Sadly, I know that as I sit here at my preferred café table, the old baseball fields on Hendricks Avenue are lying brown and fallow, as “winter” in Jacksonville grinds on. Yet we all might take comfort in knowing that soon enough, the old reliable tractor will sputter to life once again, hungry for grass seed and freshly turned dirt. Back in the day, Tom Morris, the perennial commissioner of the youth baseball program of the Hendricks Avenue Community Athletic Association, who has served in that role for about as long as Franco ruled Spain, will put on his walking shorts, pull his socks up to his knees, and confidently resume command of home plate, and try-outs will ensue yet again at one of the city’s oldest and most honored parks. Let the Red Sox and Yankees make their mega-deals, leave the Roger Clemenses of the world to wrestle with their demons…THIS is what baseball in American is really about.
Once upon a time, the league was known as H.A.B. – Hendricks Avenue Baptist, after the church which owns the grounds. When I coached there from 1993 till 2003, it was a humble venuee. Generally, our teams were made up of wholesome kids from nice homes, with a few good ballplayers sprinkled amongst each division of six or eight teams, but our all-star teams could never really compete with those from the bigger programs around town. The majority of our players were very pleasant boys and girls who tried very hard in just about everything they did, but there were no future pros among them. We liked to call them “scrappy.”
My friend George and I coached together for all of those seasons, and our sons grew up together on those fields. I was a good deal thinner then, and was a devil with a fungo bat, and George taught sportsmanship with great skill: “No, Doug, I do not want you to throw at the heads of the other team’s hitters. This is only little league after all. And no, Tommy, you may not moon the opposing team’s fans from right field. Why not? Because no one wants to see that, that’s why not.” In general, I think we had a positive influence.
There was this one kid, however: Shane. Shane took a particular approach to the craft of baseball, in that he chose the path of independence in all situations. Signals when he came up to bat? Pointless. Attempting to position him when he was in the outfield? You might as well be shouting into a gale. Shane had his own way of playing the game. He even eschewed our collection of high-tech aluminum bats in favor of an ancient wood fungo bat given him by his grandfather, which was as long as Shane was tall. I felt certain that if he ever did accidentally make contact with the ball on one of his from-the-heels swings, that bat would splinter into a thousand pieces and probably maim some bystander.
George and I always liked to ensure that every kid got a game ball at some point during the season for doing something well – getting a key hit, making a good play in the field – but sometimes it was a bit of a stretch (“And today’s game ball goes to Joey, who did a great job running the bases today.”) Still, it was worth it to see the face of some kid, who might never have received any sort of special recognition before, light up with pride.
Well, we struggled for weeks to come up with a reason to award a game ball to Shane. One Saturday we nearly gave it to him for vaulting gazelle-like over the waist-high left field fence after a home run ball which the opponent’s clean-up hitter had just emphatically swatted for a grand slam. The irony in this was that ordinarily we couldn’t even get him to jog out to his position. Still, it was an extraordinary effort, if unnecessary. But we held off, hoping we would be able to reward Shane for some feat which did not involve the other team scoring on us.
Finally, it came down to the last game of the season, and Shane had still not received a game ball. George and I paced the dugout anxiously when our team was in the field. Then, in the third inning, Shane was hit by a pitch in the left arm. When the side was retired, George grinned and slapped me on the back. “There it is, Coach!” he said gleefully. “Seems that Shane has ”taken one for the team” and earned his game ball.”
“Do you really think we should give him the ball for getting hit by a pitch?” I asked. “I mean, he didn’t even try to get out of the way. Frankly, I don’t think he even knew he’d been hit until the umpire told him.”
George frowned. “Hmm. Maybe you’re right. But we’re down to the wire here. We’ve got to give it to him. Don’t we?”
Fortunately, we were relieved of our terrible burden in the game’s last inning, when Shane came to bat again. In fact, it was the very last at-bat of the entire season, and he was the very last batter. The contest was tied, 4-4, and Shane coolly tapped the clay from his shoes with his antique thunder-stick. He stepped into the box, apparently undaunted by having been plugged his last time up, or else simply lacking any recollection of it. Then, on the first pitch, a fastball right down the middle, he reared back and swung as if the fate of the free world depended on it. Miraculously, wood met horsehide with a solid smack, and the ball rose, sailing up, up, over the center field fence and far beyond it, landing in the sparse grass and trickling toward the mucky woods behind the gas station which fronted Hendricks Avenue. It was his only hit all season – a walk-off home run to win our last game.
I looked over at George. He was gazing off into the distance where the ball gone, like a man trying to resolve one of the universe’s great riddles. Then he looked over at me, mouth open as if to speak, but no sound emanated.
“Pretty good,” I said.
“Nice swing,” George said.
Afterward, Shane accepted his game ball humbly, wordlessly, but with an air of propriety, as if all of this had been ordained somehow, by divine intervention. And perhaps it had.
Who were we to say?