The start of baseball season is a special time. If you’ve ever played the game, you probably remember your first time on a field with bleachers and a crowd. Mine was a Saturday night when I was 10 years old. The bright lights, cocked in different directions on top of leaning creosote poles, sucked in bugs from the swamps near the field. If you weren’t careful, you might get hypnotized by them and get hit in the head by a long ball. I speak from experience on that one.
I was pretty excited to be wearing a real uniform with a fake Braves logo on the front until I saw several other teams wearing the same uniform. Seems the sporting goods store had over-ordered Braves uniforms and we got a good deal after raising money, selling donuts door-to-door. So the game featured the Braves against the Braves that night. It was a little confusing when you were running bases.
My new glove – bought at Sears and signed by a machine that mimicked Ted Williams signature – was stiff and smelled like a little of the cow was still inside. Standing in right field, I sniffed that leather glove over and over until my eyes burned, the aroma mixing with fresh cut grass and the stink of cigars puffed by an old man who always cheered against us up in the bleachers. I hated that old man.
On the mound stood a big old boy who I’m pretty sure was 18 years old since it looked like he was already shaving. He could throw a fastball most of us couldn’t even see, but we could hear it slapping the catcher’s mitt with a sound that reminded me of John Wayne punching an outlaw in the gut.
I swung at those pitches like a chump until the 6th inning when I tried a new technique not endorsed by my coach: squeezing my eyes tight and listening for the ball to leave the pitcher’s hand with an ugly whipping sound that usually meant the ump would be yelling, “Strike!” a half-second later. But this time he didn’t.
I put the wood to it so hard it dropped one of my socks down to my shoelaces like a big stack of buttons. A low grunt rose from the stands as I opened my eyes to see the stained ball getting smaller, lifting in a beautiful arc, raising chins up toward the buggy lights. Far away, just on the other side of a plywood sign hanging on a chain link fence painted with the name of a plumbing company, the ball landed with a thud, knocking the rearview mirror off a new car. What followed was the sound of cursing by the old cigar-smoking man running with a twisted limp towards his wounded Chevrolet Bel Air. My coach howled with laughter and yelled things at him that my mom didn’t appreciate me hearing.
I later found out that the old man and my coach were sworn enemies from way back. My mom wouldn’t talk about it. My dad would only say it was something that started when both of the old men worked at a chicken processing plant. According to my sister, Brenda, however, who always told me the truth, especially if it involved indecent and scandalous behavior, said it was about a redheaded woman, some money and the eventual ownership of a smelly beagle. Since our coach’s wife was a redhead and the beagle was sitting in our dugout, I figured our coach won the feud. He didn’t get much of a bargain on the dog, though. That beagle’s odor attracted more bugs than the big lights. And, according to my sister, “the redheaded woman wore enough makeup to deck out three corpses down at the funeral home.” Brenda takes honesty to the next level.
Before the next game, my coach made a big deal out of my car-busting homer as he distributed MoonPies to everybody on our team in a pregame celebration. I’ll never forget his little speech before we took the field.
“When you step up to the plate, boys, aim for the moon. You won’t hit it, but you just might hit old man Hawkin’s car like Mike did last week.”
But nobody ever hit old man Hawkins car again. He never came back to our games. I heard a while back that the MoonPie ritual is still practiced by coaches across the south before a night game when there’s a full moon. That’s why I love baseball. You got to love a game that encourages young boys to aim high for a low cause.