Our summer field of dreams
Last month, after an Oregon baseball game, fans were allowed on the field to watch the movie “Sandlot” on the big screen. It bought to mind summers past, specifically to the Backyard Baseball Association that I wrote about in my book, My Seasons:
I was doing some garage-sale pricing, going through all that leftover stuff of life that my wife, Sally, and I were only too glad to sell to someone else, when I came upon it: a little Atlanta Braves hat that looked decidedly small, as if it could fit on one of those bobblehead dolls you used to see in the rear windows of cars.
“Whatayathink, twenty-five cents?” she asked.
I barely heard her. Because when I saw that hat, I was back in the early ’90s, in our backyard, firing a Wiffle ball to a 10-year-old son wearing that hat, a kid whose nickname was Rosebud because, like Ted Williams, he had a tendency to yank everything down the right-field line, the foul territory of which consisted of his mother’s rose bushes.
Now when I say right-field line you need to visualize a left-field line because — well, because like most neighborhood baseball leagues, the Backyard Baseball Association (BBA) was not exactly conventional.
The league was founded in the early ’90s, the creation of my two sons, 11 and 8 at the time, and a couple of their pals of similar ages. Among their first decisions was that first base would be located at what we traditionally think of as third base. Why? Because our rectangular backyard — not much bigger than a doubles tennis court — was situated in such a way that if you were to overrun first base in its traditional location, you would smash into the right field fence, which was only about five feet beyond the bag.
(Over the years, this reverse-direction motif worked well, the only hitch coming after Michael Jenson, one of Jason’s pals and a kid on my Kidsports baseball team, once spent the night. The boys played BBA for about four hours that evening. The next morning, in a Kidsports game, Michael stepped to the plate, drove a single through the infield and promptly raced for third base. Fortunately, with me screaming from the third-base coach’s box, he turned from his wayward ways and safely reached first.)
So you get the idea: The (traditional) right field fence was shallow, a mere 30 feet from home plate. The (traditional) left field fence was 51 feet down the line, homers landing in Bendix Street and beyond.
Given such dimensions, you might assume that right field was the poke of preference. But a mere five feet from the right field fence was the garage of Mr. West, who spent nearly every waking hour working in that garage. Mr. West was a nice man; if he’d had a nickel for every Wiffle or tennis ball he tossed back in our yard during the nearly decade-long BBA existence, he could have bought the Yankees and had change to acquire Mike Piazza from the Mets.
But the BBA had a you-hit-it/you-get-it rule and nobody liked the hassle of climbing the fence and facing Mr. West.
What also made right field a risky choice was that every obstacle around the field was live, meaning that a ball on Mr. West’s slanted garage roof could, and sometimes would, bounce back into right field for an out.
Center field, 59 feet from the plate, was an all-but-impossible shot because towering Douglas fir stood just beyond the pitcher’s mound not only took away dead center, but the power alleys as well. That, of course, meant (traditional) left field was homer heaven, which always rankled young Jared McDonald, a left-handed hitter who had to go opposite field for his tators and still has about half a dozen would-be homers stuck in the bad-news branches of that tree.
Jesse, his younger brother, was a streak hitter, a kid whose first love was skate boarding and whose commitment to the game was forever being questioned by the press.
Jason, my younger son, was the smallest of the four, the foul ball king. He would rip three or four fall balls into the rose bushes or onto our house’s deck — we were continually restringing the wind chimes his great-grandfather, “Pop,” made us — and then hit a double or triple down the line.
Ryan, my older son, was the leader. He made the rules. (“If your team is ahead by 6, you have to bat opposite handed … No arguing … No changing rules during games, unless everyone agrees …”).
He edited the BBA News, a computer-generated weekly. (“The Bendix Buddies team is without lead-off hitter Jesse McDonald because of contract complications … The second game of the doubleheader was cut short because it was past Jared’s bedtime … The Bendix Buddies are having trouble keeping reporters out of the clubhouse … .”)
He drew up the contracts. (“I ——- make a commitment to play on the Bendix Buddies baseball team. And to play to the best of my ability in every game. I promise to miss only ——- practices and only ——- games. If I happen to miss more of either I agree to be dealt a one-game suspension.”)
He kept the statistics. (“Welch went 15-for-18 with four doubles, 14 RBIs, five home runs, and a grand slam, including two Effie Balls, one in the third deck.”)
The ultimate hit was what the boys called an “Effie Ball,” named in honor of Effie, the widow who lived across Bendix Street from the left-field fence, a woman who seemed to consider Wiffle balls in her rhododendrons more of an honor than an annoyance. Hitting Effie’s duplex meant a blow of at least 100 feet, 120 to the second deck (the porch area above her garage) and 130 feet to the third and upper deck (her roof).
