The Editor Takes a Nostalgic Trip Around the Bases

Batter Up

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My brother Tad, in February, sent me a photo of himself and his three sons at a Minnesota Wild hockey game.

“We’ve changed sports,” Tad, a lifelong baseball fan, noted in sending the image. Indeed, all four men wore Wild scarves.

“Have you forsaken the Twins?” I had to ask.

“Just killing time. Ten days until pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training.”

I was relieved. That is, had it become possible for my brother, at his age, to become disaffected with baseball, then I would have been led to wonder — as I would upon learning that good friends are divorcing after decades of marriage — if the same fate might befall me.

That is a fate I would not choose, any more than I would relinquish my trading card collection to Devoe Moore.

I have been a baseball fan since before the Senators departed Washington for Minneapolis, before the Braves headed south from Milwaukee. Playing the game, albeit softball in the main, has been among my greatest joys.

I have thrice retired from donning cleats and like a struggling swimmer who goes down for the third time, I will not again surface to trot out to a red-clay diamond. Unless I do.

After a few months of idleness, I can lie to myself — “I never felt better” — every bit as well as Peyton Manning ever did.

I first played softball as an adult in Ashland, Wisconsin, where once I edited the newspaper. I was promoted too quickly to pitcher and there were days when I prayed for rain. Ashland was a hardscrabble paper mill town. Males there learned to operate chainsaws before they could ride a bicycle and were, like generations before them, into the Paleo diet long before it was cool.

After Ashland, it would be a long while before I would play again. I had gravitated south to Panama City, Florida, another paper mill town, where a man called White Shoes talked me into joining a team sponsored by a funeral home. Fittingly, its pitcher, who worked midnights at the mill, had a dark and depraved and menacing cast about him, rarely spoke and carried his gear in a canvas bat bag that he unzipped deliberately and ceremoniously — a gangster opening his violin case, the Grim Reaper.

Every small town has The Pool Shark and, in Panama City, the funeral home was fortunate to have at its disposal The Pitcher.

Indeed, the team’s lineup, including our death merchant captain, was populated from the top of the order to the bottom with accomplished players. Most had played in a vaunted regional tournament known as The Southeastern. True story: One year, White Shoes was to ride with others to the big dance and didn’t show. The Undertaker dispatched himself to find White Shoes — he knew where to look — and literally separated the truant from a woman as he was rounding third. Never before or since, I dare say, has White Shoes dressed as quickly.

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