THE BLOG

Baseball: A Love Story

11/21/2011 05:08 pm ET | Updated Jan 21, 2012

A few weeks ago, driving north on I-55 at night, the car buffeted by a gale sweeping down from Canada, I searched for something to listen to on the radio.

FM stations playing automated hits from the '90s or country songs about trains and pain, over to AM, and the classic highly compressed distorted crackle of the media of my youth. Music there and then gone, old-time preachers thundering about sin and resurrection, deep voiced Spanish DJs introducing music evoking emotional heat and the Sierra Madre.

Then, clear and strong, the sixth inning of a World Series game. The color guy and play-by-play announcer painting pictures with their voices, a broadcasting style unchanged for generations.

I thought of other Americans clustered around radios hearing: "two outs, left-handed batter up next, a fast runner at first, the pitcher nearing a hundred pitches... they've got a right hander and left hander warming up in the bullpen."

The laconic descriptions making me feel like I was at the ballpark. The crowd roared when the reliever's first pitch was hammered for a double and the runner on first slid under the tag for the first run of the game.

It all took me back to sneaking radios into class when World Series games were played during the daytime. To playing in a Little League All Star game when we lived in Japan at a big league baseball stadium. The fences so far away that a hard grounder could turn into a homerun.

To becoming a father, raising a son and daughter, teaching them to catch and throw and hit. My daughter, a darn good player until ballet took her from the diamond to the stage.

My son, born with a linebacker's body: broad-shouldered, muscular legs, definition in his arms even as he took his first breath, stayed with it. He was a born hitter. At three, in the living room of our apartment, after I showed him how to hold a little yellow plastic bat, put him in a batting stance and lofted his first wiffleball pitch, he smoked it straight back at me, hitting me hard in the groin. I collapsed in agony, laughing and crying at the same time. When I looked to see his reaction to his dad writhing on the floor, he had no reaction; he was back in his stance, waiting for the next pitch.

After we moved to Evanston a neighbor of ours with a son the same age and I began another rite of Americana: coaching Little League. I must say that it was one of the most gratifying experiences of my life. Evanston's start-up leagues were co-ed, Evanston's community a United Nations of cultures. We taught baseball, American baseball, to children from all over the world, but especially, it seemed at that time, to children escaping the fresh hell of the Balkan Wars.

They had little English, their parents none, but all were desperate to be Americans, to be part of the America that they had heard of or seen in movies. Most of the parents worked several jobs but would come to as many games and practices as possible. Older children or relatives would translate after practice: we'd answer endless questions about double plays and the infield fly rule, or how to break in a baseball glove. The parents would ask us to teach them which hand to catch with and which hand did you use to throw a baseball. They wanted to be American parents and play catch with their kids after work.

You would catch comments of lives turned upside down in an afternoon, of ethnic cleansing and refugee camps. But, now they had been welcomed into the United States of America and Bosnians, Croats, and Serbians were Americans, cheering together when any of the kids did well.

As the World Series game droned in the background, I thought of the magical season when we won the Evanston Little League championship.

It was an all boy league by that age. The boys 10 or 11, some already showing greatness, some showing a love of the game, but no skill in a way that would bring tears to your eyes because of their determination. We evolved a policy of playing everyone, in every position, in a rotation. That is, every position but pitcher.

The pressure of pitching was just too much for most kids at that age. Having to throw strikes, the ignominy of walking batter after batter until one the coaches came to take them out of the game, was not for the fainthearted nor weak armed. Rotating the other positions was a commitment we made because we knew that in just a few years many of these players would experience the first of life's many injustices: they would play or sit from Pony League on based on parental/coaching politics rather than ability.

We were determined to teach them the game and to give them the best experience possible as they played baseball on our team.

The season became memorable in the fifth game. My son, Ethan, had grown into a really good baseball player and a great hitter. He was, by far, the best hitter in the league. With power to all fields, a great eye, able to smoke the ball just as he could at three.

This year, on another team, there was a pitching phenom. A kid, not yet 12, already shaving, six feet tall, a lanky strong build, and a small college quality fastball. In two starts he had struck out or hit every batter he had faced.

As we unloaded the bats and helmets from the trunk of Mark's car we could hear the whack of a ball hitting glove as the kid warmed up from a football field away. There were a hundred spectators in the stands and along the fences to watch the best pitcher face the best hitter in the Evanston Little League. We usually had 20.

Ethan batted cleanup (as I write this I remember trying to explain the concept of a 'cleanup' hitter to the father of a Serbian girl after practice one day). We led off. Our first three hitters struck out, but I was so proud of them: not one flinched and one actually tried to bunt his way on.

The other team went down in order.

Top of the second and Ethan settled in to the batter's box. The crowd, the players, the coaches, the umps all took a collective breath and leaned in to watch the timeless tableau of pitcher, batter, catcher. "Play ball," cried the ump. The languorous, almost Bob Gibson like wind up... fastball... high, ball one.

Ethan stepped away, looked over to Mark and I, and winked.

Fastball, high again, ball, but the sizzle of the ball in the air and the solid sound it made hitting the catcher's mitt was impressive. The force of the pitch literally caused the catcher to recoil back just from the pure physics of it all.

The kid stepped off the mound. He knew who he was facing. Back up, toeing the rubber, the same professional looking windup, the pitch, the fastest fastball any of us had ever experienced in a little league game.

Ethan pulled it twenty feet foul down the third base line. A laser beam line drive of exquisite kinetic energy that was off his bat and gone before we heard the crack of ball on bat. Everyone blinked. What had we just seen?

The pitcher looked at his coach, clearly rattled, nothing like this had ever happened to him in his short baseball career. Someone had 'pulled' his fastball as if it were an underhanded toss of a tennis ball.

Windup. Pitch. A fastball, humming with the sound of a Hatori Hanzo blade, right down the center of the plate. Ethan turned on it and slightly pulled it foul, but this time a towering high drive that would have cleared Waveland Avenue had it been smote at Wrigley Field.

The kid was shattered. Two pitches in the dirt, a walk, two hit batsmen, another walk, Ethan in for a run and the coach pulled him. We won 5-1.

On the last day of the season, in the last half of the last inning of the championship game, Eric Kerasa, a player who loved baseball, was at his normal rotation at third base. Third base is a key position in little league, usually manned by one of the top players on any of the other teams.

Eric was a marginal baseball talent but a wonderful, enthusiastic player. We were ahead by one, runners on second and third, two away, one out away from winning our first championship. Parents whispered to us through the fence: "Can't you switch Bobby to third or even Jason? Come on, it's the championship game! Eric's not good enough. You have to make a change."

No.

The next batter slapped a high hopper, tough play, right down the line, both runners off with the pitch. Even if Eric could somehow knock the ball down his only play would be a long throw to first. Relying completely on instinct, Eric threw himself toward the crazily bouncing ball, glove down like we taught him, at full stretch, the ball whapping solidly into his mitt. The momentum of the dive left him sitting on the ground behind third base. With the practiced ease of Brooks Robinson, he transferred the ball from glove to throwing hand and fired a strike to first, the runner out by an eyelash.

Pandemonium, cheering in several languages, Eric the MVP of the championship game.

His life changed at that instant. For years after, Eric's dad would stop me on the street to tell me how much allowing Eric to play third in such a critical moment meant to the entire family.

The World Series is in the seventh inning stretch, I tried to explain that term once to a mother newly arrived from Ireland, the speedometer stays on 80, and I remember the look on our players' faces that day:

They had won.