Games were usually two-on-two, often Ryan and Jared vs. the two younger boys. Sometimes, I was called to be “all-time pitcher” to both teams. On such occasions, I would, in the spirit of professional wrestling, create different personas for myself, including “Robo Pitcher,” whose over-the-top jerky motion was always met with a barrage of boos, and the ever-controversial “Sidearm Sammy,” a closer from the South who threw such a wicked sidearm pitch that he jokingly claimed he actually released the ball from a neighboring zip-code area.
Whatever moundsmen my mind could conceive, their common denominator was this: All got unmercifully shelled. You might say I had a multiple personality pitching disorder. I can still hear the hoots and hollers as I’d slink to the garden shed, i.e., “the showers,” having once again been yanked by my impatient manager. And yet in the never-say-die spirit of sports, I would soon emerge — fist pumping in the air while the p.a. announcer introduced me — as some New Hope, the arm destined to bring this cocky kiddy corps to their humble knees.
Then one of the kids would do something like bounce a line drive off my forehead and it was back to the garden shed, the laughter from my opponents following me like pesky mosquitoes.
Like all good backyard leagues, what made BBA work was, as Yogi Berra might have said, 75 percent physical and the other half imagination. The boys would emerge from the house wearing the strangest uniforms imaginable — not some color-coordinated motif that came neatly folded in a box from Toys R Us, but wild stuff: multiple sweat bands, masking-taped numbers, batters’ shin guards made from old football thigh pads, perhaps an ankle wrap to give them that “I’m-hurt-but-still-tough-enough-to-play” look.
We built a chicken-wire backstop and a plywood scoreboard — “Welch Stadium” it said — whose Home and Visitors numbers were changed by spinning four wooden dials about the sizes of large pizzas. We used old poker chips to designate balls, strikes and outs.
The garden shed-turned-clubhouse was stocked with all sorts of bats — plastic, wood, re-tooled broomsticks, duct-tape enhanced, you name it — and other stuff: catcher’s gear, Kool-Aid, cups, a chalkboard, and a never-ending supply of sunflower seeds. Night games were lit with a halogen floodlight positioned atop the shed.
We used mainly Wiffle balls until they inevitably cracked, then we fortified them with duct tape, sometimes after wrapping them in yarn so every ball wouldn’t be an Effie Ball.
Videos were sometimes taken from a camera positioned on our almost-flat back porch roof. A taped version of The Star-Spangled Banner would begin special games, including one World Series in which we invited Jared and Jesse’s parents over for grilled hot dogs and the game.
Occasionally, All-Star games would be played, an interesting concept because traditionally such games feature only the league’s best players, but I never remember any of the four BBA players NOT making the team. I do remember some suspensions, however; like life itself, BBA was not without its darker side. As I recall, most suspensions involved the younger two players not taking the game as seriously as the older two thought necessary.
I remember a few thousand “out-safe” controversies — a batter was out if he didn’t reach second base before the ball was thrown against the side of the house — and, of course, the controversial Deck Addition of ’95, in which the Adult Housing Authority allegedly ramrodded through a proposal to shave off a smidge of the field as part of a kitchen add-on project.
“Smidge? You gotta be joking,” said Ryan, the BBA’s union representative, whose defiance suggested the AHA’s proposal was like someone recommending taking off just a smidge of Mona Lisa’s smile.
The AHA won that battle and, in later years, was able to put a small apple tree in foul territory down the (traditional) third baseline. When BBA gave way in the mid-’90s to teenagers with cars and jobs and arms so strong that Effie’s duplex would have been Wiffled to smithereens, a maple tree went into shallow (traditional) right.
Like an Ebbets Field relic, the scoreboard now lies on the side of the house, the victim of a decade of Oregon rain and a designer who stupidly chose interior plywood. Effie moved to Idaho and later died. The boys of summer have become men.
“Hello, Earth to Bob,” said Sally, waking me from the past. “So, twenty-five cents for the hat?”
We sold a ton of stuff at the garage sale on that Saturday morning not long ago. We sold a refrigerator, exercycle, hundreds of golf balls and a camp saw so cheaply made you’d have thought it came in a Cracker Jack box. We even sold a bunch of hats for a quarter a piece.
But Jason’s Atlanta Braves hat never made it to the display floor. It now hangs proudly near my workbench, alongside one of his brother’s. They are gentle reminders of the way it was on summer nights when little boys would slap a Wiffle ball into the sky and, with their faces flushed with big-league determination and youthful innocence, they would race madly for third base.