As a child my passion was baseball. And I was fortunate enough to be a Southern California native, which means that the mild weather allowed us to play outside the whole year round. And whether it was baseball season or not, the game we played most often was baseball, or at least some form of it.
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. This made it hard on the ball since the asphalt surface tore at the leather and stitching every time the ball bounced, which was often. And when the “hide” of the ball finally ripped completely off, we simply replaced it by wrapping electricians tape around the ball and continued playing.
When you only have four or five kids who are able to play you improvise. Single-batter games like Five Hundred and Hit the Bat could still be fun and competitive. But our favorite game, which came closest to simulating a real baseball game, was called Over the Line. And that required at least four players, two to a side.
Our one great compromise in choosing teams occurred when there was an odd number of players. It was agreed that the best player (typically the oldest) took the two youngest players to be on his team. In our young minds that made things even. Otherwise the games were hotly contested and vociferously debated for the duration. 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.
The standout memory for me was the day my father brought home a baseball glove I could claim as my own. Up until then I used my older brother’s glove, which was actually designed as a softball glove. But we played the real deal, hard ball, so it was a little embarrassing to be the only kid using a softball glove. I let mom know my heart’s desire to have my own glove, trusting that she would be my advocate with dad to spend a little of his hard-earned money to make his second born happy.
The key to my appeal was that I was old enough now to play on a Little League team. We wore full uniforms and rubber cleats and there was a bona fide umpire standing behind the plate calling balls and strikes. But I was terrified at the thought of taking the field wearing my brother’s worn out softball glove.
Dad exceeded my wildest dreams, proof of mom’s persuasive powers. What he brought home in its own box was a Rawlings fielder’s mitt with the autograph of my favorite player, Mickey Mantle, burned into the pocket of the glove as if it were his personal seal of approval. And on that day I was the happiest kid in our neighborhood.