he temperature is still hovering around the zero degrees mark but March is upon us and with that comes dreams of warmer months ahead. For all of my life, the beginning of spring training meant that the winds of winter were finally over and the dream of having a championship baseball team in New England hasn’t been crushed by the New York Yankees.
Lately the start of baseball has not meant as much as it did when I was young. This is probably because I used to cheer for a team that not only represented where I lived but also had players I could follow through their rookie season right up to the day they came before the home team crowd to bid their adieu from baseball. In today’s world most players change teams like most of us change underwear. It just isn’t the same.
I can remember when the New York Yankees was my team. Back then they were considered unbeatable. Every spring the same players, with a few rookies sprinkled in, would come together to show the entire world they would still be world champions. Other teams had a similar philosophical approach to pursuing a world championship because they also had what is now nostalgically remembered as franchise players.
When I was 12 years old I used to watch all the Yankees games on our first black and white television. My father used to set up a couple of plastic TV trays that would each hold a box of Cheesits and a bowl of assorted snacks. I would have a long-necked green bottle of 7-Up and my father would have a bottle of Knickerbocker beer. Baseball was everything back then. It was literally the center of my universe.
During the season I wouldn’t even think of wearing anything that didn’t say baseball. I wore my black Yankee cap with my Yankees T-shirt, and my Yankees pinstriped pants that my mother had to wash at night because that was the only time I would take them off to put on my Yankees pajamas. When I went to bed I took my baseball glove with me. Every night before I went to sleep I would treat it with authentic Yankees glove oil and roll it up with string to keep its shape and every laundry day my mother complained about the oil stains on the sheets. I didn’t care because I went to sleep with the smell of baseball in my nostrils.
At breakfast I would only eat Wheaties because it was the breakfast of champions and the Yankees were the world champions. To keep myself sane during the winter months I created a dice game in which I would set up imaginary teams for both leagues. I would play this game for hours on end, having a one represent a single, a two represent a double, a three represent a triple, and a six represent a home run. All other numbers meant an out. I would then create a season of well over a hundred games that had the Yankees always win. How could it be any other way?
After what seemed like centuries, similar to how I feel about this winter, spring arrived and I would finally take out my well oiled glove, put on my Yankees uniform, and go out to our local ball park to sign up for the little league season. Back then everybody signed up to play little league. One year my father decided to be the coach of our team. At first I thought that would be cool until I realized that my father liked to do one specific thing. He liked to win. Nothing wrong with that except, in order for him to win, I had to hit the ball like the Mick, catch like Maris, and play third base like Boyer. I did the best I could do.
The day of our first practice finally arrived. Because of my size my father decided I should catch behind the plate. I thought that was a pretty good idea until the pitcher threw his first pitch, the batter missed, the ball hit me smack in the middle of my forehead and knocked me unconscious. After a few more lumps on the head and most of my fingers had been dislocated my father decided it would be better if I covered third base.
I did a pretty good job at third base but then my father had another great idea. He decided to try me out as a pitcher. The first time I took the mound I felt like a king. Even though I was already bigger than most of the other kids, standing on that mound made me feel not just wider but taller.
Maybe I should mention here that before every season we took a team portrait and I was always asked to turn around so my jersey would display the auto parts store that sponsored our team, which just about guaranteed I would have a lifelong complex about my weight. I clearly remember the first batter I pitched to. I think he was three feet tall and had a bat that was a foot longer than him. He belonged to a team called the Tigers and they were supposed to sweep the league that season. I remember thinking: ‘How could a team named the Tigers ever win anything.’ To this day I still think I am right.
When it was time for me to throw my first pitch I put my right foot on the rubber and peered into the eyes of the catcher. He gave me a hand signal, which meant nothing to me because I only knew how to throw one pitch.
As my hero, Whitey Ford did before me; I sucked together all the spit in my mouth and went to eject it in a long contemptuous stream to show the batter what I thought of him. Unfortunately I didn’t have Whitey’s technique and a long stream of drool poured out of my mouth and down the front of my uniform.
I finally threw my first pitch and I had my first man on base. The game had to be delayed because it took the batter a couple of minutes to stop crying. The second batter actually looked scared when he came up to the plate. He stood deep in the batter’s box, possibly worrying about an inside pitch. I took the call from the catcher, dribbled a bit more spittle down the front of my uniform, went into my windup and fired a pitch that flew right over the backstop. I glanced at my father and saw a look of concern in his face. I now had a man on second with no outs and a second batter who had run back to the bench was refusing to go back to home plate. My pitching career had a short life span.
The temperature is still hovering around zero degrees but March is upon us and with that comes dreams of warmer months ahead. Now a Red Sox fan I am saddened by the fact that my new favorite team will have players on it that come from teams I never heard of before. But, every now and then, I will pass a little league field still buried in snow and in my mind’s eye I see it filled with young men and women wearing their well-oiled gloves, waiting for their moment of glory, and I feel a little better about the game.
If you want to play baseball, first learn how to spit right
by J. G. Fabiano
Jim Fabiano is a teacher and a writer living in York, Maine, USA