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My favorite activity on Saturdays is to play baseball with my sons and their friends on a playground in Queens.
I am some 40 years older than most of the other players, whose ages range from seven or eight to 14.
On most occasions, my role is “designated fielder” or pitcher, for both teams.
Sometimes, when the teams are uneven, I am assigned to one or the other and get to bat. I also function as an unofficial, self-appointed umpire, a thankless but necessary job that often finds me in the middle of some contentious disputes over what actually happened, what is fair, and what the rules are in the first place.
Usually (assuming I am not batting on that day), I take up residence at shortstop, third base, or left or center field and enjoy the game from there, playing defense for both sides. The field is very small, so I am very much involved in the action regardless of the position I am playing.
While standing on the field, impatiently awaiting the next slow pitch and hoping the ball will be hit my way, I have plenty of time to meditate, the moments of tranquility being interrupted (only briefly) by a burst of activity when I am in the middle of a play or watching it unfold, shouting at the boys to “throw it, don’t hold on to it!” “home it!” or “cover second!”
The serene and meditative state I often find myself in at such times (once the excitement over the last play has subsided) has made me reflect on its causes and to conclude that baseball is indeed a most wonderful and beautifully designed game.
To be able to enjoy baseball or softball, I have concluded, one needs enough players, at least five or so on each side, to make it playable, and a sufficient level of organization and skill on the part of the players to make the game reasonably competitive and playable. That is all that is needed (other than a ball, bat, and gloves), and I have found that baseball is more fun, for me, to play and watch this way than in a more organized venue (e.g., a youth or professional league).
When I play baseball with boys some thirty to forty years younger than me, I find myself completely caught up in the game. The pleasure, I think, comes from the aesthetic beauty of the game itself and the keen sense of satisfaction I get from watching each play unfold.
To give a few examples: There is a Polish-American boy of about age 13 who used to play with us regularly. (I haven’t seen him at the field this year.) His father, who is a cab driver, took him to the park on Saturdays and busied himself while the boy was playing in a game. The father spoke broken English and hardly knew the game. The son was a good baseball player and took the game very seriously.
One day the son was on first base when someone got a hit. He tried for third (the distance between the bases is short) and ordinarily would have made it. A boy in the outfield fielded the ball cleanly and threw it to me at third. It looked like the Polish boy would make it to third easily, but the throw was right on the mark and the ball “caught up” with him. The ball thudded into my glove and I placed a tag on the surprised runner. He was out, and just as I tagged him, I saw a monetary look of surprise and disappointment flash across his face. This is what baseball is about, I thought. A boy or man trying to outrun a ball. If the ball was thrown a little less further or little less straight, he would have been safe.
My older son (age 14) is playing shortstop. Someone hits a sharp grounder in the hole between shortstop and third base, to his right. He lunges, makes a backhand stop, manages to keep his footing, and looking like Derek Jeter, comes up with the ball. He is momentarily surprised himself that he came up with ball. Then, realizing that he has indeed done so and is supposed to throw to first, he lets go a throw that is both joyful and hopeless, a wild sidearm heave that is a bit too late and wide of the bag. He throws the ball with joy and abandon. It is too late and wide at first. The runner is safe. But he still made a great stop.
My younger son (age 12) is playing first base. Sometimes he has to fight with the other boys to let him play first. He had decided he likes the position, but it is not automatically his. There is keen competition for infield positions.
A sharp grounder is hit to my younger son’s right. He shifts and comes up with it! I fully expect him to run over the first to complete an easy putout, but realizing that there was a runner on first base who is headed for second, he twists and throws to second for a force out, then races back to first to take a return throw which doesn’t quite arrive on time but which could have meant a double play.
It was an excellent, heads up play. I was proud of my son for getting to the ball, and for having the presence of mind to go to second base to nail the lead runner. He sure has improved at first! For a minute, he looked like a major leaguer.
The pleasure, the extreme aesthetic satisfaction, I get out of baseball, I realize, comes from situations like this in which plays unfold and scenarios happen in front of you. Ten years from now, I will still remember the time when the Polish boy was out at third, the good plays my sons made, the outcomes of certain games, just as someone will remember major plays in the Big Leagues such as the catch Willie Mays made in the 1954 World Series or the time when (I remember) Carl Yastrzemski threw out Julian Javier at the plate in the first game of the 1967 World Series. These plays stay in the mind because of their simplicity, their beauty of execution, and the drama of how and when they happened.
Which reminds me of another wonderful thing about baseball. One minute you (player) are an observer, the next moment you are a participant, and most exciting plays involve at least two players on the defensive team (plus the batter and one or more base runners). Plays and scenarios do not unfold in a vacuum; the enjoyment comes from the teamwork. My son’s good stop at first and heads up throw to second would have not been so memorable if another boy hadn’t thought to cover second and to return the throw to first.
Baseball is a thinking man’s game because it can be contemplated as well as played with great satisfaction. You can do both things at once (play and reflect on what is happening, the latter both through anticipation, or foreknowledge, and analysis of what is happening and what did happen), or simply enjoy watching.
Most of the time when I play with my sons and their friends, the level of play is not particularly good. But every play, every incident, is ripe with interesting possibilities, and it is fun to anticipate possible scenarios and watch them unfold. A double play; a dramatic play at home; a bases loaded situation that you hope to get out of; a key hit; a rundown can happen at every level of play, from sandlot to Major League, and can be just as exciting. It’s always fun, for men as well as boys, to watch boys play and to anticipate what will happen next.
On the rare occasions when the boys complete a double play, the excitement is palpable. It is a rare occurrence that takes near flawless execution. Two outs on one ground ball! It’s pretty exciting and makes one tingle with pleasure that at this level of play it was actually accomplished.
— Roger W. Smith (2001)
The image below is from an actual game. It was captured by me on a camcorder. My older son is playing first base and his brother is trying to beat the throw.