As I was coming in from my morning walk this morning, I noticed new growth on the rose bush outside my house…in February! It doesn’t look like we’ll have much of a winter this year, and spring is practically here already. Knowing that, and knowing that pitchers and catchers report to spring training on February 14, I was reminded that my favorite time of the year is just around the corner–BASEBALL SEASON!
I grew up listening to Texas Rangers baseball on the radio. I remember many a summer evening, during visits with my dad in Oklahoma, putting the tailgate of his pick-up truck down, turning the volume on the radio up loud, and listening to the Rangers who were playing all the way down in Arlington, or somewhere even further away. Those nights were amazing. The ranch where my dad lived was miles and miles away from any city, so on a clear night the sky went on forever, and we could see what seemed like millions of stars. As the sun went down and the air began to cool, the radio reception grew more clear. That was back during the days of Jim Sundberg, Buddy Bell, and “Bump” Wills. It was also back during the days when the Rangers didn’t win many games. It didn’t matter to me, though. I loved listening to Eric Nadel call those games. I can still hear his voice saying, “We pause now for station identification. You’re listening to Texas Rangers baseball on KRLD radio 1080AM, Dallas/Fort Worth.” Like a lot of kids growing up during that time, I dreamed about playing big league ball; and like most of them, that wasn’t in the cards.
Believe it or not, I actually did play baseball when I was a kid, though. And, I wasn’t half bad. Before we moved to Grand Saline, I played in the YMCA City League in Irving during the summers of 1980 and 1981. My team was called the Giants, our colors were Navy Blue and white, and my coach was named Charlie Matthys. Coach Charlie, as we called him, was terrific! He was one of those old school coaches who believed in working from the minute practice started until the minute it ended; he believed the same thing about games–we played every strike of every out in every inning. During practice sessions, Coach Charlie would give out recognition to the players who had done the best and worked the hardest that day. But, these weren’t “participation trophies.” No, sir! Only the players who did the best work were recognized–best hitting, best defense, best hustle, etc. As hard as Coach Charlie worked us, though, he never showed any signs of being overbearing or harsh. He always kept his cool, even when our play was sub par. I only remember him raising his voice once, and I don’t remember now why he did it, but for Coach Charlie to get mad enough to yell, it must have been pretty serious. Those two summers, playing a game I had always loved listening to, and which I quickly grew to love playing, still rank among the best summers of my whole life.
They were monumental summers for various reasons. 1980 is still remembered as the summer of the horrific and never-ending heat wave in Texas. Real temperatures soared above 110-degrees for days on end, and heat indexes were often well above 120. That was the first summer I played, and it was the season when all of our practices and games took place either early in the morning, or late in the evening after sundown to avoid the extreme, unyielding heat. It was also the first season that The Giants existed as a team, and we weren’t very good. I think the only, or at least one of the very few players on our team who’d ever played before was Coach Charlie’s son, Mark. The rest of us were genuine rookies to the game, and we proved that over and over. I think we won only one or two games that season (one of them by forfeit when the other team didn’t show up). Most of the time we just sweated, drank Gatorade, and watched balls fly past our bats and through our gloves. 1981 was a different story, though. We were better–A LOT BETTER! That summer we had several players on the team who’d come back from the previous year, as well as several new players who had played before. That summer, we lost only one game during the regular season to a team called The Bucks. They were the team that everybody loved to hate–sort of like the New York Yankees of little league! When the playoffs hit, we had reached our peak, and were playing great ball. Sure enough, we met our rivals, The Bucks, in the YMCA City Championship Game. The score was tied in the top of the fifth inning, and I hit a line drive single to center field, driving in the go-ahead run. Unfortunately, I also ended up being the third out that inning when I got tagged at second two batters later. But, somehow, we managed to silence The Bucks’ bats during the last inning and beat them by that one run. We were the City Champions in only our second season as a team! (That’s a true story, by the way–there’s no authorial embellishment.) It was such an amazing feeling to be there in the middle of the diamond, with my teammates and coaches, being handed the first place trophy, and then having our picture made for the local paper, The Irving Daily News. I still smile when I think about it.
