By James H. Burns, Guest Columnist
This baseball season has marked an amazing, and perhaps even unprecedented, number of New York area natives embarking on the start of their big league baseball careers. A fortunate few debuted in the Majors, while others returned to their farm clubs–something which too many fans forget is ALSO “professional baseball.”
If I got a special kick out of this phenomenon, it’s not just from the thrill that I may have seen some of these athletes when they were starting out, in some anonymous Little League or high school game that I stopped to watch for a few minutes, with my then girlfriend.
But there’s also something of a shot that I was amongst the first adult ballplayers that at least one or two of these new pros ever met. I say this out of no ego, but with a happy memory of a sweet naivety: When I was playing amateur baseball throughout the area, kids near our fields, particularly during off-season practices, would often ask, “Are you guys in the Majors?”
In some cases, this was borderline silly, such as the day we brought in a sixty-two year old junkball specialist to pitch batting practice to the players who were having trouble hitting off-speed stuff.
(On the other hand, one afternoon in the players’ entrance-corridor at Shea Stadium, where I had just finished doing a filmed bit dressed in a Giants uniform, one of the Mets–getting to the ballpark early–did a TRIPLE TAKE when he saw me, knowing that it was the CHICAGO CUBS who were supposed to be in town…!)
I was always proud that my cohorts–ranging from twenty-five to forty-eight years of age–behaved splendidly, knowing that youngsters were around. (Although our limited ability may have prevented us from excelling at a higher level, we could always demonstrate the integrity with which baseball can be played.) Afterwards, I’d try to leave a baseball or two on the empty field, hoping for some child to discover the unexpected surprise, the next day.
(When I learned, a few years back, that some neighborhood kids I knew were playing a regular stick-ball game–a miracle in this day and age, really–I’d occasionally give them a bunch of the tennis balls that they preferred.)
My experience in buying presents for relatives has shown me that even in this high tech era, the simple boon of a baseball (only a few dollars, nowadays, at many sports stores), can remain a wonderment. And the last I checked, an ACTUAL National or American League ball (about fifteen to eighteen bucks), still comes wrapped in crisp and crinkly tissue paper–as it has for decades, as though always ready for a holiday.
Many of us try to share the unique joy of playing baseball, or softball, with our families.
But I sometimes ponder, as we’re bombarded by twenty-four hour sports-on-cable, and sports-talk radio, if some folks have forgotten the magic that even the ATTEMPT to compete in these endeavors can hold for a child. While it’s always up to an individual to prioritize, I’ve seen Dads forsake having a catch with their son or daughter in order to go have one more post-game beer, with his teammates….
We live in strange times and certainly can’t gift children we don’t know without raising suspicion. But one can always be kind to folks.
You may not be influencing a future Major Leaguer, but you might be creating a fun memory that the boy or girl can always associate with a sport that so many kids would love to be able to love.
(James H. (Jim) Burns is a writer/actor living on Long Island who has written features for GQ, Esquire, Sporting News, Heavy Metal, Twilight Zone and Op-Eds for Newsday and The New York Times.)