I haven’t kept many mementos from my childhood sports days. There are a few stats sheets and participation patches hidden away in a box in the basement. But all my trophies were tossed out long ago. Nor are there any old uniforms or hats crammed into a cedar chest somewhere as reminders of my pre-high school sports glory days.
Among a group of six baseballs I have tucked into a drawer in our dresser, though, I do have two game balls that I saved from my YMCA/Little League days.
One is dated June 24, 1981, a few days after I turned 10, with the notation “Cards 1st Win” inked onto it. I was catching that day, and in the last inning I took a throw from the outfield just before being absolutely drilled by a runner who was attempting to tie the game. I held on for the third out and, apparently, our first win of the year. I remember laying on the ground for several minutes after the collision, the wind having been knocked out of me, and gripping the ball as tightly as I could. I think my coach awarded it to me as much for my refusal to let it go as for making the play at the plate.
The other ball is from three years later, June 4, 1984. This one reads “3 Great Catches. Won 25–8,” and is then signed by the rest of my team. I mostly played center field that year, and remember making one Lorenzo Cain-like catch in the game, running deep into left-center and backhanding a ball just before it hit the fence. I know I also made a catch running at full speed toward the infield and diving at the last second to collect a shallow pop. The third catch? Lost in time. Clearly, given the final score, those catches were the difference between a win and a loss that day!
Why have I saved these balls for over 30 years when I’ve thrown away almost all other artifacts of my childhood sports career? I’m not really sure. Perhaps because of the power that a baseball holds over anyone that grows up loving the sport. There is something sacred about that leather-covered orb. Whether you catch a foul ball at a big league game, or are presented the game ball after your U–11 game, once you get ahold of a baseball you never want to let it go. It is a direct connection to George Brett and Nolan Ryan, Barry Bonds and Pedro Martinez, or Alex Gordon and Clayton Kershaw.
The game balls have rarely been moved in the seven or eight years since we purchased our dresser. I don’t think I’ve ever showed them to the girls, either. Probably out of fear that they’ll hunt them down and mess them up. They just sit there and take up space, pushed aside when I’m looking for the pill bottles the girls baby teeth are stored in, or looking for collar stays when I put on a dress shirt. But it seems wrong to ever throw them away.
There’s a too-much-about-me prologue to the real purpose of this post: C. earned her first-ever game ball last night; a first for all of the girls, actually.
Her softball season got off to a rough start last week. Her team, which is loaded with first-year players and first graders, got trounced 14–0 by a team with mostly experienced second graders. C. went hitless, as did most of her team, striking out in all three plate appearances.
Saturday, after her First Communion, we spent about 20 minutes outside hitting. It took almost five minutes for her to make contact, but eventually she was hitting line drives over my head.
Last night was game two, and it was a very different evening. They played a team that was more even to them in terms of age and experience. After a slow start, they strung together a bunch of hits in three-straight innings and got a 10–2 win.
C. struck out again in her first at bat.
In her second, she smacked a hit to the left side of the infield that gave her team the lead. When she came back to the dugout between innings, she was fighting a losing battle to hide her proud grin.
Third time up, she got another infield single. “I can’t wait to hit again!” she told me while grabbing her mitt.
And in her final at bat, she lined a shot toward the shortstop that rolled to the outfield. “I LOVE hitting, Dad!”
All the girls were excited to get their first win. Their coach gathered them in the dugout to tell them how well they played and how proud he was of their improvement since their first game. Then he said he was giving the game ball to a player who had some really big hits, handing the ball to C. Her eyes bugged out and she had a silly, excited grin on her face.
Not going to lie. I had to take a little walk because there was dust or pollen or something in my eyes and I needed a minute.
Her teammates took turns signing the ball, which like her old man three decades ago, she held onto tightly as we walked back to the car. When we got home, she told me, “Dad, I want to play softball for a long time!” then she ran inside to show S. and her sisters. Of course, she said the same thing about being in Girl Scouts last year and now hates going to meetings. So we’ll see.
For now her ball is prominently displayed on her bedside table, and I’m sure she’ll show it to her buddy next door, with long explanations of how she earned it, at her first chance.
Maybe, in another 30 years, she’ll push it aside as she searches for a piece of jewelry or item of clothing in a dresser drawer of her own.
- The other balls are: 1) A ball my step-dad gave me that has a bunch of very old players’ autographs. The most readable, and recognizable, signature is from Cardinals Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst. 2) Another is a ball the husband of an after-school babysitter brought me from when he worked in the bullpen at (then) Royals Stadium in 1981, signed by Rich Gale, Paul Splittorff, Ken Brett, and Dan Quisenberry. 3) A ball signed, to me, by Brooks Robinson that one of my sisters-in-law got when she met the Orioles Hall of Famer at a work event a few years back. Elsewhere in the house is a ball signed by Carlos Beltran and Jermaine Dye, and the two MLB foul balls I’ve collected over the years. ↩
- Yes, I know it’s sad that I CLEARLY remember two catches I made in a Little League game 31 years ago. My athletic feats are few. ↩
- Game Winning RBI! ↩