September 23, 2014

Independence

The boy stood on second base waiting for the next batter to get to the plate. He looked towards the outfield and saw a bunch of boys slow their bikes, watching the game from the sidewalk that circled the ball field. Then the chatter started. “Hey batter, batter, batter. Can’t hit, batter, batter, can’t hit, batter, batter.”

There were 14 boys on the field, each team playing without a shortstop and with only two outfielders. The boys, mainly 5th and 6th graders, played baseball every day, all summer long, from morning to night, in this neighborhood park within a few blocks of their homes.

This game was stretching into twilight, with the sun pushing long shadows from the stately elms and maples out past the pitcher’s mound and second base and into center field. There were no lights for the field and it was getting hard to see the ball, no longer white from all the dirt rubbed in it. This would probably be the last inning.

The boy edged off second and joined his teammates in calling for the batter to get a hit. “Watch the ball, watch the ball, get a hit, c’mon, get a hit.”

The volume picked up as both sides kept up the chatter. Then it dropped. Slowed. Stopped. The boy on second base turned around to see that the boys with the bikes were riding right through the outfield, toward the diamond and toward him.

These were the boys from Jesseville, older, bigger and tougher. They had a reputation. It wasn’t good. The boy didn’t move, while the rest of the players gathered in a clump around third base. “What are you guys up to?” asked the tallest interloper.

“What does it look like?” answered the boy.

“Oh, a smartass. Just how smart do you think you are?” asked the tough kid with his shirt collar up as he pushed into the boy’s chest, knocking him to the ground. He straddled the boy’s chest and pinned his arms with his knees, then grabbed a handful of dirt from the base path and rubbed it in his face. “That’ll teach you,” he said.

The boy heard his tormentor’s four friends chanting obscenities above him, but heard nothing from his friends, the other players.

When he was finally let up, the Jesseville boys, outnumbered but unchallenged, taunted the remaining players still huddled around third base and then found their bikes and rode off.

It was near dark. The players walked over to see if the boy was okay. He pushed through them and went to find his glove. The game was over and he wanted to go home. One of the players came to him.

“I tried to get the rest of them to help,” he said, “but couldn’t get them to.”

This wouldn’t have happened in daytime, the boy thought. His grandfather was filling out the last years of his work life as the park’s caretaker, so he quietly watched over the boy, who spent almost every waking moment of many summers in the park, where there were often city-sponsored activities for kids. The boy was always aware of his grandfather (who never interfered with what the boy did) but didn’t pay much attention to him. He was known as “Parkman” to the kids who lived near close by (something the boy didn’t know until years later). He was a thin, kind man who took care of this block of green as if he were tending his own garden. (In the boy’s earliest memory he is kneeling in a strawberry patch, picking and eating the red fruit while the old man tilled with a hoe the large garden around him.)

In the evenings, though, he was on his own, left to fend for himself like all of the other kids always were.

He found his old Schwinn, hung his glove on the handle bar, and rode through the dark out of the park and then four blocks home.

Later, as he was lying on the living room floor playing a dice baseball game he had created with friends, his mother asked him what happened at the park.

“I got in a fight,” he said.

“Did you get hurt?” she asked.

“I’m okay,” he sobbed.

Then, life changed when Little League came to town. The summer days of carefree wandering, pickup games and learning the ways of the world on your own turned into structure, uniforms and adult supervision. We gave up the freedom to grow for the safety of organization.

Mike Buda is editor emeritus of Country Lines. Email him at mike.f.buda@gmail.com or comment
on his columns at countrylines.com/ramblings