Only a few short weeks after that victory, I moved to Grand Saline with my family. When it came time to sign up for baseball the next spring, there was no chance I’d be sitting out. I was placed on the team coached by Donnie Herring–I can’t remember our team name now, but I do remember having yet another coach I admired and respected. Much like Coach Charlie, Coach Donnie believed in hard work and dedication. I worked just as hard as I had the summer before, but I soon discovered that summer baseball in Grand Saline was a whole different ballgame! The other kids on my team, and most of the kids on the other teams, had been playing ball since they were much younger than when I began, and they were really good. Not only were they far more skilled than I was, but they understood better than I just what was at stake. Baseball teams in Grand Saline and surrounding towns played for more than just city or league titles. Those teams played for a chance to move on to statewide tournaments. I was outmatched in virtually every skill, and I’m pretty sure I only played one or two innings during one or two games that season. Sitting in the dugout watching while my teammates battled The Oilers, The Tomahawks, and all the others, I realized pretty quickly that if I ever wanted to compete at their level, I’d have to work twice as hard as I ever had. That was the only summer I played baseball in Grand Saline. By the time the next season rolled around I’d already discovered I had a better knack for music, and decided to focus on that instead. But, I still went to watch friends play. In fact, I watched them all the way through high school when those same kids I’d played with and against that one summer took the Grand Saline Indians to the playoffs every single year!
I still love baseball, and I expect I always will. While I’m sure I can raise significant debate about this, it seems to me that professional baseball, both the players and front office personnel, have managed to avoid much of the negative press and the stigma that professional football is currently saddled with. Oh, to be sure, money plays way too big a role the game, but at least for me, it’s just not the same. I’m still a Texas Rangers fan, and I expect I always will be, no matter how frustrating Rangers fandom can be–we only needed ONE STRIKE (twice)! It’s been years since I’ve listened to them on the radio, but I watch games anytime I can. I also love college baseball, and it was great to see both Texas Tech, my alma mater, and Oklahoma State, where my niece is in school, end up in the College World Series last summer. It was also incredibly fun to watch Coastal Carolina come out of nowhere to surprise everyone and win the series! That’s part of what makes baseball so entertaining, you never know on any given day or night who might win, even when they’re not supposed to. Because, as former Rangers Manager Ron Washington once famously said, “That’s the way baseball go.”
Of course, fans of other sports can name a million different reasons why their’s is the “best.” But, in my mind, there’s something exceptionally special about baseball and all of its trappings. It’s a slower, more deliberate game. Unlike virtually any other sport, there is no time clock, no halftime, no two-minute warning. The pace of the game is largely set by the style of the players on the field–it’s over when it’s over. More importantly for me, though, are the remarkable memories I have playing, watching, and listening to the games. But, of all the memorable moments I’ve seen in both pro and college baseball games, nothing tops the experiences and memories I have watching (and playing, all too briefly) little league ball. Who could ever forget those summer days and nights down at Person’s Park? Practicing fielding under the trees while waiting for the teams already playing to finish their games. Swatting mosquitos before being drenched in Off by every mom in the park whether she belonged to you or not. Trains screaming by on the tracks just feet away from the diamonds and blowing their horns just as the pitcher started his wind-up. Burning the backs of your legs sliding down the tall metal slide behind the concession stand. And, of course, free snow cones after the games. Who could ever forget when teams from Van came to play? That rivalry had no minimum age limit, and town pride was on the line every single time. In later years, who could forget dedicating the plaque in memory of Porky Bragg, who not only played on those fields, but who spent many hours mowing and taking care them? And, even now, the Mikey Furrh Memorial Tournament goes on in memory of another Grand Saline ball player and friend who left us way too soon.
Yeah…those are all part of the game for me. One can’t be separated from the others without diminishing the entire experience. I’ll never forget the three summers I played ball, nor the many summers I continued watching friends and family play on those same fields, fighting mosquitos, waiting on trains, running to be first in line for a snow cone, and burning the hide off their legs on the slide. They’re all part of the package, and they’re all part of what makes playing and watching baseball in Grand Saline so great. They’re part of what makes it a whole different ballgame.