Backyard: Reflections on Baseball and Boyhood
By Mike Collins
The house I grew up in, among other things, featured a huge back yard. Our neighbors on both sides were blessed with precisely equal lot sizes and, even better, none felt the need to enclose their property with fences.
That vast expanse of real estate served many functions. Neighborhood gatherings of a magnitude that required all three parcels – barbeques, picnics, snowball fights and all manner of things relegated to fond memory took place there. Annual fireworks displays that pitted the skills of the biggest kids in the neighborhood (the collectivity known to us as our fathers) against each other were a revered annual event.
The one preeminent and defining use of that grand arena commenced in the spring of every year when a prehistoric Field of Dreams magically appeared immediately after the snow melted.
The first year we lived there was the beginning and the end of my father’s vain attempt to cure me of being left-handed. He threw countless fly balls to me that I caught with my face because his right-handed glove was apparently faulty. He was mortified at my monumentally feeble attempts to throw or bat right-handed. References to spending my time playing with my sister and her dolls were frequently issued.
I will never, ever forget the night he emerged from the back door (no doubt at my mother’s urging) with his hands behind his back. He presented me with a brand new ball and a left-handed glove. No reference to sexual preference or lack of proficiency was uttered. It was the only total capitulation I ever recall from him and it was HUGE. My play improved roughly 2000% instantaneously and he was eventually proud.
My yard was the infield. I took great pride in laying out base paths with my trusty lawnmower. Every year I tried in vain to match the patterns etched in the outfield by the groundskeepers at Municipal Stadium, the home of my beloved Kansas City Athletics. To this day the mere mention of the name Charlie Finley elicits rage in my heart.
There were enough boys in the neighborhood to field teams of at least four every day and we occasionally exceeded that number dramatically. It never occurred to us that the girls might play. They were there with us, leading cheers and waiting for Junior High School in the hope of becoming ‘popular’ – I don’t think any other arrangement ever crossed our minds.
Most days, my dog was designated catcher and center fielder simultaneously. He loved to play ball and, if he caught your ball on the fly, you were out. He’d perform his victory trot, return the ball to the pitcher and re-assume his duties as catcher. He was also the official timekeeper. When he got tired, he simply refused to return the ball. Periodically, he’d take the ball and retreat to a place just out of our easy reach. Lunges to recover the ball were pointless. Ultimately he would exit the field at a dead run, comfortable in the knowledge that none of us could catch him and delighting in our pre-adolescent attempts at profanity that were an integral part of the pursuit.
The number of windows sacrificed to the “National Pastime” in our neighborhood was legion. My little league coach lived next door and his bedroom window was the designated left field foul line. I learned invaluable additions to my rapidly increasing vocabulary of profanity from his wife through holes that were seconds earlier covered by glass. We all chipped in and maintained a ‘broken window fund’ just so Florence wouldn’t hate us.
Eventually the neighborhood stadium fell victim to evolution. The baselines got shorter every year due to the rapidly increasing length of our respective legs and our capacity to hit the ball exponentially farther made the field too small. My coach moved to Salt Lake City, girls somehow got more interesting and the games faded into memory. A couple of years later, my dad died and we moved to another neighborhood eventually.
Last time I was in town, I drove through the old neighborhood. For just a second I was running bases again.
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