Thursday, March 31, 2011

Opening Day Thoughts...

Three Generations of Baseball
Every spring, Opening Day of Baseball brings with it a flood of memories, good, and sometimes, not so good. Many books have been written by journalists, sportcasters, fans and sports aficionados, waxing eloquent about the rites of spring, renewal, the natural cycle of life and the many comparisons of life to baseball. Some parallel the absurd, some can put a lump in one's throat or make a grown man misty eyed. Comedian, George Carlin, had a funny take comparing the pastoral nature of baseball to the aggressive attitude of football. It is the first day of baseball and with 181 more games to go,  every player on every team, today, is batting a thousand. For me, I celebrate the event with Chablis, sushi and scorecards. Three or four games are scheduled on television, and I plan to watch all of them, even if, by the end of the third game, the wine will make a mess of my score keeping.

I come from a baseball family, but so far, only my dad was able to make it to minor leagues with high hopes of a major league career before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Four years of jungle warfare, where Dad contracted malaria, stole his baseball prime right from under his four fingered glove. He grew up in the depression and corroborates hard time stories with many of his friends about playing ball with taped string, rocks, bottle caps and anything one could throw or catch. Stickball was all they had and if you had your own sawed off broom handle as a bat, you cherished it. My grandfather started a club for kids, like my Dad, to help them compete in a healthy and supervised way. TOGOMS was the name of the club which stood for That Ole Gang Of Mine and apparently is still a viable get together for many of the older folks. Then, before it was printed "ad nauseum" on tee shirts, baseball really was life!

My uncle also played ball most of his life and only stopped when, at thirty-six, he broke his ankle sliding into third base in a company softball tournament. My Dad's dad always had a quarter or two for batting five hundred in a game. Gramps was pretty much a miser, but loved his beer, his cee-gars and to sit behind those chicken wire fenced ballparks on wooden bleachers and aggravate the umps. The smell of freshly cut grass, of leather, of beer, cigars, popcorn, and hotdogs wafting in the air was a smell I can never forget. Man, so many memories to look back on and such a rich heritage even just within our own family.

I never felt good about under achieving in the field of play. I wasn't a poor player. I was quite good, but I never consistently excelled falling victim to those late season slumps which always seemed let Dad down. Being consistent in baseball is very much valued in the game and is a continuing process of learning, coping with failure, over coming frustration, and eventually finding success through repetition and practice. When I was a teenager, he'd occasionally pass by my room, see my glove on the bed post, and see me with my guitar learning some new riff or chord progression and mumble while shaking his head for effect, " Not an athlete in the family... not a one!" Although the word, "mantra" was never a part of our family's vocabulary, my father always said to me, whenever he felt it was somehow appropriate,"Ben, every time you pick up a baseball, you learn something new!"

When our son, Brian, was a baby, I struggled with how to be a better baseball dad. My temporary solution was to ignore it. This father is an artist and that's that! Of course, as Brian grew up and started to play ball games with his friends, his talent became almost impossible to ignore. Our friends would come over and tell us about our kid's single mindedness. Even at an early age, Brian was so intense about ball games. At that time, Brian's opinion of dad was that he was an artist who occasionally strummed the guitar and ran around an oval track for some unknown reason. Eventually, I felt it was hypocritical and very selfish of me to deny him of the same heritage I had been so exposed to. I guess I just didn't want to fail. The question of conscience was definitively decided when, at nine years of age, Brian's "coach" was sitting in the stands, sucking on a chili dog and hitting on a little leaguer's divorced mom.

I got involved. And, on this Opening Day of Baseball, I can look back and honestly say that not one day went by that I did not totally enjoy my time playing and coaching baseball with Brian and all of the other great, Little Leaguers I had the privilege to coach and be a part of their lives. I can only hope that my son doesn't think less of himself because he did not "fulfill" his dad's hopes and dreams for him. I did not want this "goes around, to come back around."

Most of us, including me and my son, had baseball dreams that never got passed high school or junior college. Still, baseball has such a way of magnetizing one to the game forever. It is a game to be savored, slowly. If you so choose, you can blithely stare at the tv till you pass out, or you can intensely analyze each and every pitch, even three pitches ahead. You know, the what if's! I guarantee that if you are knowledgeable enough to be really into the game with a scorecard, you'll be exhausted by the fifth and longing for the seventh inning stretch. It is that kinda game!

Later in life, I am sure, while playing catch with his grandchildren, fingering those 108 stitches on the ball, in time, taught Dad a thing or two about the game of life and about himself. He never mentioned his attitude toward me about my baseball shortcomings. He never apologized though I came to realize an apology wasn't necessary. I know he thought a lot about it but felt it too awkward to address. For years, I kept a major league baseball in the car to occasionally pick up, toss up in the air or spin,  handling it as a curve, slider, two or four seam fastball. Rub it against my face and smell the game and reflect back.  For many very personal reasons, I stopped the tradition. Life can make you a bitter sonofabitch which makes it hard to see the good. Maybe that's what Dad was intimating. The ball was a gentle reminder that you never stop learning... if not the game, at least, about yourself.

Opening day, 2011. A new season and another shot at the pennant. Today, everybody's a winner. Maybe, I'll find that ragged, old baseball, dirty and worn out, and put it back in the car. Or maybe, I'll start anew with a bright, shiny, white one and set it on the dashboard. You know, you can never stop learning!

Copyright Ben Bensen III/ 2011

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