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by Ron Cruger
rcruger@san.rr.com
Bats, balls and kids
Vacant lots and Baseball games
        The baseball field in the park up the street is well tended. The line between the dirt and the grass is well defined. The soil is neatly raked and rock and pebble free. The pitcher’s mound is the correct height, smooth and neat. There are dugout benches, backstops, water fountains and clean white bases on the field, each at the perfect distance from each other. The pitcher’s rubber, sitting atop the mound is clean and straight. 
          On this particular day I decided to climb to the top tier of the aluminum stands on the first base side and spend a while remembering my own days playing the game. There was nobody else in the stands and the field was empty. I had the scene all to myself and my memories. 
           For a few moments I stared at the light brown earth meeting the freshly mown, green grass. How ideal it all appeared. Thoughts from the past slowly formed. 
           There was my dad, his arm lightly touching my right shoulder as he guided me towards the field in the Bronx where the Hunt’s Point Cardinal semi professional team played their games. The Cardinals were made up of former high school and college players and a few former pro players, past their prime, but still in love with the game. 
            Dad had arranged for me to play catch with a few of the Cardinals. I was only 8 years old and already baseball had become the most important activity in my young life. My dad was getting me ready to become a real baseball player. I would become what he had wanted to be. 
            I saw the Cardinals in their gleaming white uniforms, most likely hand me downs from their affiliated major league St. Louis Cardinals. The uniforms were sparkling white - their baseball shoes were newly shined black. The word “Cardinals” stretched across their chests.
            I played catch with three of the Cardinals and then joined my father in the bleachers. He patted me on my back and said, “Way to go son, proud of you.” 
           We watched the game, which, if I remember, the Cardinals won. For the next week all I could think of was me playing catch with the Cardinals – real baseball players. 
            It was the summer, so, as an 8 year old it meant playing baseball every day, all day. The other kids and I would get out of our houses early and meet down at the vacant lot two blocks down the street. Much of the day would be spent playing baseball. We paced off the bases and placed old shirts and rags down as the bases. We guessed at the 60 feet, 6 inches from home to the pitcher’s rubber. We dragged a stick in the dirt to make the foul lines. We’d choose sides, we were our own umpires, our own coaches – we were alone, just us kids, no parents, no adults. We argued and yelled at each other. Once in a while there would be a hard slide or a hit batsman and tempers would flare. Rarely a brief, flailing fist fight would occur causing a bloody nose or some scraped flesh. No parents were around to interfere or arbitrate. We did our own fighting, our own peacemaking. 
          Vacant lots were our playgrounds. We played stickball in the streets. We cleared small areas in the vacant lots and played marbles. The girls jumped rope. We played together and got to know one another. We were neighbors – we knew each other. We knew each other’s mothers and fathers. 
           My reminiscences were interrupted by the sound of the doors of vans and SUV’s opening and closing. Out of the vehicles came little baseball players, 8, 9, 10 years old, as sharply dressed as those Hunt’s Point Cardinals of yesterday. Each of the little players had sports bags containing a grouping of their own, personal bats, newly shined baseball shoes and a professional model baseball glove. They wore wrist bands and batting gloves. Some had dark lines under their eyes to ward off the sun’s glare. The coaches led their players. They carried the water bottles, extra aluminum bats, first aid kits, fresh, clean bases, scorecards, pens, pencils 
            Both teams had their processions of players, mothers, fathers, sponsors and relatives. 
            Soon, I had company in the stands. The aluminum stands were quickly being filled. 
            I noticed the straight white lines coming from home plate, heading to first and third base and continuing on to the fences in the outfield. Pure, white lines, plumbed straight and uniform. 
            Some of the mothers, fathers, grandparents and sponsors set up folding aluminum chair alongside and down the foul lines. 
            Two food booths were set up behind the backstop area. Hot dogs, popcorn, ice cream. 
            The home team warmed up, playing catch on the sidelines as the visitors took batting practice. Father/coaches watched closely as their sons prepared for the today’s game. Bits of advice flowed from fathers to sons. “Hold your bat higher.” “Be ready, John, be ready.” “Keep your eye on the ball, Steven.” “No, no, throw it to second base.” 
            I stayed and watched the game. The home team won. 
            The teams formed two lines and high fived each other. Parents herded the players back in the vans and SUV’s and drove away. 
            Pretty soon the field was empty and I was alone again, sitting in the aluminum stands, thinking about those days, long ago. The days of old shirts for bases, high weeds in the outfield, rocks in the infield, baseballs wrapped in electrical tape and just some neighborhood kids playing baseball together in a vacant lot. 
           Just kids. 
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