Sunday, June 29, 2008

I WONDER WHAT THE WORLD WILL THINK OF JOHN MELLENCAMP’S WORK 50 YEARS FROM NOW? Was there ever really a world like the one that Norman Rockwell depicted in his cover illustrations for The Saturday Evening Post? I’m too young to know since he stopped painting before I started playing Little League baseball. There is a gentle humanity, a sweetness and warmth that underlies many of his works. I assume that his portrayals of American life must have been idealized, at least in part. Was he sentimental? Yes, I suppose he was, but I guess that that does not bother me.

The “Norman Rockwell” world lives on in the various Little League and Cal Ripken all star baseball tournaments taking place at this time of year in innumerable small towns across America. That thought struck me yesterday as I watched my “12 and under” all star team get ready for their first tournament game. The dusty field with its unusually high pitching mound. The boys, earnest and polite, yet ferociously competitive, all dressed in their blue and white uniforms. The throngs of parents gathered under the shady trees. The small children scampering about, happy simply to be part of this exciting endeavor. The scorers table set up on two card tables. The chief umpire, an old school kind of a guy, who looked just like Wilfred Brimley.

It had been at least 9 years since my town (Narberth, PA) had won a tournament game. The kids, to varying degrees, were aware that the odds were stacked against them. During our final practice a lot of the boys had a flat emotional affect.

We jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the top of the first inning, thanks to some excellent hitting and tenacious plate discipline. A wave of enthusiasm and determination swept over the boys. Without any prompting, the lads on the bench started to yell encouragement to their teammates.

A boy named Sammy pitched brilliantly for us during the first three innings. I happened to be the first one to greet him when he finished pitching. Between the heat and his hard work on the mound, Sammy looked a little tired, but on his face was an expression of sheer willpower that I doubt that I will ever forget.

The game was close and exciting throughout. I spent most of my time pressed up against the fence near home plate. Often Andrew, the team’s youngest player, was by my side. At one point, around the fourth inning, he grabbed my elbow and looked at me with a grin straight out of one of those Norman Rockwell covers. He exclaimed “this is real baseball, Coach Bob!” Caught up in the moment, he said it again “this is real baseball!” Andrew, of course, was right.

During most of the middle of the game, the outstanding pitcher for Lansdowne essentially shut us down on offense. He had a wicked fastball and good control. He mixed in the occasional curveball and changeup effectively. We were leading 3-1, but the game was too close for comfort.

With a mighty swing of the bat, a boy on my team named Brandon smacked a home run over the fence in left field. The entire team lined up near home plate to congratulate him. A moment later, I ran out and retrieved his home run ball. I showed it to Brandon and told him that I would keep it safe for him until the end of the game. Brandon looked happy, but he also looked as though he himself could hardly believe that he’d just homered.

Thanks to dazzling pitching, together with intelligent and athletic defense by the entire team, we allowed just two more runs the rest of the game. The score was 5-3 when we recorded the final out. Pandemonium and jubilation on the field ensued.

A moment or two later, we all gathered by the bench where each of the coaches said a few words. I wish I had had a camera so I could show you the expressions of enchantment on the faces of the players.

As everyone was starting to leave, I jogged up the hill to my bike and found Brandon’s home run ball in my bag. I brought it over to Brandon and his mother. I dropped to one knee so that I could look Brandon straight in the eye. “Congratulations, Brandon,” I said, “here is the ball you hit over the fence. Hang onto it because you’re going to remember that moment and this entire game when you are 40 years old!” He smiled, his eyes full of joy. I turned to Brandon’s mother. “And your mother is going to be telling everyone she knows how proud of you she is.” I paused a moment for dramatic effect. “For at least the next 20 years!”

As for me, and as for all of the people who were fortunate enough to have been there yesterday, I suspect that we will all remember this game 20 years from now. It was emphatically a game to remember.

No comments:

Post a Comment