By Bob Huber: CNJ columnist
When I was a kid, there was nothing more pleasurable than summer baseball. A friend might ask, “What you want to do today?” and I always replied, “You crazy? Play ball, of course.”
I’m not talking about Big League, Little League, or the Abner Doubleday Code of Conduct. I’m talking about a bunch of guys getting together on a rocky hillside in my Colorado hometown and having it out with bats and balls. (Girls weren’t allowed, because they argued if called out — a genetic flaw.)
Bases were at various locations — sometimes behind trees — and they were separated by 20 or 30 paces, sometimes 50, whatever fit the terrain. No adults were there to tell us the correct measurements or to umpire close calls. Our parents didn’t want to be there. They were too busy outwitting the Great Depression.
The scenario for that brand of baseball went this way: First you scrounged up a glove and a ball cap. Gloves were hard to come by. Their value in trade was a dozen comic books, with covers, or two Roy Rogers six-shooters complete with holsters. Used greasy ball caps came from mechanics at the Ford garage.
Then the two biggest, baddest guys from the sixth grade flipped a coin to see who got first pick of the wannabes. That meant eager beginners like me — scrawny, humble, and just a second-grade graduate — were lucky to be picked at all.
In this atmosphere the number of players was never the same. A team might have 20 guys one day and three the next depending on what was showing at the matinee. It made little difference, because if a ball were hit, none of us knew what to do anyway.
So as low man on the totem pole I stood to one side looking lovable, my Ford cap at a jaunty angle, desperate to be picked to play in the godly world of unorganized sports. Secretly I didn’t want to be picked, because I couldn’t catch a ball and feared disgrace.
I couldn’t hit a pitched ball either. In those days I had what was known in medical circles as a roving eye, diagnosed by our local druggist, Doc Kronke. That meant I had weak eye muscles, which could only be corrected by store-bought glasses purchased in Doc’s drugstore. Without them, I saw two pitched balls coming at me.
First biggest, baddest guy: “That kid bats like an old lady swatting hornets.”
Second biggest, baddest guy: “Once in a while he hits one. A hornet, I mean.”
Most of the time one team had a whole bunch of players and the other only a few, and the team with a few usually won, because no one got in the way. Some games lasted a week, delayed only by darkness. Scores were in the hundreds.
So time marched on until one day I realized I had outgrown my need for Doc Kronke’s glasses, and I became one of the biggest, baddest guys myself. I could spit, scratch in bad places, and peruse raw recruits with the best of them.
Then when it was my turn to pick, I saw a little kid with glasses — they resembled the bottoms of Coke bottles — and he looked just like me a few years earlier. His eyes were sad and hopeful, but he was lovable.
That’s when it ran through my mind that I should break this endless chain of unnatural selection. All I had to say was, “Hey you, Four-eyes. Get over here.”
I looked away, hoping for a sign, and it so happened that Virgil Crotchmire took that moment to stroll onto the field. Virgil was an old timer like me and was a heckova first baseman with a batting average in the .900 range.
So I was suddenly in a quandary. It was a case of picking Virgil the Magnificent over Four-eyes the Worthless — Tradition vs. Groundbreaker, Evil vs. Good.
I glanced at my biggest, baddest opponent and saw a little smile cross his lips. I knew what he was thinking, that I’d pick the kid with glasses. Then he’d get Virgil. “Make up your mind,” he said. “We need to start the game.”
“OK,” I said. “Virgil, get over here.”
Well, what did you expect? You think I’m stupid? Besides, I needed to teach that kid with glasses a basic law of baseball.
You see, I knew that someday that kid would grow up to be a biggest, baddest guy too, picking his own team, and he’d remember what he saw that day. As George Steinbrenner put it, “Half of this game is 90 percent mental.”
Bob Huber is a retired journalist living in Portales. He can be contacted at 356-3674.