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On spring training

February 22, 2012

“People ask me what I do in winter when there is no baseball.  “I’ll tell you what I do.  I stare out the window and wait for spring.”  Rogers Hornsby.

Well, football is over and, once again, spring training and the start of the baseball season is here.  Forget spring flowers and the first robin; the real sign of impending spring is the start of baseball’s spring training.

I grew up in New York where my father, and his father before him, were avid baseball fans and fanatic followers of the Brooklyn Dodgers.  (Yes, I know that shows how old I am.)  Some of my earliest memories are of being taken to Ebbets Field in Brooklyn to watch the Dodgers play.  This started when I was so young that I was barely aware of what was going on and often had to be carried from the stadium, having fallen asleep during the game.

But, in time, I developed a passion for baseball too and began to really love going to the games.  My father always got to the games early enough to watch the visiting team take batting practice.  He studied each batter with intensity, presumably to be ready in the event the Dodgers would summon him to the dugout to get his opinion on how to pitch to the guy.

But I grew to love batting practice too.  Like most little boys I came to the game carrying my baseball glove to be able to catch the foul ball that I was sure would, sooner or later, be hit my way.  And in batting practice my father, intent on the scouting of opposing players, let me wander around the near-empty stadium.  And I learned too that batting practice was the best opportunity to catch a foul ball.  So I would hang around the box seats down the foul line with a few dozen other kids and hope.

Then, one day, it happened.  The Milwaukee Braves (Yes, dating myself again.) were in town and one of their players, a rookie who was unknown to me, hit a line drive into the stands that I brilliantly fielded on the 14th bounce.  And I had it!  My first (and only) major league baseball.  I ran with excitement to show my dad and he handed me a pencil and encouraged me to go down to the dugout area and see if I could get the batter to autograph it for me.  So I did, and pleaded with the man to come and sign it.

Miraculously, he came out of the dugout and came to me.  I held the baseball and pencil out in shaking hands.  And he took them, asked me my name, and signed the ball.  I could not have been more impressed if President Eisenhower (Since I am dating myself I might as well go all the way.) had signed it.   I looked at the ball in awe.  There it was – “To Tommy, your friend, Henry Aaron.”

Now I did not have any clue how great a player he would become, one of the all-time greats of the game.  Nor did I have a clue as to how valuable a baseball signed by him during his rookie year might become.  For me this was a certification by the player that this was a real, honest-to-God major league baseball.  His signature, plus the stamped signature of “Warren Giles, National League President” on the other side was proof I could show my friends.

So, when I got home, I did.  They were suitably impressed.  The next thought, and I can’t remember if it was mine or someone else’s, lead to the most bone-headed financial decision of my life.  We should play baseball with a real major league baseball!

The street I lived on, Southard Street, was a dead end and we played in the street.  However, now that we had a real baseball we didn’t want to just bat it around.  We decided to go a few blocks over to challenge the Harvard Place kids to a game using a real baseball.  They gladly accepted. 

And so the game was on and, looking back at it, we felt as if we were major leaguers as we played.  So impressed were we that we agreed to play again the next day.  And the next.  And the next.  The ball was so special however that we never just fooled around with it.  It only came out when the Southard Street gang took on the Harvard Place boys.

All through that long summer we played games with that ball until it was so dark you could hardly see.  And, as you can imagine, it got scuffed beyond recognition.  Not only was Henry Aaron’s signature long gone, the ball soon was a brown globe of rough texture.  Toward the end of the summer tragedy struck when Joey Linden muffed an easy grounder and accidentally kicked the ball down a drain opening.  It was gone forever.  After a short discussion we decided not to beat the stuffing out of Joey.

The summer passed and we went on to other things but, in due time, I grew aware that I had wasted something valuable.  For a long time I told that story as a joke on my own stupidity.  How could I have done it?  But eventually I have come to see matters differently.

The Brooklyn Dodgers are long gone to Los Angeles.  Ebbets Field became a housing development.  Henry Aaron finished a long and brilliant career.  My grandfather and my dad have passed away.  The Southard Street kids have scattered and lost touch.  But memories of that summer are precious.  I have no idea how much that ball would be worth today but I would not go back and undo what I did for anything.

How the world values things is strange and distorted.  We Christians, living in the world, are not immune to having that value system infiltrate our ideas.  We view success as a blessing and hard times as failure or judgment.  Maybe that summer we boys were more pleasing to God than we knew.  We took joy in what He had provided each day.  We decided not to beat up Joey.  The providence of God in having that ball bounce my way, and the kindness of a great ballplayer, gave me and the others a great summer.  I pray that I can still look at my life that way.

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