Pitchers and catchers reported to major league baseball training camps this week, as sure a sign of spring in the air (regardless of the temperature) as the cherry blossoms blooming in Washington. The very phrase “spring training” rekindles in baseball fans everywhere the flickering and foolish hope that this could be the year for their team. In that spirit, I share my own story of child-like dreams rubbing up against reality.
Thirty-five years ago, I had an opportunity to live out one of the great fantasies a baseball fan could have: to play in a game with one’s favorite big-league team.
In this case it was the Baltimore Orioles (who went on to win the World Series that fall). And while it’s true that it was a spring training exhibition game, not a “real” game, and that it took place in a rundown ballpark in Miami, not the team’s home ballpark in Baltimore, and that it was to be in a “B” squad, not an “A” squad game, and that it was to be only for one inning, not the whole game, still – to play on the field with your heroes, in uniform, who wouldn’t jump at this chance of a lifetime?
So, when a well-placed friend arranged for this to happen (long before Baseball Fantasy Camps became a booming business for affluent, grown-up kids), I flew down to Miami, excited and nervous, and clutching my weather-beaten fielders glove. And not just any glove. It was a rare Grady Hatton model, a tribute to the epitome of a mediocre player who batted .254 in his 12-year career as an infielder, mostly with Cincinnati, ending in 1960.
Now Grady Hatton was right-handed, like all third-basemen, but I was a lefty, and so was the glove. And my favorite position was shortstop, where I had played since Little League, with the added burden, after fielding a grounder in the hole, for example, of stopping, planting one’s feet and reversing one’s body to make the throw to first. The added second or so it takes to make such a play makes it prohibitive for left-handed, would-be professionals. But in my youth, I was quick and had a strong arm — one that probably peaked when I was about 12.
As a kid I used to love reading baseball stories of all kinds, and one of my favorites was a young adult novel about a gritty infielder, titled “Good Field, No Hit,” because that was a pretty good description of me.
Actually, I was a fearless hitter as a Little Leaguer — that is until, just before stepping up to the plate, I put on my metal protective helmet. Somehow the feeling of being cut off from the sounds around me, muffled by the ear protectors, and the sudden awareness that I was wearing this helmet because the kid standing on the mound was about to throw the ball very hard toward me, combined to make me go weak in the knees and stand as far from the plate as possible.
Yet in spite of that, I had a remarkably high batting average, somewhere around .700, helped immeasurably by the fact that every ground-out I made I scored as a hit, noting with an asterisk that “It would’ve been a hit if I’d have run faster.”
Maybe it was this form of self-deception that had me making the trip to Miami to play with my beloved O’s, if only for a few minutes.
But to make a long story short and spare you the angst and anguish, I will tell you that on my drive to the ballpark the day of the big game (at least to me), the Miami skies opened up in a torrential downpour. And I found myself deeply disappointed — and quietly relieved — when I learned the game was rained out, sparing me of making a fool of myself in front of men I so admired.
As a consolation prize, though, having made the trip south, I was invited to the Orioles locker room to hang out with the team, which was more than enough to make me happy. I will always remember the graciousness of Ken Singleton, the classy outfielder, who saw me hovering at the entrance to the large room and not only welcomed me but took me around to meet some of his teammates.
There was movie-star handsome Jim Palmer, and the new kid, 23-year-old Cal Ripken Jr., and smiling Al Bumbry and team clown Rick Dempsey. The star of the team, Eddie Murray, known almost as much for his dark moods and dislike of the press as for his long home runs, was over in the corner, unapproachable — even to his teammates, it seemed.
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But my most memorable encounter was with the ultimate Good Field, No Hit pro, former Oriole Mark (The Blade) Belanger, the smooth, lanky shortstop with a weak bat, who had retired after the previous season and was visiting the clubhouse.
He was a favorite of many fans like me for his gentlemanly manner and selfless style of play during his 18 seasons in the big leagues. But when I asked him if he knew of any left-handed shortstops in the major leagues, he gave me a sharp, dismissive look and said, “Never was, never will be,” and walked away.
So my field of dreams was soggier than I’d hoped, on several levels. But on the way out of the ballpark that day, I stopped to take a picture of a large sign over one of the empty concession stands. It read “Nachos,” but I like to think of it as “Nachas,” because that’s how I look back on my day in the sun, even though it rained.
Gary@jewishweek.org. This is a slightly revised and updated version of a column that first appeared here in March 2008.