To the ballpark
How I learned, at long last, to truly love baseball
In 1961, the summer I was 10, I developed a sudden interest in baseball. Some boys in my class had been trading Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle baseball cards, and I learned that the two players were trying to beat Babe Ruth’s record of 60 home runs in a season. It wasn’t exactly the baseball part of it that drew my attention—somehow, it was the growing “competition” that intrigued me at that age.
Every day, I would look at the newspaper to see who was leading. I declared Maris my favorite, even before he hit his 61st homer, but by the time he did, I’d lost interest. Baseball just seemed too glitzy and commercial for me after that.
Until this year.
Yes, it’s 2010, and I now find myself dodging splinters on the rickety bleachers overlooking Sacramento’s Dooley Field 3. A bag of sunflower seeds in hand, I am there at least twice a week with the fans of the Hot Rods, the team of my 9-year-old friend Mary Grace.
This is actually her third year of playing, but it’s the first season when the ball is pitched at a speed that makes the game seem like baseball. (The first year was T-ball, and last year the coach pitched the ball himself, being careful to lob it slowly enough that occasionally a kid could get a hit.) This year, the ball is hurled rapidly from a machine and, though it sometimes takes an inning or two for the kids to warm up enough to actually hit the ball, pretty soon, they’re on fire. They can hit, run, occasionally catch a ball that’s thrown to them and often get someone out.
You can have all the Major League Baseball, steroid-stained drama you want; for my money, this is baseball at its best.
Where else can you watch adorable 8- and 9-year-olds doing cartwheels in the outfield while awaiting some part to play? Where else can you find a whole roster of modern-day names like Cyan, Carson, Ysa and McKee? (No Jims and Mikes here—and no “boys only.”) Although, Mary Grace’s is the only Single A team in the league with girls, it’s got four of them. And those girls can play! At least that’s how our cadre of fans feels as we high-five each other at every game.
Our side of the stands is filled with devoted grandparents, families and friends—all of us cheering for the Hot Rods, and shouting at them to keep running, to stay on base, to keep their eyes on the ball and to stand up (if it’s a long game). It turns out that some need more help than others. At last week’s game, one young player hollered at his dad through the fence: “Hey, Dad—what’s the score? And, um, where’s left field?”
I can’t say the Hot Rods have the same following Roger Maris did, but the team certainly turns on the pride in all of us followers. And that, to me, has more to do with real baseball than high salaries, instant replays and product endorsements ever could.