Baseball season started the other day. And I’m not talking about major league baseball. I’m talking about little league ball. Real baseball. No steroids, no millionaires, no whole-paycheck-eating ticket prices, no $9 hotdogs. The baseball game I went to broke out on a ragged, mostly dirt field next to a chain link fence in a poor neighborhood. I pass a lot of these ball fields every week. This time I decided to stop.
The players wore no uniforms. The too-large gloves were handed down from grandfathers, most likely, or bought secondhand or donated or borrowed. No one wore cleats. They wore the only shoes they probably owned, the same shoes they wore to school or wherever else they went.
There were no bleachers and no parents. But the smiles and the sounds and the smells made me know this was baseball just the same, a better version of it, really, a pure, unadulterated form of the old game that we all played at one time or another. I stood at the fence and watched for a while before a large, muscular man walked over.
“Can I help you?” he said.
“You already are,” I said.
He looked confused.
“I’m the coach,” he said. “I’m also a police officer.”
I assumed he added that last job just to make me aware that I was pretty out of place here. You never know what kind of people are roaming around these days and I appreciated his diligence.
“I used to play ball as a kid,” I said. “Was on my way down to New Orleans and saw y’all practicing and thought I’d stop and see what honest baseball looks like again.”
A tall boy, beef jerky-thin and gangly, whipped a pitch into the catcher’s mitt and it popped with un-little-league-like plop.
“You got yourself a dangerous pitcher right there, sir,” I said. “He’s half a foot taller than most too.”
“His grandmother made me promise to keep him in my sights,” said the police officer coach. “So I put him on the mound. Hard to hide or sneak off in the middle of the field.”
We talked for a while about life and he looked at my drivers license and showed me his badge and told me where the best barbecue in town could be had and talked about SEC football a little and how he’d wanted to play major league baseball but this happened then that happened and he ended up on the force and I gave him my version of a similar story. He was a good officer and a better man. Then we got down to business.
“We’re the Tigers,” he said. “Haven’t won a game in two years.” He paused for effect. “But this is gonna be our year.”
“I have something to give you if you’ll take it,” I said. “It’s for the team. I work with MoonPie. That’s why I drive all over. I have a bunch of them in my truck for an after-practice snack if that’s okay by you.”
“I know the boys would like that,” he said. “And I might like it too.” He laughed out a sound that seemed like music starting with a base drum. “My grandpaw used to bring MoonPies to the house on his way home from work on Fridays. Each of us kids got one.”
I handed him several boxes and shook his hand and got in my truck and headed west on I-10. I had two hours left before dark. As I drove into the fading day, it hit me that baseball is not a sport at all. It’s not a season either. It’s a feeling, a really good feeling. And I felt baseball that evening all the way to Lake Pontchartrain.