Once a woman I was riding on the back of my Triumph was trying to conceal her terror by making small talk. Casually she yelled over the engine, “So, why do you ride a motorcycle?” Immediately I heard myself yell back over my shoulder, “Because it makes me feel like I’m 25 years old again!”
But this summer I’ve discovered something that makes me feel 10 again. Actually, 10 for the first time.
The first time I ever threw a baseball, I was playing catch in the neighbors’ yard, with a plastic mitt. My parents were writers and music people and had little interest in sports. So we didn’t have much equipment beyond a football that looked like it should be in a museum of natural history, and some the wooden tennis rackets locked in wooden frames in the back of the hall closet.
Kirk Morris and his dad were throwing it pretty hard. Mr. Morris threw a frozen rope that ticked off my little glove and hit me so hard in the right eye that it might have plugged in the socket. As I reached down to pick up the ball through tears both physically and emotionally induced, I realized the Morrises hadn’t seen! With perfect luck, my mother called me in to dinner at that exact moment.
So ashamed was I that I bade the Morrises goodnight, ran into our house and sat down to dinner without saying a word about my injury to my mom, dad and sister, either. During the course of the meal, my eye quietly blackened, swelled up and shut completely, prompting my mother to ask if something had happened at the Morrises that I hadn’t told them about. A fight, perhaps? If only.
Fast forward 41 years, to the summer of 2020. My friend Chris Pitzen has been bugging me every time I see him about this pick-up baseball game he plays in every Sunday morning up at Portage Park, at 10. Just a bunch of guys, some in their thirties, some in their forties, getting together on whatever field is available—(even the dreaded “Weed Field” seen below)—to choose up teams and play some ball.
Well, I’m reading The New York Times on Sunday mornings at 10, and thinking about making a screwdriver, not thinking about hitting a screwball. And speaking of screwballs, Chris Pitzen is involved in a lot of screwball things. Like, once he took a steam locomotive around Ireland, for crissakes.
And really? Baseball?
It wasn’t my age that kept me from leaping at the idea. At 51, I still play tennis like an absolute maniac and am known in my Friday night winter league as “The Roadrunner.”
It wasn’t a Morrisball to the eye that I was afraid of, either.
It was what I’ve always been afraid of: that I never played organized baseball as a kid at all. By the time I got interested in sports—this happened immediately and profoundly when I was in fifth grade—all the other kids had been playing little league for what seemed like decades. Yes, I learned all of baseball history at the Hudson Public Library in one year, but that didn’t mean I knew when to tag up and when to run or what in God’s name was the infield fly rule. If I signed up for little league, I would fuck up and I would get made fun of. At 10, that was out of the question.
I had missed my moment, and it was a minor sadness all my life that made me a little resentful of my parents and embarrassingly jealous of little league baseball and softball players. So jealous, that I would take forlorn pictures like this one, of my young niece Parker, who looks like a ballplayer.
Fuck it, I said one Sunday in July. I’ll try it.
At Portage Park, they call me “The Tumbler.” That’s because every play I make in centerfield—no matter how hard or easy it is—usually ends with me on my back. And I do make some pretty darn good plays out there, ask any of the guys. I’ve learned to judge the depth of the ball by the sound of the crack of the bat, and relearned what I knew from fungo sessions I’d talked my dad into—how to glide under a fly ball without the whole sky shaking with every step. And of course The Roadrunner can still run, and I am not at all sorry after I tear open my knee diving for a sinking line drive and have a scab to pick for two weeks. A baseball scab.
The other day, I charged a rolling grounder—my stiff lower back requires two pre-game Advils to be able to bend down for those—and tripped as I nabbed it, somersaulted sideways and came up throwing, weakly and vaguely toward second. “Did you do that on purpose?” asked Pitzen, the left fielder. I swore I didn’t. “That looked like some kind of barrel roll,” he muttered, shambling back to his position.
My hitting is better than my throwing, but it’s not great, either. This ball barely made it past the pitcher.
Usually, we don’t even keep score. We sort of try to, but honestly, everyone—from the guys who look like they played college ball, to the guys who look like they played high school ball, to the guys who look like they played hacky sack—is too blissed out to remember what inning it is.
If a guy makes a great catch, everyone cheers. If a guy drops an easy one, he laughs, and everyone else laughs, too. Meanwhile, guys are giving each other nicknames—Pitzen, since he started pitching a few weeks ago and somehow retired the first five guys he faced, is “The Condor”—and making jokes about which one of us is most likely to get called up to the Cubs. It all takes place over the “sounds of the game” audio that’s always playing from a speaker in the dugout, a murmuring major league crowd, the ballpark organ and the P.A. announcer, “The owner of the Pontiac Sunbird, Illinois license X4L 6R1, your lights are on.”
And for two or three hours every Sunday, some middle-aged 10-year-old boys get to feel like ballplayers.
At least one of us, for the very first time.