The Field Is On Fire

By JIM NICHOLS

For sports fans, this pandemic has been frustrating. Sports provide us with rhythms in the year; we use the word “season” not only for changes in the temperature and moisture, but also for which sport is when.

The Major League Baseball season is trying to get a start here in the middle of the summer season rather than in the spring when it should. The papers, television, and radio are full of laments about changes in the rules and whether “baseball will really be baseball” this year. If you played organized baseball or softball as a child, however, it does not take much to romanticize and find those places in your heart where “playing ball” still resides. 

Despite professional sports seeming to be dominated by money, it is hard to get too sarcastic about a sport whose goal is to make it back to home.

Even before I could play the organized game, I was hooked on baseball on the radio. We had a minor league team in my hometown. The announcer for the Kansas City Blues was at the park describing the home games and at the telegraph in the studio during the away games. On the radio I could hear the clicking of the telegraph and then the recreation of the game by the announcer; he even added crowd noises.

At eight years old I was finally old enough to join a team in the Cub Scout League. Our uniforms consisted of t-shirts with a name like Yankees or Tigers on the back. We also had matching colored hats with the appropriate capital letter. Whether your hat had a “Y” or a “T” or anything else, you were in the game. My clearest memories were how dirty we got playing and how good the flavored Nehi sodas were after the games. They were chilled during the game in crushed ice in gigantic steel animal watering troughs.

Uniforms were quite important and, after three years in that league, I graduated to the 3 & 2 League. Here we had real baseball uniforms recycled from year to year—shirt, pants, socks, plus a new hat. Our team was sponsored by a collection of businesses in our suburban town and the name of a business was sewn on the back of a shirt. Many of the guys had names such as “Paul’s Barber Shop” or “Tom’s Hardware.” Somehow, my sponsor was a store that sold sewing materials such as material, thread, and zippers; my shirt back read “Fabric Fair” and I got kidded about it. We could also buy and wear “spikes” which to an 11-year old sounds like a weapon.

Bart Giamatti was a commissioner of Major League Baseball and he has noted the patterns in the game—three strikes, three outs, three times three equals nine innings. Several other lessons occurred to me during my playing (and watching/listening).

If you keep a scorecard during the game, you can see how little things add up to big things.

The game is filled with failure, especially failure in hitting. You strike out or hit a weak grounder to second, put your helmet on the ground and go back out to your position; you did your best.

Although players are individuals with specific roles, when the ball is in play (either offense or defense), cooperation and teamwork become paramount.

Sometimes you must sacrifice bunt to move the runner up a base.

We practiced sliding sometimes. The idea was to extend one leg and foot and curl the other foot to the side and try to hook the base. I admired players who could slide head-first and decided to try it during the warm-ups for a game. I took off too late and landed on the base itself. It knocked the wind from me, jarred my teeth, got dirt in my face, and tears in my eyes. My coach stood there in wonderment.

The only movie my father recommended to me was “Field of Dreams.” We never had any conversation about it, but I think we both shared some of the same thoughts.

Rain made the field muddy, sometimes so much that we could not play. The rain had stopped one evening and the coaches poured gasoline all over the infield and set it on fire to dry it. It was spectacular, but insufficient in results.

It seems to me that there is a certain beauty to a baseball field, a predictability of shape and form. The game itself can be beautiful. A sportswriter decades ago noted “Baseball isn’t statistics, it’s DiMaggio rounding second.”

What other sport has anything as wonderful as “Casey at the Bat?” We would not know about Mudville without it.

Decades ago, someone asked the wonderful player Rogers Hornsby what he did during the winter. His reply was, “I stare out the window and wait for spring.” I understand that; perhaps you do too. Even in the middle of summer.

Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain

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