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The hope, heartbreak of baseball

The Circle of Life really isn’t a circle at all. It’s a diamond.

The revelation struck me like a line drive as I was standing out in the left field grass down at Western Gateway Park on Saturday morning. I had lots of time to think because the grass hadn’t been mowed and the balls heading out my way were being slowed almost to a standstill, which isn’t a bad thing when you’re playing left field in an Over 50 softball league. It’s sometimes good to let the ball come to a complete stop before bending down to pick it up. A lot of things can go wrong when you try to catch one on a fly, especially on the first morning of practice with the sun in your eyes.

Looking over my shoulder, I could see the Little League fields, where young boys and girls were just learning to swing a bat and catch a ball, their proud parents offering encouragement from the other side of the fences. “Keep your eyes on the ball!” shouted a dad. “Open your mitt so the ball can land in it!” offered a mom.



I’ve loved baseball for half a century and more. It is the one thing that has been constant in my life. And it’s not just about the game itself, although there is plenty about the game to love. It’s also about the smell of leather and grass. A signal that winter’s shadow is almost gone. A thawing of the spirit and body … get the creaks out … suck in the air … feel the sun recharging the batteries of the body’s natural solar panels … the sounds of catch … balls finding the deep, oiled pocket of a mitt that has been pulled from the hibernation of a closet or trunk or shelf; a time to see old friends and teammates, old, too, in a true sense of age. This Over 50 softball league features players well into their 70s who can still run and catch and hit, fellows who can barely remember their own days on sandlots and Little League fields of the 1940s and 1950s when they could run like the wind and swing with the fluid motion of a Willie Mays or Roberto Clemente.

There were maybe 60 yards of grass between my Senior Softball buddies and the Little League boys and girls behind us. Each yard represented maybe a year of life … one yard a first bicycle, two yards a first love, three yards a heartbreak … a 60-yard stroll through life. When I closed my eyes, though, I could hear similarities in the voices of the young and old, the commonality that is baseball. The tone is different, but the enthusiasm is the same.




“I got it!”

“He’s going home!”

“Move back!”

And in my mind I’m still the 10-year-old kid who could chase down a fly ball with ease and run from first to third with the speed of a jackrabbit, which is probably the biggest problem with this Over 50 league of ours. The mind plays nasty tricks. I can see the ball and I know exactly where I’m supposed to go catch it. But my legs don’t react as fast. It takes longer for the message to get from the head to the feet. Generally, long enough to arrive just in time to see the ball land and roll away.

I imagine that’s the moment those professional ball players finally decide to call it quits – that moment when they realize their bodies can no longer keep pace with the mind of a child. And it’s a sad thing. Sad enough to cause some to surrender completely to this thing called age. Which is why I love this Over 50 league so much. It offers hope. It’s a fountain of youth – that thing we all search for as the days and years whiz past faster than we can hold onto them. Many of my teammates might otherwise be home watching the grass grow on a Saturday morning if it weren’t for the chance to play one more inning of one more game. It’s what gets them through the long winters, when the fields finally surrender to the rain and frost.

In a poem titled “The Green Fields Of The Mind,” A. Bartlett Giamatti describes the game this way:

“It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come out, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.

“You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.

“Today, October 2nd, a Sunday of rain and broken branches and leaf-clogged drains and slick streets, it stopped and summer was gone.”

ooo

Jeff Ackerman is the publisher of The Union. His column appears on Tuesdays. Contact him at 477-4299, jeffa@theunion.com, or 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley 95945.


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