After such a long, cold winter I'm excited about opening day. The start of the baseball season brings expectations (this could be the Phillies' year!) and, for me, memories - not all of them good.
My own baseball career was short-lived and far from ideal. Growing up in an urban environment, we kids didn't actually play "baseball." What we played on the concrete schoolyard at every opportunity was "softball" - easier to hit, easier to field, and far less intimidating. I loved those informal games when all we needed was a dozen willing boys, an old ball, a bat, and a corner of the schoolyard.
An average athlete, I nevertheless loved sports and had lofty if unrealistic aspirations. When my family moved to the suburbs and I started attending a relatively small high school with an extensive sports program, I finally had my chance. Too slight for football, I found some success on the soccer team. Not quite talented enough to make the basketball team, I was content playing in our town's recreational league. But baseball - there was a sport where I believed I could excel. In my sophomore year I tried out for the team.
My position was third base, the so-called hot corner. My best friend, Bobbie Munzer, perhaps not as talented as I but wiser, was trying out for catcher - a position for which there was little competition. He was a shoe-in.
Though it was more difficult to hit and field an actual baseball than my accustomed softball, the first week or two went well. I made some reasonably good plays and had a few hits - nothing spectacular but enough to make "the cut." A list of the team was posted in the boys' locker room. I could hardly contain my excitement. I had made the varsity team! Or so I thought.
There was another cut to come, and tryouts took on intensity. How many players would the coach carry? When would a decision be made? One week passed, two weeks, three. Spring break was around the corner and still no word. Uniforms were distributed to most of the better players, but not to me. My family was planning a vacation to Florida. But could I leave for a week and ruin my chances of making the team? My father, understanding the importance of the moment to a 15-year-old, agreed to call off the trip. Now, the pressure was really on.
At last, word came down: I and a few others who had been dangling in purgatory did not make the team. (Munzer was safe as the second-string catcher.) I was mortified and furious. How could I face my family? And why had the coach kept us on hold for four weeks? Why couldn't he have made up his mind earlier?
My father, a longtime educator who at the time was a high school principal in another district and knew all about justice when it came to dealing with young students, was equally upset - not so much because of a missed vacation but at seeing me so chagrined and also (I imagine) by what he must have recognized as the callous and insensitive actions of a fellow adult and educator.
Fortunately, my disappointment didn't last long. Some of the "almost made it" guys quickly organized a league of our own - a softball league in the community recreation program. No real umpires, no uniforms, and no crowds. But I played third base and batted cleanup. My father showed up to watch a game or two. I was pretty happy.
The following year I was appointed sports editor of our school newspaper. A few weeks into the new baseball season, the coach announced his retirement. My headline that day read: "Coach retires; team prospects improve." Even a trip to the principal's office couldn't dampen my spirits. I never told my father, but I think he would have approved.