At every age, and for every level of skill, summer baseball is alive and well in the area, the object of long weekends and tired boys…and bragging rights when they go back to school in the fall.
They call it “summerball”… baseball as it was meant to be played. Baseball for boys of all ages and all levels of skills.
Winning is fun, yes, but learning to play the game is even more fun…perfecting new skills, reveling in one “first” after another.
There’s a level of baseball now for just about every make, model, and size of kid you can throw out there, different from when I first donned a Little League uniform as a fifth grader in 1963. Back then there was only one league in my rural community, comprising boys from fifth to eighth grade. The older boys threw hard and wild. The younger ones stood at home plate with their eyes shut and knees knocking, scared to death, dreading the inevitable…of getting hit with a high “hard one”.
It’s always a big deal to get your first hit in baseball, but it was an even bigger deal back then…against the likes of Gary Criswell, an eighth grader who towered over the rest of us and probably threw the ball 80 miles per hour. At least it seemed like he threw that hard. Obviously, he pitched every game, and struck out 75% of those he faced in our tiny four-team league. A big deal to get a hit? Hell, it was a big deal to make contact against Gary Criswell!
My Little League team won but one game in my first year, as a lot of us were fifth and sixth graders playing organized baseball of any kind for the first time.
My second year we won six, maybe seven. I ran into our coach recently at a funeral and challenged him to remember. He couldn’t. “It didn’t matter when you were as bad as we were,” he laughed. Easy for him to say. He didn’t have to face Gary Criswell.
By my seventh grade year we were older, wiser, stronger…better. We weren’t afraid of the baseball anymore. Gary Criswell still threw hard, but suddenly we were able to time him. We not only made contact, but our first baseman, A.J. Owens hit a home run off him to force a playoff game at the end of the season…a game to determine the champion of the Symmes Valley Little League.
Lord, as I remember it then it was a mammoth shot to right field. In reality, it probably traveled about 275 feet. A.J. was the biggest kid on our team…our Gary Criswell…and his specialty was hitting shots that literally undressed the hapless fielder that got in the way of one of those line drives.
And that playoff game? We trailed 4-3 in the bottom of the seventh inning. It didn’t look good against “you know who”, who had been wild enough throughout the game for us to walk eight times and score three unearned runs. But he found the strike zone late and our first two hitters in the seventh went down on six pitches. With two outs I came to the plate, with nothing for my two years against Criswell but seven miserable at bats and sleepless nights afterwards rationalizing my ineptness as a hitter.
But this time was different. Fate, for whatever reason, was on my side. My dad had told me all season…just see the ball and swing aggressively. I did, and lined a double to left center field. Lord Almighty, a personal victory of inexplicable magnitude. I had finally broken through against Lex Luther. Forget the game. My ears were ringing and my eyes watering. I was standing on second base with a hit off Gary Criswell.
But wait. A.J. Owens was coming to bat, he of that earlier home run that put us where we were. Criswell was fuming, having given up my double, and he grooved one to A.J. Like Roy Hobbs in slow motion, he uncoiled at the plate and the crack of bat silenced the partisans yelling encouragement from behind the fence. A vintage Owens line drive, it cleared the right field fence on the rise. It cleared the power lines that fed the scoreboard, the trees beyond, and came to rest on the bank of the creek that bordered the parking lot. We won, 5-4.
I never watch a summer league game like Monday’s contest between Lehman and Ft. Loramie’s junior high teams without thinking of that night 48 years ago. I see the same emotions, the same fears. I still see Gary Criswells and A.J. Owenses. But thanks to the advances in coaching and instruction I also see kids far more advanced in their skills and attributes to play the game, as well. Many having played since they were old enough to catch it and throw the baseball with Dad.
Monday I saw Max Schutte and Stephen Monnin from Lehman…Jacob Kitzmiller and Blake Gaier from Ft. Loramie. Kids that love the game. Kids who want to play. Three games Sunday for Max Schutte with his travel team, and back for more on Monday. Kids that need nothing more than a hot dog after the game…and Mom waiting for the dirty uniform with a box of Tide.
I’d give anything to be in their place. “Summerball”… base hits, strike outs, home runs, pizza after a big win, and braggin’ rights when they go back to school in the fall. They’ve got it made.
They never had to face…Gary Criswell.