Ah, rites of spring, relief from dolor of winter nights and soggy socks. Tulips bloom, dogwoods uncurl their leaves, neighbors fire up outdoor grills, lawnmowers rumble to life, and box scores return to the sports page.
Across the street at the Steilacoom High School softball field, an umpire shouts, “Play ball!”
Echoes and scenes from yesteryear: the clack of the bat meeting the ball, summer glare, dusty infields, an Enos Slaughter glove and the taste of Dubble Bubble gum wadded in my cheek. “Hey-batta-batta-batta-SWING.”
As an 11-year-old, I wanted to play for the Tigers, the Little League team that held tryouts a couple of blocks from our home in Seattle’s Rainier Valley. Doc Hutchinson, the older brother of the legendary MLB player and manager Fred Hutchinson (now chiefly noted for the eponymous cancer research and treatment center), was our coach.
Doc swung a fungo bat during practice and cut the squad to 10 or 11 of our best players, the ones who received a full uniform. I got a hat. Doc confirmed I was “second team,” which puzzled me because no games were scheduled for second-tier teams.
Looking back, I assume Doc was simply a kind man and knew I wanted to be part of the club even though I had one-tool skills, which meant I could not hit for power or average, could not throw or field, but had fairly good foot speed. Grounders went under my glove and through my legs. Too often, I misjudged fly balls (I would run forward six steps as the ball landed about six steps behind me).
When batting, I had a hard time making contact, and my throws from the infield frequently landed in the bleachers. But, boy, I could slide. That’s what I enjoyed most about baseball – sliding. I could steal a bag, too, but had a difficult time reaching base, so my talent rarely had an influence on the game. Never, actually. If I ever got into the game – no clear memory of that – the coach likely stuck me in right field when the score was 18 to 2.
Through it all, I loved the game and learned life lessons that competition provides, not the least of which pencils out to humility.
One of these days, when evening settles over Steilacoom and no one is looking, I may shuffle over to the playfield and take a modest lead off first base. When the moment feels right, I’ll dash for second base and execute a hook slide.
Nah, dumb idea, I probably won’t because my back aches just turning out of bed, and I’d likely break an ankle once I hit the dirt. But I can dream, right?
In one of those dreams, Doc says to me, “Kid, get in there and pinch run for that guy on first.”
It’s the bottom of the ninth, two out, tie game. An 11-year-old teammate who looks alarmingly like a miniature Edgar Martinez strides to the plate. I take my lead as the voice of the Hall of Fame inductee Dave Niehaus pours from a loudspeaker.
“That’s a base hit down the left field line.” He’s screaming now. “The kid with the hat rounds second. They’re sending him home. I don’t believe it!” Niehaus is going crazy.
“Here comes the ball, the runner. The slide. He’s safe! My, oh, my! He’s safe! Tigers win! What a slide!”
Howling in jubilation, my teammates pile on top of me as I flash an endearing Ken Griffey Jr. smile.
What a kooky dream, huh? Maybe in an afterlife, I’ll meet Doc again on some ethereal baseball field. He’ll motion to me and hand over a blindingly white uniform with the red lettering. Until then, you may find me in the grandstand at Cheney Stadium, loving the game that makes time pause.
I’ll be the gentleman wearing a too small and ridiculously shabby Tigers hat.
Longtime Steilacoom resident Steve Jaech retired from Pierce College, where he taught literature and composition. Married to Kathrina, his license plate holder reads: Words Is My Life. He is one of six reader columnists who write for this page. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.