VINNY AND THE BOYS OF SUMMER

My buddy Doc Bradford e-mailed me a picture of a baseball park being readied for the new season. My heart fluttered and my stomach churned. Or maybe my stomach fluttered and my heart churned? Either way, Lora gave me a Pepcid AC and called the Seismic Institute to explain that it wasn’t an earthquake, it was just my reaction to the beginning of baseball season.

For us lucky people who love baseball, this is a grand time of year. With every spring comes new life and baseball – a time of optimism – an almost born-again feeling of buoyancy. Last year you and your favorite team may have finished last, but this year you just know the Dodgers (substitute your own team if you wish) and Jim Alexander (substitute your own name if you wish) have improved, and maybe...just maybe, you’ll win it all.

I was 13 in 1966 when my family moved to Santa Barbara from Connecticut and I began bleeding Dodger Blue immediately. That summer Vin Scully was my only friend and he filled my lonely afternoons with names like Wills, Parker, Lefebvre (yes, there was a Jim Lefebvre before there was a Brett Favre), Roseboro, Drysdale and, naturally, Farmer John. Being a recent transplant, I could relate to being “The eastern most in quality, and the western most in flavor.” Many friends have come and gone since then, but Vinny’s still around.

My love of baseball began before that lonesome summer, but I can’t pinpoint when. I can’t remember when I learned to walk, or when I began to talk, or when I started loving baseball – to me, it’s always been there, like the sun, the moon and Hostess Snowballs.

By the time I was seven, I had shoeboxes full of baseball cards. I fell asleep every summer night with a mouthful of stale bubblegum to the imaginary sound of Mel Allen announcing that Big Jim Alexander robbed Ted Williams of a home run, stretched a single into a two-bagger, and won the game by stealing home. Oh, the roar of the crowd, the crack of the bat, the cotton candy machine in the dugout.

When I was nine years old I joined Little League. Three things put me in the upper echelon of my new team, the South End Tigers. I could tie my own shoes, I knew all the words to the National Anthem, and I knew a cup wasn’t a nose protector. I was also a switch hitter. Though a natural righty, my southpaw father mistakenly taught me to bat lefty. Eventually dad noticed his mistake, and turned me around, but by then I felt comfortable batting either way. It didn’t help my batting average a lick, but it did give me the unenviable distinction of striking out equally well from either side of the dish.

Because I had a gun for an arm (this meant I could hit the cutoff man on three bounces) the coach put me in right field. The first inning of our first game, Tommy McCloskey hit a fly ball in my direction. I ran to my left, then to my right, then back, then forward, then fell right on my puss, the ball landing two feet from my nose. In the second inning I fell victim to the same nightmare. My coach called time, and ordered me to switch places with the shortstop, giving me this piece of advice: “Beanpole (he didn’t know most of our names so he called half of the team ‘beanpole’ and the other half ‘lardass’), I don’t want you to think. Just react.”

This ended up being great advice and could very well be the reason I’m now a housepainter/writer instead of a CEO/writer. I did go on to be a legendary South End Tiger shortstop, setting a single season record with a meager 786 errors.

Yes, baseball’s been bery, bery good to me. And, if you’re lucky, Lora (substitute your wife’s name here if you wish) will let you eat hot dogs, scratch yourself and spit sunflower seeds on the living room floor while watching the games on Sunday afternoons. And if you’re really lucky your team will pull a few out in the bottom of the ninth and for at least a few hours there won’t be any wars, disease, politics, racism or taxes – only Vin Scully (substitute your own announcer if you wish, though there’s really no substitute for Vin) and baseball.