My Wilson “Catfish Hunter” glove, still adorned with my name in purple bubble letters, takes its place of honor on the top shelf in our mudroom. One of the ties is quick to come loose; I can still recall the salty taste of the leather as I waited for a token ball to come my way in the right field corner. I was probably in fourth or fifth grade when I first thought of baseball as something other than a really boring sport that my dad watched on television. My brother, three years younger than me, was never really taken by the game. I sat, one day, on the not-yet-rotted side of the wooden bleachers at the little league field, trying to make sense of what was happening to my brother and to the other boys on the diamond. In plain view was the creek where, as the story goes, my young neighbor had been arrested for relieving himself. On that day, though, I was looking for meaning in what was unfolding before me. The young pitcher, all of eight years old, tossed a ball in the general vicinity of the batter. Sometimes the batter did not swing the bat. Sometimes he did. Once he missed, and the other times, he hit the ball, but not in the direction of where the fielders were positioned. After a while, he made his way, rather slowly, to first base. This, I deduced, was because he did a pretty good job hitting the ball. Later, I recalled this scene and realized that the batter had merely taken a base-on-balls. I had a lot to learn.
The game became increasingly important to me, and I evolved, rather quickly and much to my father’s delight, into a Cubs fan. Manny Trillo, quiet and unsung second baseman that he was, rose as my hero. I baked a little cake for #19 and delivered it to Wrigley Field one summer. A few days later, while babysitting, I was spellbound as I struggled to understand the words coming through my end of the phone. “Thank you for the cake. I only eat the vanilla. I don’t like the chocolate.”
Never much of an athlete, I was generally content to fill my soul with baseball by listening to the radio. Once or twice each summer, extending across decades, my dad would take me to Wrigley Field. As a young mother, I looked forward to this reprieve from my daily rhythm as a child looks forward to the magic of Christmas day. We would always stop for Thai food before the game, and, certainly, we would find Starbucks for the drive home. I am happy that I was not aware that our last such ritual was indeed that: the last.
Sam had an incredible arm for pitching as a very young boy. His brief stint at t-ball offered no indication that he held such promise. As a four-year-old, he only stood behind the screen and declared, “I’m not doing this.”
Life took hold, and we moved to DeKalb. A few seasons passed before Sam joined park district baseball. He had a fierce and powerful throw, and he loved the game as I did. We played baseball in the early spring through October, and we couldn’t quite get enough. The leaves were falling at a clip, and the last game was upon us. There had been some whispering back and forth among the coaches, and a small boy approached the plate. The pitcher had been instructed to walk this kid, and that he did. The little boy did not have long to live, and he was made to feel like a baseball hero, for sure, on that fall Sunday.
I hadn’t seen the signs. Shortly after the season finished, Sam began having some health challenges of his own. In January, the doctors found a brain tumor. At that time, we didn’t know if Sam would survive.
He did. He had many more baseball seasons. And one day, it was all over. He was just done; he wasn’t interested any more. And it wasn’t up to me. It was just a game.
Last week, the little boys and I stopped at McCormick Park. We tried to beat the rain. Wiffle balls, duct-taped bat, and old softball glove in hand, we took the field. In the blink of an eye, our “caboose” will be ready to play shortstop. I will be there watching from the bleachers, and I can’t wait.