-80, I crossed that one off the bucket list.

Back in elementary school we had a baseball team, though I don't remember much about it. There's a picture of me somewhere wearing a baseball uniform with a large letter P for Poppleton School sewn on the front. I am holding a bat far too big for me, an old 34-incher that weighed more than I could have handled ten years later in high school. I must have played ball in junior high, though I only remember the field out behind the school. Junior High was a black hole that sucked almost all but my worst memories away. (That's another story for another time.) But I survived to play ball in high school and even earned a varsity letter my 1961 senior year.

My most memorable moment came toward the end of that championship season. Coach McElreath came out to me on the mound - I was a left-handed reliever and whatever else would do the least damage possible, like right field with the center fielder shaded my way. "Just throw the fast ball," he announced loudly. I don't have a fast ball. I have a straight ball and a less straight ball. There are two out in the ninth inning. We have a 3-2 lead, but the enemy from Lake Orion has a runner on first. "Throw the fast ball," he says again. But we both know why I am in there, and it isn't to throw the fast ball.

The enemy wants to get their runner into scoring position on second base, and they have a track athlete on first ready to steal. I know he's going, and he knows I know he's going, and he doesn't care. He knows he can out run my "fast ball" and our catcher's throw and slide in safely. He's confident; he's done it many times this season. What he doesn't know is that every day I practice my pickoff move, throwing to first while looking toward the plate. The key is to step toward first. He watches my eyes, not my feet. As I stretch and come to a set, he takes a big lead. I toss the ball over to first and he gets back easily. He takes another big lead. This time, as I look toward home and make my move, he takes off. I step toward first and fire it to Glowacki. He rifles it to Caza at second, and we have him by ten feet. Game over, we win, and I didn't have to throw a single pitch, and that's a good thing, a very good thing.

Did my Dad ever come to watch me play? He must have, but I don't remember. I have a vague sense that he did and that he was disappointed in my "performance." I could be wrong about that since I have this vague sense that he was disappointed about most everything I did, and I could be applying that memory to his view of my ball playing. I vowed later, if I ever had a son or a daughter, never to be disappointed with their work.

I am short: I was about 5' 7" in high school, and with scoliosis and fifty years of gravity bearing down on me, I am now 5' 5", OK, maybe 5' 5 ½”! I also didn't weigh that much, maybe 125, 130 (150 now), and I was never physically strong. We didn't have a weight room in our small rural high school, and if he had, I probably wouldn't have used it. So, I was built to disappoint. I even disappointed myself, since until I was 12, I wanted to be a Major League Baseball player, like Harvey Kuenn, minus the tobacco wad in his bulging cheek. But by junior high, that cesspool of disappointment, it became clear that I didn't, as they say, have the "gifts." I couldn't run fast, throw hard, or blast doubles and homers. I didn't blast singles either, though, being vertically challenged, I drew a lot of walks. Counting walks, unblasted singles, and fluke doubles (sometimes opposing outfielders fell down), I hit over .300 my senior year in high school, the year my father died. Maybe he was proud in absentia.

How many of our team went on to play college ball, I do not know. Once you graduate from high school and drive out of the parking lot, you lose track of almost every friend you ever had, though you don't believe it's really going to happen. I don't even know who went to college, and it doesn't matter. Some pretty rotten human beings have gone to college, and some profoundly good people never did. What did matter was watching one of our All-County championship team go on to excel in NCAA Division 1 Big Ten baseball, get drafted by the pros, and play eight years in The Show, for the old Washington Senators, who became the Texas Rangers, and then with the St. Louis Cardinals. Through that friend, all of us lived out a boyhood dream that was gone but not forgotten. One day from Arlington, Texas there came in our mail a small box, and in it was a Nolan Ryan autographed baseball. It's on the shelf in my home right next to the one he signed for me in 1969, "Rich Billings."

I did actually pitch once in the Majors. One October afternoon, in the old Metrodome in Minneapolis, I threw out the opening pitch in a Twins game. The college where I worked had won a contest, and the Athletic Director chose me to throw that pitch. Lenny Webster caught and signed it, and they also sent me a Kirby Puckett ball. Another check on the bucket list.

From the first home football game in September of 1960 through four years, six months, and seventeen days to March of 1965, I dated exclusively the same girl, Michele Myers. We were married during a snow storm in a decrepit old Baptist church in Troy that we no longer attended. We are still married 46 years later. Among the many things we had in common way back then was a love of baseball. I learned that before we met she used to make and keep her own scorecards for the Tigers games she listened to on WJR almost every night. Impressive! And she hated the Yankees, a very attractive quality in any person.

Michele could play catch acceptably, but her batting left something to be desired, but then so did mine. Her defense was outstanding, as I rarely got past second base, at least in the early years, and I never scored until our wedding night, a both rare and dubious accomplishment, I am told. As you can see, I was never the Charlie Sheen- "Wild Thing" - of the 60's. We’ve followed the Tigers through all the years that we’ve lived in California, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, back to Michigan, on to North Carolina, then to South Dakota (where I got to watch my own son play ball and my daughters play soccer and basketball), Oregon (where we adopted the Seattle Mariners as our second favorite team), and finally (so far) to Washington, where we see 10-12 Mariners games a year. In 2010 we spent a week at the Tiger’s spring training in Lakeland, Florida. Another check on the old bucket list.

I do “manage” three fantasy baseball teams, one in Yahoo, one in CBS Sports, and the crucial one, a league of our own, concocted by a lawyer and a mathematician, that I've "owned" a team in for ten years. Every day from April through September I get the paper and read the box scores to see how my players did the night before. It's an obsession, but an inexpensive one, unlike my baseball card and memorabilia collection, my Internet subscription to every MLB game on radio, our trips to spring training (Arizona next season), the games we attend every year, and my plan to see a game in every major league stadium before I die.

And now you know my life in baseball.

Tom Johnson
Whidbey Island
Coupeville, WA
Summer 2011

3 comments:

Tom said...

See the Wikipedia article on "Dick Billings."

Tom said...

See the diagram of the Crooks Road home field at:
https://picasaweb.google.com/tfj1943/CrooksRoadHomeField

Phil said...

Very interesting, Tom. I started following baseball later in life. My nephew, Chris Reitsma, had a promising pitching career with the Reds and then the Braves. His arm disappointed him and he finished his career in Seattle a few years ago.
Phil