It's snow one day and 80 degrees the next; the wind blows, rain falls, sun shines, flowers bloom and buds frost. It must be baseball season in Wallowa County.
Baseball, the sport that allows time between pitches and innings to think and talk, to compare today's players with yesterdays', one's own years ago experiences with the game in play. (Maybe the reason there is more good writing - poems, novels, stories in the New Yorker and in local magazines - about baseball than there is about any other sport. My own first paid-for piece, before even these Chieftain columns, was one on son Matt's first Little League season for the old Oregonian Sunday Magazine. I got $100 for it and thought I was launching a new career!)
In this blustery spring Shane Homan and I watch grandsons on the same team and I am making my first trip around with girls' softball. We relive our coaching days, watching our own kids, how serious we took it all, and how the ball blew off the batting tee even then. I remember Bill Williams Sr. talking about the last time Joseph High School had a baseball team-until he got tired of shoveling snow off the field for ball games.
It right away strikes me that baseball used to be a summer sport in northern places, and that organized ball, Little League primarily, has shoved seasons back to winter so that a few teams and players can meet in a World Series in Pennsylvania in August. Of course, hundreds of thousands of other players, myself included, have dreamed of and continue to dream about a trip to Williamsport, PA. I just looked it up, and Little League starts in Williamsport in 1939, and gets out of Pennsylvania and has its first World Series in 1947, when I was five.
At five I was trying to play baseball in small town Minnesota, hanging out at neighborhood games, picking up foul balls and aching to be asked to play. Somewhere between six and eight, maybe because I brought the lawn mower from our house to make baselines in the local park, I made it into the work-up games and found a spot in right field when there were enough kids to have teams.
That's where you started. Two big kids would be captains, someone would throw a bat into the air, one of them would grab it, and hand over hand they would each try to finagle the last hold on the end of it which gave the winner first pick. At six or seven when right field was still a big hope, I counted to make sure there were no more than 18 kids and hoped there was at least one younger or less skilled and waited red-faced to be picked.
I played baseball off the field too-three flies up and five hundred in extended back yards, collecting bubble gum cards, memorizing players' names and learning to read box scores in the newspaper. I learned long division early figuring out batting averages!
In 1952, when I was ten, we moved to California, where there was Little League, and my formal baseball career began. Over 50 years ago, and, although I thought I was pretty much done with it, here it is again, and here we are again, Shane Homan and I, cheering and chuckling, braving weather and long innings, looking backward and forward.
Ken Burns used baseball to tell the story of Civil Rights and the movement of African Americans into the American mainstream in his wonderful nine-part-"nine inning"-television special. My own head is filled with arcane information from Burns, dozens of baseball books I've read, and thousands of games I've played in and watched: Baseball would have been integrated earlier, but the big stadiums were rented out to Black teams when the Yankees and Cubs were on the road; grounds-keepers mow grass to speed up or slow down ground balls; a true "world league," with teams in Cuba and Mexico, was snuffed out by owners in the 1950s; Ty Cobb was not a nice guy.
In recent years, baseball seems to have followed the general trajectory of American life. It slumped when television glamorized football, got big on steroids looking for superstars and superstardom, got caught up with high flying stadium names like ENRON, and attempts now to capture some kind of golden age, when stadiums were smaller and kids watched games through peepholes and dreamed of playing inside them.
And the talk continues: The "new" Yankee Stadium fences are not as deep - what will that mean for the record books! Superstars-most recently Manny Ramirez, test positive for some outlawed drug. And the drugs and the games of using and detecting are as complicated as Wall Street's "financial instruments."
But at Blackburn Field in Joseph, it's still tag on a fly ball, get the force out at home, lay off the high pitches, and three strikes and you're out. And, in baseball, as has been said many times, getting a hit every third time you bat - hitting .300 - in Little League or Major League, is big-time success. Something worth remembering.