A Game I Used To Play
There was a time in my life, perhaps in all of our lives, when the world stretched only as far as the street sign at the end of the block. Of course we knew life existed beyond that little green rectangle somehow nailed to a telephone pole, but it was uncharted territory, open water if you will. Our hearts didn’t race when we crossed into that unknown land only when we were accompanied by an adult. These were the times when a person woke up as early as the sun, excited to be alive and lived out the day expecting nothing in return from the universe but to go to sleep with the knowledge that there really were no monsters living under their bed. These were the times when summer seemed endless and when you had nothing to do, you could always play chase with the dog because he was the only one who seemed to appreciate life the way you did. These times, of course, are called childhood.
The house in which I grew up was on the elbow of a capital l-shaped cult-de-sac meaning we had enough room on the street to make baseball diamond without worrying about being flattened by a speeding car. We called this rounded crook of street the Circle. We’d spend our days out there and sometimes even nights when the summer, like extra innings, afforded us more time to play. The streetlight shining over the Circle made our diamond feel official because we could play night games and actually see the ball. My mother had a home daycare and so our house, summer especially since school was out, was filled with the constant wonder of childhood. The children she cared for were mostly toddlers too young to play baseball with us, but they did manage a decent sized crowd and would watch us play through the picket fence of the front yard. My mother would sit in a lawn chair, somehow always wearing a denim jumper and white keds, with a baby in her hands. She would smile as the toddlers cheered us on, clearly not knowing what they were cheering for but always up for making noise nonetheless. We would high five their little outstretched hands between the pickets as if we were professionals used to this kind of attention.
Home plate, it was decided, was the rusty basketball hoop near the end of our driveway. This way the batter could see down the street and warn everyone on the rare occasion when a car turned down it and was headed our way. We foraged for bases until we found that the garbage can would do fine for first base, an old newspaper for second, and our mailbox, conveniently located left of the basketball hoop, was in the perfect spot for third base. The pitcher’s mound was the glove of whoever the current batter was. We played games with five people: my two brothers, two boys from the daycare (they were also brothers) and myself. I was the youngest and only girl in the game, but we were all at the age when it didn’t matter if you were a girl. The only time gender came into a conversation was when one of the boys we played with, one of the brothers, was frustrated that I was a much better player than he was. He used the fact that I was a girl as a scapegoat saying that ‘it didn’t matter because girls don’t play baseball anyway’. We never knew what to say when he’d bring this up, we all knew he was right and that my time on the diamond waned, but we could not yet verbalize our dismay. One of my brothers (the only one of our group that still actually plays baseball), tired of his slight sexism, responded to his comments with a high fastball to the ear. The boy never talked about me as anything but a baseball player from then on. He was also very sensitive to the fact that even though I was a year younger than him I was significantly taller.
I cannot tell you how many balls we lost during those summers. I cannot tell you how many times we slid headfirst into home plate, as if to score the winning run of the World Series, forgetting that it was pavement and skinning our chins or losing some teeth. It was okay back then though, because teeth grew back, but everyone would know you ran home and didn’t slide. That was far more important than teeth. My brother, the baseball player, was forced to use a whiffle ball bat when he was the batter, because he was far too powerful to use what everyone else did. The second baseman was also the outfielder if necessary, so when my brother was in the batter’s box, even with a ridiculous bright yellow piece of plastic in his hands, they would have to stand almost halfway down the street just in case he hit it that far. He always did.
As the summers passed and we were old enough to expand our world to the other side of the street sign, we would ride our bikes to a place tiny baseball field on North Street. We still played the game with much enthusiasm, but a field built to be played on, with it’s manicured grass much greener and thicker than our own yard and actual bases, did not feel as special as our makeshift one. You see, we built our field in the Circle with great care, desperate and grateful to play baseball and we knew that somehow the Circle appreciated that. The North Street field felt jaded, having held many little leaguers in fancy uniforms who were only there because their fathers wanted to live vicariously through them or because their mothers wanted to gossip in the bleachers. We knew that this place, though it was perfect from the outside, was one where the game was not always played with heart. We may have been young and knew little of the world, but we knew one thing for sure: baseball is a game that should always be played with heart.
That summer at North Street was the last one we played our game. The summers after that, the boys were old enough to be on traveling baseball teams (actual teams with nine players and bench players and coaches and umpires) but I have never played since. I have not lost the game, though, and I never will. When I go to my brother’s college games, I hear the announcer say his name and number when he steps up to the plate and I think of him with a whiffle ball bat and us, the fielders, backing away cautiously. And when we go to major league games, sitting in a stadium with tens of thousands of cheering people, looking down (we’re always in the nosebleeds) at the most beautiful grass in the world, watching men who get paid millions of dollars to play baseball, I think of how our days once revolved around this sacred game. And then I look around and realize it still does.