The Brush Back and Family Values

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It seems to me that I wrote a column some time back about a certain month that I really hate. Funny thing is, I don’t recall exactly which one it is. It would be my guess that it was March. It has to be March. Why March? Because its immeasurable days are the final barrier between me and the seven months that define the rest of my year—i.e., baseball season. That baseball is the lifeblood of my family is axiomatic in our household. I can think of no baseball family in our acquaintance that hasn’t enjoyed a robust marriages, swarthy children, or has endured trial and iniquity by anything other than faith and life lessons learned from the diamond. You get brushed back by a pitch, you stand in at the plate and claim that outside corner. If a team mate strikes out with men on base, then you pick him up. Those are two rules for family living right there: A family has to be strong and tough. And when someone in the family stumbles, the rest of the family doesn’t let him hit ground. Families could save a lot on counseling by paying more attention to baseball.

It is easy to wax poetic about America’s pastime (a trite euphemism commonly associated with baseball prose and spring training), before the dog days of summer and a lengthy 162 game season try one’s love for the game. Several years ago, upon seeing the middle school kids outside my classroom window prepare for spring baseball, I wrote on the message board:

This afternoon, the sky was clear blue with errant clouds, gray and fluffy, meandering on the same cool breeze that was also blowing gently though my open window. The sun shone brilliantly, and the air was sweet from the freshly mowed field across just yards from my classroom. This was the first sun we’ve seen in the Valley for weeks and it streamed like melted butter though the window.

…and at that moment of complete Satori, I could feel it, smell it…could hear the pop of white horsehide against brown leather…was that spring training calling…beckoning…? Just a month away?

How I long to turn on the radio and hear John Miller. Box scores. Beer and hot dogs. Watching my boy pitch with the butterflies dancing in my stomach with his every wind-up.

“April is the cruelest month….” Eliot got it wrong. He knew not baseball. The cruelest, most malevolent month is February. She taunts and teases with days such as these. The blue will return to the Valley gray that reaches from ground to sky.

Soon enough, however, I’ll have the the last laugh. April will chase away the gloom, and then the boys of summer will come out to play. The fresh memory of the mowed field outside my room need only sustain me a little while more.

[It does not escape my attention that I had earlier written “February” is my least favorite month. I am often cantankerous and capricious with my opinions]

While I enjoy reading the cornucopia of verse and prose that details the grace and aesthetics of this uniquely American game, the fact is, were I to play the word association game with baseball, my responses would be sweat, dirt, blood, sunburn, fetid (as in one’s teenager’s baseball socks in the car after playing a double header on a 102 degree Valley day), sore muscles, elation and disappointment. These wretched images don’t necessarily connote anything negative about baseball from my or my little family’s perspective. In fact they represent a thousand shared experiences as a family—hundreds, if not thousands, of hours spent together at ballparks watching, playing, practicing, or arguing over the game.

Many baseball euphemisms have entered our daily lexicon. My family uses these, and other arcane bits of baseball advice to express heartfelt thoughts and council. I’ll tell you, my family is a hard nosed lot with little tolerance for whining. Things that you might hear from my wife, daughter or son say in any conversation:

Keep you butt and glove down, and your head up.
Stay inside the pitch, don’t reach.
Don’t give up the outside corner. (hitters)
Don’t be afraid to pitch inside.
Get a good jump on the ball (or pitch if stealing).
Slide hard.
Rub some first on it.
Take one for the team.
Ya it was a bad hop, but you have to be ready.
Don’t step in the bucket.
Keep your eye on the ball.
Don’t stand there looking at it.

Baseball is a team game in which individual failure is readily recognizable but in which nuanced success may go unnoticed. It is a game in which one’s hard work, preparation, and gusto (of lack of) are instantly observable to even the casual fan. My son is finally done with baseball (college career), and I can hardly wait to see what he accomplishes with the rest of his live with the work ethic and mental toughness he has learned from 19 years of playing ball.

The other day between classes, a student of mine on the school team and I were discussing hitting. I shared that I disagree with coaches telling young players—or perhaps any player —to hit the ball to right to move a runner up. I explained that a better approach (one used by Albert Puljos and many other sluggers) is to think about driving the ball straight up the middle and let the movement of the pitch take the ball gap to gap. Another player sitting in on the discussion piped, “Ya, it’s like life. Why be happy with a Texas leaguer to right? Don’t be afraid to drive in two.”

That brought a huge smile to my face. Now there was a kid that was being brought up right by a baseball family.

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