Friday, August 04, 2006

My Baseball Deja Vu

I was just outside the backdoor to the office, tossing an empty box into a dumpster, when it hit me. It was the smell of the freshly cut lawn combined with a subtle summer breeze against the backdrop of a picture perfect August morning--warm and clear with the exception of the occasional fluffy white cloud dotting the blue sky. For just a moment or two, all of these sensations transported me back in time.

In that oh-so-sweet fleeting pause from reality, I was a kid again. In that instant, it was a Saturday morning in the mid to late 1970's. It was summer and we were out of school. My father had just cut the grass and my brother and I passed him, either on our bikes or as we hopped over the backyard fence, as we headed off to the schoolyard to play baseball.

We would play baseball from morning until darkness fell. Usually three games a day. The one before lunch. The one between lunch and dinner and the nightcap of our daily triple header, the game between dinner and sunset. It was just about the game. No organized league. No umpires. No coaches. No parents. It was just the kids around the neighborhood getting together to play baseball. And we played all summer long for several years in a row.

In that brief moment this morning, I could feel every moment of those baseball filled summers of the past. It was more than just our daily triple-header, too. It was whiffle ball and strike-out. It was playing pick-off with our cousins. It was the memory of our first game at Tiger Stadium, our first trip to the Hall of Fame, NBC's Game of the Week, Mel Allen and This Week In Baseball and Ernie and Paul doing the Tigers radio broadcast on WJR.

It was a time when summer equaled baseball. It was the game. Oh, we played football and basketball, too. Street hockey came on board, as well. Yet, we all preferred our national pastime. In part, I'm sure, because summer meant no school. However, in those years before high school, baseball was a 365 day priority.

We attempted to play in the snow, ice and cold of spring, especially if a new glove or bat had arrived courtesy of Santa, but those efforts just didn't last long. We most certainly played when Autumn arrived, but as we were back in school and to complete dinner and homework, those midweek games were much harder to sneak in before nightfall. That's probably why those summer memories are so special and so strong. Nearly perpetual baseball for days on end left an impression.

When the breeze died down, and I found myself back in 2006 as an adult with all the responsibility that comes with, I was left with the usual bittersweet moment. One where I wish I could return to that time and place--where the only thing that mattered was playing the game--for a longer stay. Alas, I knew my visits there are limited to these passing moments where my senses return me to that time.

Yet, I was warmed by the notion that I have these kinds of memories to look back upon. The games played in sweltering Michigan humidity. That morning we played through the fog and drizzle. The games won in the dusk when few could even see the ball. I am blessed to have such fond memories and blessed to have parents that didn't discourage my passion.

I wonder if children today will have those kind of memories? Will their memories be of PS2 or GameCube MLB simulations? Will they remember the day they beat some kid in Tokyo online in the bottom of the ninth while with Big Papi at the plate? Thirty years from now will a summer breeze remind them of their days of baseball video games with friends? Or will their baseball memories be of organized leagues, overbearing coaches and the pressure to perform in front of their parents?

I feel sorry for the youth of today, as I believe they are missing out. They get to play, but do they get the joy of playing? Do they get the camaraderie? Maybe I'm the one missing out. Maybe it's better to bat for Magglio Ordonez in EA Sports latest game than it is to pretend to be your childhood hero and hit an actual baseball to win a game with your friends. Maybe it's better to be in an structured environment instead of unsupervised play. Maybe the tradition of playing in open fields, crowded streets and schoolyards is more romantic hogwash than fact. Perhaps, but I doubt that today's kids love this game or any game, more than we loved baseball.

Thankfully, I get these rekindled memories from time-to-time. They can come on summer mornings like today. The right temperature with just the right breeze and precisely the right moment and I'm overrun with emotions of days thirty years in my rearview mirror--the carefree summers spent playing baseball.

This feeling can come while I'm watching a game, as well. If the conditions are just right, I can watch a game and get the same feelings as I did when I watched a game when I was thirteen. It's hard to translate exactly how that feels, and it rarely lasts more than a minute or two, but it's magical.

Noted baseball philosopher, Yogi Berra, may have best described my feelings when he said "it's deja vu, all over again". Each short trip back down memory lane is special, but so was living it out in the first place. I'm grateful for both.

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