For me as a kid, Spring meant one thing above all else...baseball. We played football and roller hockey in the streets in the winter, but to me that was like just killing time until it got warm enough to suit up and take the field. I remember playing for our grammar school team under the watchful eye of coach John Bryan. We practiced mostly in Highland Park on Jamaica Avenue, where left field sloped severely upward, and anything hit deep to left was tough for a fielder to run down because he was running uphill. Luckily I played center field where the ground was more level. We played some of our games there too, or at the Parade Grounds in beautiful Prospect Park. That's me top left with all the hair. Sigh.
Sometimes I'll be walking by a baseball field today and hear that unmistakable crack of the bat. The sound transports me back in time to hot, sunny days where you could literally smell Spring in the air. We'd stand around the enclosed chain link cage waiting our turn to take batting practice. While we waited it was customary to hurl brutal insults at whoever was unlucky enough to be at the plate. The hitter would glower at his tormentors, trying even harder to hit one over the fence to shut us up. This pressure to hit one hard usually led to strikeouts, prompting gales of laughter from the jeering chorus and much colorful swearing from the hapless batter.
When fielding practice came along, the infielders were drilled in scooping up ground balls and making that long throw to first base. Outfielders practiced shagging fly balls hit by the coach, and firing the ball in to home plate to simulate throwing out that runner who had the nerve to challenge your arm. Although a lifelong Yankee fan, I modeled myself after the great Dodger right fielder, Carl Furillo. Carl was renowned in the National League for having a "gun" for a throwing arm, and not many runners put his reputation to the test. For my entire baseball career, I always wore number 6 on my uniform as a tribute to Furillo.
When we weren't playing on a baseball field, it was stickball in the street. If you think it's easy having a ball game in the middle of a city street, try it sometime. There were mutually agreed upon rules about what happened if a car came down the block while play was in progress. It was the only way to manage, but we were resourceful city kids and we made it work. We'd saw off the handle from some poor family's broom to use for a bat until we found a broom factory that would sell us new broomsticks in bright red or blue for just ten cents. All we needed was a Spaldeen and the game was on. We used car fenders and manhole covers for bases, and after the game, no matter the outcome, it was ice cold sodas at the candy store for everybody.
The great baseball player Rogers Hornsby said: "People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball. I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring." That's a little how I felt growing up. I remember laying down in the outfield smelling the new grown grass mingled with the smell of my oiled leather glove. It was an amazing time when nothing ached and my energy was boundless. When I get that first whiff of Spring, I am standing in shallow center field with the sun hot on my neck, just daring someone to hit one over my head. Of course all of this is in my mind. My body is worn down now, and I sympathize with comedian Ray Romano who recently commented that he's so out of shape that he pulls a muscle doing a Rubik's Cube.
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