For love of youth. For love of immortality. For love of that single pitch that can define the outcome of nine innings. For love of the game.
I always hated baseball when I was a kid. It was boring. I would much rather watch the lighting fast play of football or hockey. I remember being allowed to stay up late in 1980 to watch the Phillies beat the Kansas City Royals in the World Series. I can still name the starting line up. Then, I can’t tell you who even played for the Phillies for the next 20 years.
Even the fights in baseball were boring. They reminded me of a brawl among a bunch of six-year-old girls. Does anybody ever land a punch? One fight in hockey equals a couple decades of fights in baseball.
But then the world changed. It slowed down and I slowed down as well. Instead of flying through the 18 hour drive to Miami from DC, racing for the pole position in traffic groups, I started taking my time. It was then I started noticing things. And started noticing baseball.
Baseball might be slow moving, but it’s an intricate game. While I always thought it was just nine athletes taking the field, I came to realize it was more like a chess match, and the pitching mound is where the king sits: the loneliest place in sports. His troops are marshaled around him like knights, bishops and rooks, but it’s just him against the opposing batter and the skipper, the manager, making the moves.
Kevin Costner helped. His baseball trilogy gave me insights into the game I thought boring, giving me a new perspective. At the beginning of the game in “For Love of the Game,” there is a monologue that has always stuck with me. The announcer is talking about Billy Chapel, Costner’s character, an aging ace who might be pitching his last game after a long career with one team.
“…you get the feeling Billy Chapel isn’t pitching against left handers, he isn’t pitching against pinch hitters, he isn’t pitching against the Yankees. But tonight, he’s pitching against time, he’s pitching against the future, against age, [against his career ending.] And tonight, he might be able to use that old aching arm one more time to push the sun back into the sky and give us one more day of summer.”
And then we can tumble down the rabbit hole.
The boys of summer will not be here this year. Oh, I heard they will be, in some form, in a stunted season with everything changed and empty stadiums. We’ll be watching our boys take the field from our air-conditioned homes without even the opportunity to head down to the ballpark.
The rabbit hole can go even deeper. The 1972 book of the same name about the Brooklyn Dodgers moving to Los Angeles. The Dylan Thomas poem that gave the book its name. The Don Henley song that borrows from everything about the regrets of youth.
“After the boys of summer are gone…”
They are gone this summer. What will summer even look like? What will it look like in the fall when playoff baseball comes round the bend?
But there are other boys of summer. I was one. With the Georgia ground the anvil and the summer sun the sledgehammer. 1988 and then continued in the summer of 1989. Ft. Benning, Georgia. I think the anvil, sledgehammer and drill sergeants were supposed to tear me down and shape me into something else. They didn’t. And that’s why I did a lot of push-ups. Lots and lots and lots. My stubbornness became the rock that broke the sledgehammer.
A lot of people say boot camp is the hardest time of their lives. For me, it was one of the easiest. Two summers where I did not have to think. I was told when to sleep, when to eat, when to train and even when to use the bathroom. What could be easier?
The hardest thing about boot camp was staying up late. I was part of the last training battalion to go through Harmony Church, barracks that had been built during WWII. No air conditioning. I would have to wait until everybody fell asleep so I could turn the two fans directly on me.
Advanced Infantry Training (AIT), 1989. Where I would eventually graduate and earn the baby blue chord of the infantry. In a very full life, I still consider it one of my finest achievements, one of my proudest moments. There was a shaping that was done by that anvil and sledgehammer. A bad attitude. A cockiness and confidence. Yeah, I’m from SW Philly. Now add Infantry to that.
A shaping and a tangent. A tangent that can become its own story. Brian. I met Brian at Ft. Benning. He was from the Scranton area and was heading to Philadelphia for college after graduation. He would do his one weekend a month up in Scranton with his mortar battalion and I would do mine in Philly with my mechanized infantry battalion.
Things like boot camp bond people. It’s supposed to. Companies pay thousands of dollars for the kind of bonding experiences they can get for free by enlisting. The fastest of friendships are born and then they pass into autumn, a wisp of memory without the Georgia summer to keep hammering you closer.
Autumn found Brian and I in his dorm room at the University of Pennsylvania. A few autumns later found us in a cockroach infested apartment in West Philly with a cat playground built along the walls and up into the loft. It would also include trips up into Wilkes Barre, long drives up a turnpike that has been under construction since it was first built.
A short story, “Fishbowls, Tequila and the Meaning of Life,” came out of one those long nights in West Philly. Peter would eventually come along with kendo and karate. Their lovely girlfriends–who would become their wives–would follow, Tanya and Kathy. Friendships that would span decades with little contact for years at a time.
“Doctor, lawyer, Indian chief” is from some long forgotten nursery rhyme?
Fishbowls have stuck with me and so has that. Brian became the doctor. Pete became the lawyer. That left me to become the Indian Chief. I did my best, boys, but no tribe would take me in, so I became a tribe of my own.
It’s time to be the boy of summer again. This 49-year-old body is old and achy. I’m lazy and out of shape. But I’m still SW Philly. I’m still Infantry. I still have that bad attitude. And I am still wondering about fishbowls and the meaning of life—not so much the tequila.
I want to see if I can break that sledgehammer again.