It was a simple field. The path to it ran past my grandmother’s house, through a set of bushes and into a circular clearing behind. First base was a tree stump. Second was a raised patch of earth that kicked up dust whenever someone ran over it with a lawnmower. We used an old glove, one we found lying underneath a rock next to a stream in the woods behind my house, for third. Home was ditch that had worn thin the first couple years we played there, and then gave up on growing anything thereafter, because when you played ball as often as we did – day after week after month after year – without ceasing, even in the cold months, it tends to leave a mark. Childhood is more powerful than Mother Nature in some ways, which is probably why it wears out so quickly leaves such a lasting impression.

We shared a lot of great moments on that field. There were countless homeruns, stolen bases, and arguments about how many ghost men were on when one of hit the ball over the fence in right field into Mrs. Bradenton’s back yard. We got there early and stayed all day. My Grandma made us peanut butter sandwiches for lunch. She wrote your name into the peanut butter with her finger nail so you knew THIS one was yours. Grandma’s are good at that, aren’t they?

There was the time Sean Hinken learned to hold a pitch just so, making the ball dance like he held it on a string. Sean threw three no-hitters in a row that day, breaking Johnny Vander Meer’s impossible-to-break streak of two. There was the time the Paoletti twins, Josh and Jeff, both chased a ball into the thicket in center field. They emerged two seconds later, a cloud of bees in their wake. And there was the time I flattened Adam Hester on a close play at home, rolling over his leg, nearly breaking it.
“Dang it, Joe,” he said. “Time to lay off the Twinkies, ya think?” Only he didn’t say, “Dang it.” Back then, we explored profanity like many of us would later explore cheap beer and frantic make-out sessions with girls. Sloppy and inartful, but electric nonetheless.

Good memories. Fun times.

How long has it been, now? Twenty-Five years? Thirty? Some days it seems like another lifetime, and other times the memories are so close I could reach out and touch them. You could play a game anywhere. All you needed was a bat, a ball, and few kids you might not know and would never see again. That, and a field, of course. Back then, everyone had a field. We ran games in back yards, parking lots, abandoned fields, and remote, wooded clearings.

We played little league, sure, but the Real games took place after practice, after school, away from the watchful eyes of rule keepers and score trackers. We argued over calls, close plays, and who got to be Pete Rose or Johnny Bench, knowing full well each of us planned to mimic our heroes when it was our turn to hit. Nobody knew how long we’d been playing and nobody cared. There was only the game, your friends, and the desire to keep moving forward for just a few more innings before the street lights came on and everyone had to go home.

We knew our time was limited. We knew we would one day grow up, move on, and leave these long, lazy days in our field behind. But we also had a sense that this game we loved and these fields on which we played would pass onto the next generation. And the one after that.

Now, when I drive past the fields I played on as a kid, I don’t see baseball. I see soccer, and sometimes I see housing developments. More often than not, I see empty fields. The well-worn patches of our youth have grown over and healed, Mother Nature outlasting the same way she outlasts everyone. Maybe it’s because I’m older. Maybe it’s because my eyesight has worsened. Maybe its because I can barely remember what it feels like to hit a ball and know, without looking, that it would sail over Mrs. Bradenton’s fence. Maybe it’s because fall is upon us, the kids are in school, and the baseball season is winding down, but I wonder whether this game we all love will, indeed pass on to the next generation.

Baseball will be around for a while, but will it be the same? Will it still be as good? All those empty fields make me wonder.

Next season, when the weather starts to warm, I’ll go out for a walk. I’ll find a clearing or a parking lot or an abandoned field with a few worn patches. I listen long and hard for the voices of children, not caring that the sun has set, hoping to get in a few more innings, screaming with delight, saying, “Ghost man on second. My turn to hit. Throw me your best and watch me hit that (stuff) into the woods.”

Maybe then I’ll smile.

8 Responses

  1. WVRedlegs

    Ah, the real Field(s) of Dreams. Those were the days. Lots of good times.
    Dang it, Joe, your trips down Memory Lane are causing a recall of memories I thought were tucked away in brain cells that were conquered by lots of that cheap beer years ago.
    This summer I drove by the Little League field I used to play on for the first time in about 15 years. I wasn’t sure what I would find, or even if it was still there. Much to my surprise, the field was still there. It looked very nice, better than when I was young. And two teams were out playing the game. There is some hope for that future.
    As for the neighborhood fields, video games and legal liability issues (if someone were to get hurt) have just about killed those off.
    It is nice to conger up some old memories. Thanks.

  2. Carl Sayre

    I was extremely lucky “the Field” was my back yard. I have never been able to “hit a basketball with a boat oar” but the love of the game I got from my grandfather and those epic games in my backyard made me not only a fan but a student of the game. Here I am 50 some odd years later still a fan and still a student. The down fall of civilization I have no doubt will be air conditioning and video games that lured our youth away from this wonderful game!!!!!

  3. mikemartz

    Those were the days! I have fond memories of playing catch in the front yard until game time at the local park! I don’t recall if it was a summer college league or just a local Legion type league but we always tried to be there early enough to pick up a dollar or two as a bat boy, and if that didn’t work out we would chase foul balls for a dime upon return. Then we would hang out til the dugouts emptied in hopes of picking up a broken bat or two. Although way to heavy for a little fella to swing we would proudly take them home, pound a few nails in them and tightly wrap them with black electrical tape!
    Fond memories indeed!!!

  4. lwblogger2

    Oh my gosh Joe, this is fantastic! This needs to be submitted to some “national” sites and even some print media outlets for publishing.

    There are so many empty fields these days. While I don’t see a lot of pickup games of soccer, I do see lots of pickup basketball games. I think basketball is the game of choice these days for just hanging out with friends. It seems it’s been that way for a while, especially in the urban areas. I think this is why MLB launched their “Play Ball” campaign. I just hope, for the sake of the game I love, that it isn’t too late to get kids to love playing baseball again. There’s simply nothing like it.

  5. Tct

    I think baseball is going to be fine. It seems to be a game that many people discover in their youth, fade away from in their young adult days, and rediscover in middle age. So I am not really worried about baseball’s low numbers in the 18-30 demographic.

    What has kind of gone by the wayside is, as others have mentioned, the pickup games of baseball and wiffleball. That’s just not as popular today among kids as it used to be. There are probably many reasons for that: Travel teams have made baseball a nearly year round sport for some kids and made it much more competitive and less fun to do in your free time; kids have a million other things they can do now; kids have less free time; maybe even global warming, who knows? . But it really seems like these backyard games are not as popular as they used to be.

  6. Phil Gasson

    Beautiful article. If I didn’t look at the author I would have sworn it was jim Murray (believe me; that’s a compliment). I live in a small town with 4 well manicured fields; always empty except during league.

  7. redsfan06

    A wonderful article……. a recollection of childhood memories. Several years ago, the field and woods we played in as kids was turned into a subdivision. My brother and I visited the neighborhood as it was still under construction. It was a challenge and a melancholy experience to figure out where some of the distinguishing features – the little pillar, the big pillar, the creek, the baseball field now lied.

  8. Tom Staggs

    Thanks for the Memories! 5 or 6 of us would play until my Dad whistled that it was time to come home