The Boys and Girls of Summer
As far back as I remember, I grew up with a baseball in my hand and a mitt on another. I played PeeWee, Little League, City League, and eventually matriculated to play for my high school team. I even played a year in college. After that it was fast-pitch and slow-pitch softball. And even now as a senior citizen, I still have a glove, bat, and ball, and whenever my adult son is home in the summer we play catch and talk sports, how to fix the Twins, and whatever else is on our minds. The essay below was written nearly 25 years ago from the perspective of a dad watching his son play ball.
CHERRY GROVE, FILLMORE COUNTY — I always get lost going to Cherry Grove, possibly because it’s alone by itself out in the middle of nowhere. I inevitably end up in Greenleafton first and drive around and tell myself, “this doesn’t look familiar, where is the Mercantile?” I then realize that I took a wrong turn somewhere and retrace my steps until I find the right road to Cherry Grove.
My son Neale asked me if we were in Cherry Grove when we landed in Greenleafton. He had a date to play softball in Cherry Grove at 7:00 pm and didn’t want to be late, like the time we got lost in the Highway 44 construction on our way to LeRoy a few weeks back. We arrived 15 minutes late for the game and he was disgusted with me.
He gave me the silent look as if to ask, “are we going to be late again?” I felt guilty and said, “don’t worry, Cherry Grove is right over the hill.” He didn’t seem convinced. But we were one of the first to arrive, having allocated a good 45 minutes for getting lost.
The ball field soon filled up with youngsters playing catch and the snack bar opened and the smell of popcorn wafted through the stands. The manager of the Cherry Grove team was out smoothing dirt on the infield with a broken two-foot long garden rake. Bent over at the waist, he worked on the pitcher’s mound and then the batter’s box. Meanwhile a line quickly formed at the snack bar as boxes of popcorn and cans of soda were hauled back to the stands.
There is no bad seat at the Cherry Grove ballpark. The makeshift bleachers are a few feet from the backstop and afford everyone a clear view of the playing field.
This traveling softball league of eight- to ten-year-old boys and girls might be the most egalitarian sports organization around. Everyone gets a chance to play a position in the field and all the players have a chance to bat each and every inning – hits are made, bases on balls drawn, strike outs recorded, catches made, and runs scored.
The ballgame begins and right away the catcher for Cherry Grove makes a good play on a popup behind the plate, her blond frizzy hair bouncing as she squeezes the ball into her glove. Later, a Preston left fielder steals a hit away from a Cherry Grove slugger by grabbing a line drive with a Willie Mays-like basket catch.
I watch the game silently, after my wife and daughter told me to be quiet during the game. “Okay, lets go buddy,” I said loudly. “Shish,” they hissed at me. I wasn’t sure if I was embarrassing them or they were trying to prevent me from becoming an ugly Little League parent. “What did I do,” I pleaded. “Just be quiet,” they scolded.
By the third time my son bats I can’t help myself any longer. “Get that bat back, now, and get ready,” I cheered. He recognizes my voice and looks back at me. He draws a walk and sprints down to first base.
It is not hard to watch these kid’s play ball and let your mind wander at the same time. I think about when I was my son’s age and my dad would take me to watch the Austin Packers in the Southern Minnie League play at Marcussen Park back in the 1950s. To this day I still associate cigar smoke with baseball as the men sat in the stands puffing away under the stars, rooting for the home team. I once saw Hall of Famer Satchel Page pitch a no-hitter for the Cuban All Stars against the Packers.
I was about 12 when I played at Marcussen Park for the first time in a City League championship for my Elks team. I remember how awed I was, almost as if I were playing in Yankee Stadium.
The Cherry Grove team makes a last inning rally, but aren’t able to overcome the Preston team’s lead. I ask my son the score as we jump into the truck for the ride home. “I’m not sure,” he said. “I think we won by a run.”
Somehow the score doesn’t matter. This game has been played for more than a hundred years by all kinds of ball players in all manner of ballparks – in Yankee Stadium, Marcussen Park, and Cherry Grove ball field. On a quiet evening in July, these boys and girls of summer fielded grounders, hit popups, and ran the bases like they do in the big leagues. And somehow the game is better for it.
John Torgrimson is editor and co-publisher of Root River Current.