by Mark Dvorak
March is here and the major league baseball teams have returned to training camp in Florida and Arizona. Across the country, boys like I used to be, are in the weight room, and in the north, they trudge through the late winter snow, getting their running in before the team meets up for pre-season practice. They coax friends into a game of catch in the cold, to work on their side arm relay, long toss or overhand curve. I can’t help but be swept up a little with this ritual, and every year around this time I think again about heading down to the batting cage across town with a roll of quarters, just to see. Probably takes dollar bills now.
This time of year is special in ways that are sometimes hard to explain. Maybe it’s simple nostalgia, but perhaps it is something else again. The return of spring - the return of baseball - marks the rebirth of the year, a renewal of the spirit and the resurrection of hope that the new season may be fruitful.
My grandfather was a professional baseball player. Some years ago, we found his contract among a stash of his earthly possessions and documents in back of one of the closets at home. He was a pitcher and outfielder and as best as I can remember, he played for a club in the low minor leagues somewhere out in Nebraska. I once did a little research and concluded his team was an affiliate of what is now the Baltimore Orioles in the American League. Family lore tells that he had to leave the club sometime during his first season to help out with some matter at home.
My dad was a baseball player too. He was tall and lanky and played first base for a semi-pro team on the west side of Chicago, and he could really hit. After he married mom and started a family, he played sixteen inch softball each summer in local leagues around Cicero, Illinois, including a couple seasons with a Windy City team in Chicago. As soon as his firstborn son expressed an interest in the game, down to the store we all went. My oldest brother came home with a fine new Rawlings glove. The rest of us got gloves too, and we began. Dad’s family responsibilities had transformed his game into pitching underhanded to his little kids, teaching them how to keep their back foot still, hands back and eye on the ball when swinging the bat.
I wouldn’t say that baseball was like a religion in our family, but it was always there, and something we always seemed to return to. We cheered for the White Sox, and the Cubs, and had our favorite players of course, but it was the game we really liked. When our family moved west to an unincorporated area near LaGrange, Illinois, our new back yard was three-quarters of an acre, complete with a backstop and a row of hedges which designated the outfield wall. Center was short, left was deep, and a big sycamore tree shaded right. Periodically we custom-mowed the grass to indicate the foul lines and infield dirt.
By the time I learned to love Jesus in Sunday school, I had already loved baseball that much. And I still do love baseball that much, but I can no longer play, so it’s a little different now. My legitimate career in the game ended a long time ago, a mere glimpse of possibility and hope.
I mostly played center field and was fast and smart. I had a good arm and was a young fly chaser with excellent range. At the plate I had a good eye and could hit for average, with only occasional power. I could draw a walk, beat out a bunt, steal a base, drive in a run or move a runner along. No “I” in team.
Just about every ball player who hangs around the game long enough earns himself a nickname, even in Little League. Someone whose name begins with an “Mc” almost always becomes “Mac” or “Mick” for the rest of his baseball life. One season we had two kids on the team, each with red hair and freckles. They were “Big Red” and “Little Red,” respectively. Boys called Robert or Edward by a teacher in class are automatically “Bobby” and “Eddie” on the diamond. Last names are often shortened so they can be blurted out quickly. A young fellow on our team with the last name Burson, became “Burse,” or “Bursey,” depending. Other nicknames emerged based upon one’s personality. I’m thinking now of a fellow who pitched for another team in the Babe Ruth League in the late 1970s with the nickname “Weed.”
I wasn’t a smoker of anything during my baseball days. Didn’t drink neither. Didn’t chew and was still a little shy around the girls. I was also usually quiet around the boys while they jocked around before and after the game. I was a clean kid and my practice habits and demeanor earned me the nickname, “Preacher.” On good days I remember hearing, “Way to go Preacher,” and “Nice catch, Preacher,” and “Bring him in, Preach.” I was naturally thrilled like the others, the one summer a small bunch of us got scouted, but my baseball dream lingered for only a short time thereafter. I played one more season in Babe Ruth and rode the bench for a portion of another in semi-pro, and then it was all over. Around that time I was starting to learn to play the banjo.
Over the years, my travels as a musician have brought me to many small towns and rural communities. And in springtime, one senses the return of baseball with the smell of clean country air and the sight of a newly plowed farm field. While on the road, it was once my habit to seek out a ball game during my down time. I have attended minor league games played by the Fort Wayne Wizards, the Quad City Angels, the Burlington Bees, the South Bend Hawks, the Toledo Mud Hens, the Madison Mallards and a few others. I have also been witness to college and high school games and the experience has always been the same.
Pekin, Illinois is just down river from Peoria in the heart of some very serious baseball country. Once while in Pekin with the afternoon off, I got to sit in the stands munching popcorn with my book as the Pekin Dragons varsity team held an afternoon workout. I was keeping a kind of travel journal in those days, and the entry from that day went like this:
April, 18, 2002
...Pekin might be the place where summer always lives. It’s been warm in Chicago for this time of year, but when I arrived in Pekin, summer was already here. The mornings have been sunny and warm and clear, and all evidence suggests it has been this way for some time now. By afternoon the breeze picks up and puffy mountains of clouds fluff way up in a high summer sky...
Many of the children I have visited this trip have knees and elbows and chins already scraped and bandaged or scabbed. One boy had a shiner behind his Scotch-taped together glasses, and one little girl had a blue fiberglass cast on her broken arm. The boys at the high school held ball practice at Dragon Field on Wednesday afternoon, their lean torsos glistening shirtless in the afternoon sun. I ate a bag of popcorn and from the grandstand watched them go through their drills, and listened to them shout and laugh and work hard at their play.
Maybe Pekin is the place where the sky is always friendly and high, where the wind always blows warm from the southwest, and where the lazy river is always churning green and brown. Maybe it’s always two months till school is out in Pekin, Illinois, and maybe it’s the place where the farm fields are always newly planted, so there isn’t so much to do until the corn and soy beans need cultivating. Maybe Pekin is the place where the boys get to play baseball all the time.
God I used to love that game.