Last week’s message about how I came to be the proud owner of a Rawlings baseball glove with Mickey Mantle’s signature in the pocket was actually a cheap way for me to meet my own web log writing deadline by simply posting a writing assignment I had already completed for an on-line course I am taking. The course is about how to write picture books for children and the first assignment was to write about a personal experience from our past. This was easy to do as I wrote about the thing, which dominated my childhood experience, playing baseball with my friends from my neighborhood. Assignment two proved to be more of a challenge; that of translating the content of assignment number one into a marketable story of 1200 words or less.
My first draft came in at slightly more than 1400 words. Editing the story in order to meet the criteria of the established word limit proved to be a valuable process as it forced me to focus on what was essential to attain a realistic and satisfying conclusion. What proved to be hard was meeting my instructor’s secondary requirement, which entailed taking a 1950’s boyhood and making it applicable to today. The changes in our cultural norms and behaviors six decades later make an old man’s childhood unacceptable in today’s litigated and zero tolerance laced environment. For instance, I wrote:
A regular ball diamond was useless to us since there were too few of us to field two full teams. Besides our favorite playground was our own street.
I grew up in a suburban neighborhood in Southern California. One of the delights, as mentioned in last week’s message, is that we could play outside year round. And we played in the street in front of our homes. It was both a baseball field and a football field, where we played abbreviated games that could only simulate the real thing given the literally narrow confines between two curbs. Parents today would likely get arrested for child abandonment or abuse if they let their children play in the street. So that aspect of my experience was out (an appropriate baseball pun).
I mentioned three games that we played to accommodate the limitations of our avenue playground and the rotating number of kids wanting to play on any given day. These were Five Hundred, Hit the Bat, and Over the Line. In the twenty plus years that I have lived in a small community in Wisconsin I have rarely seen kids playing outside at any time of the year other than those engaged in an organized sport taking place at a public park or school. For most kids play today is digitized. Even baseball can be played on the small screen of your TV or computer. But why do that when you can murder and maim your way through any of a number of combat-themed computerized games that give you the vicarious thrill of annihilation graphically portrayed?
I also wrote:
Taunting one another about a person’s inability to catch, throw, or hit a baseball was standard fare and was an integral part of our bonding experience.
Today this is called bullying. It can get you in trouble quicker that the police can cite your parents for letting you play in the street even when supervised. We called this cutting or chopping. It was simply another part of our competitive natures to say something clever followed by the phrase “Chopped you low” with a note of triumph in one’s voice just as if we had hit a home run. And what does it say about me in that I look back at those times with affection? What it meant for the story I wrote was that I allowed a minor politically incorrect infraction to occur by including the nickname of the smallest player among us, who was a good friend and seemed to relish his subsequent status.
Then there’s the Mick. One of my greatest thrills as a child was the time my dad brought home a fielder’s mitt for me with Mickey Mantle’s signature in the palm of a Rawlings manufactured glove. Mantle was my favorite player, even though he played for the Yankees and I was a diehard Dodger fan. And as much as I cheered for Duke Snyder to homer every time he was at bat, and later did the same for Willie Davis, the Mick was just someone set apart. But how many kids today know who he was or could feel about him the way I did when I believed that he walked on pro baseball’s version of the Sea of Galilee?
To complete my assignment, I was willing to drop any reference to the short-handed games that we played, since there was not enough space to explain their respective rules. And that decision made it easier to eliminate any reference to the fact that they took place on a daily basis in the inferno regions of our neighborhood street. But I could not abandon Mantle’s significance to my reverence for the game. So here is how I resolved my emotional conflicts about making a story based on my personal experiences palatable and marketable.
The youthful hero of my story inherits his grandfather’s Rawlings manufactured model MM5 Mickey Mantle glove. Since I don’t have any grandchildren, I gave my son’s name to the boy in the story as a means for retaining a strong emotional bond with the main character. But even more important in my strategy for making it credible, I made his passion for the game my own. There are just some things you cannot fake and a love for the game is one of them.
I’ll know if I was successful by the grade I receive from my instructor. If she is attuned to my way of thinking, she won’t bother assigning a letter grade (if teachers even do that anymore). She’ll simple say homerun instead of strike one. And for me, that will be sufficient.