Kids With a Ball

Somewhere in Alabama. I am watching the first baseball game I’ve seen all season.

Eighteen Latino boys are playing in a shabby ball field of stubbled grass and red dirt. They have a few spectators, mostly adults with snacks, fold-up chairs, and surgical masks. The parents here are speaking Spanish. They also speak English, but you don’t hear any of it spoken tonight.

Except by me.

This is not sandlot baseball. Neither is this a suburban Little League game where parents scream at kids while suffering psychotic breakdowns. This is béisbol.

One of the Mexican mothers helps me with this word. It is pronounced: “BAZE-bowl.” Whenever I try to say it she laughs at me.

In every way this is the same gentle game my father taught me to play in an alfalfa field. The same game his father taught him.

But these boys play with more squint-eyed sincerity than I ever did. They are an underground ball club. Meaning: they aren’t doing this for anyone but themselves. They aren’t advertising it, either.

“We started playing because they cancelled baseball,” says first-basemen Miguel (age 10). “With no games on TV, hey, we had to do something.”

Every boy lives within bike-able distance from his teammates. They are close friends who play in vacant lots, backyards, public parks, empty playgrounds, and school fields.

But what really impresses me is that they all chip in to pay a middle-aged guy to umpire for them. They call him “Chaparrito” because he is only five-foot six. He is not Latino, but fair-skinned, blondish, and originally from Muncie, Indianna.

“I’m not a real umpire,” the man says. “I actually work in pest control.”

But the boys tell me everyone looks up to Chapparrito because, rumor has it, he played minor league ball once. Chaparrito refuses to deny or confirm this rumor by winking at me.

Because he is not being hired by these boys to talk about his glory days. He is here to be impartial, to make hard calls, and to run a clean fight.

I meet a mother in the crowd, still wearing a cleaning-service uniform. She says, “When they cancel béisbol for this coronavirus, it was very hard for my son. He loves this game.” She nods to the pitcher. “Thass him.”

The pitcher is exceptional. He is a 13-year-old. All legs. Lean and sinewy. So skinny he’d have to stand up five times just to make a shadow. He is pitching from the windup with nobody on base.

“See how he staring at each batter?” says his mother. “He likes to scare them. That is how I look at him when he is no doing his homework.”

The pitcher leans forward. He nods at a catcher who shows three fingers. Behind him the boys in the infield punch their gloves and shout, “Hey batttabatttabattta!” with very American accents. Most of the boys were born in the U.S., and speak more English than I do.

They might not belong to a formal league, but they are filled with more love for the game than I’ve ever seen.

On the field are many caps with pro-team logos. Mostly Braves hats, some Rangers caps, a few Astros, a smattering of Dodgers blue. Only one Cardinals man in the bunch. Bless him.

When Major League Baseball decided to postpone the regular season this spring, it was a blow to boyhood. Organized ball has been running since 1846 when the first officially recorded innings were played in Hoboken, New Jersey, between the Knickerbockers and the “New York Nine.”

Since then, the game of our fathers has been the glory of childhood, the benchmark of youth, and the reason my lower back hurts in the mornings.

But this year our pastime got scrubbed because of the virus. So instead of Major League games at utopian ballparks, we had social-distancing at family reunions, and Charmin toilet paper shortages.

But these boys are not fazed. They are very excited for baseball to return. And there isn’t a kid on the field who isn’t talking about it.

“It’s coming back,” says one boy. “I can’t wait to see Ronald Acuña, he’s so good.”

“I like Ozuna,” says another.

They know televised ball won’t be the same with the coronavirus. For example, there will only be 60 games this season, instead of 162. There will be empty stadiums, surgical masks, no sunflower seeds, no high-fiving, and—worst of all—canned crowd noise.

Even so. You cannot dampen the spirit of children.

CRACK!

A blooper to right.

The small crowd claps for the boy who trots the bags. They shout Spanish phrases with voices muffled by surgical masks. One man blows a little plastic trumpet and shouts “Vaya!”

A mother claps so hard she almost breaks her own wrist. “This is my son who hit that ball,” she says in a heavy Mexican accent.

She is an American citizen. It took a lot of hard work to become one. Her English is limited.

“When my son was born,” she says, “first thing I do is buy him a glove. ‘Cause in Mexico, my brothers would play every day, but we could no afford gloves. So I always tell my son, I say, ‘Mijo, I buy you gloves and hats because I love you. I love you so much. And I gonna work hard to make you a good life I never had.’”

I find myself overcome by the sincerity in her voice, and by the water that gathers in her coffee-brown eyes.

And this, dadgum it, is why I love béisbol.

28 comments

  1. Todd Lewis - July 23, 2020 6:24 am

    America will heal itself if only we can defeat the virus. Baseball is a great way for lids of both genders to learn how to throw. How to catch. b ow to win and how to lose.

    Reply
  2. Susan Brillhart - July 23, 2020 7:30 am

    Cheering them on from Hoboken, NJ, where I pass that first field many times a week. (The field has a stunning view of midtown Manhattan – beautiful as the colors of the setting sun mirror off the tall buildings.) Come visit sometime!

    Reply
  3. Curtis Lee Zeitelhack - July 23, 2020 11:12 am

    My immigrant Great-Grandparents (on my dad’s side) were Germans and Norwegians and I know they mostly spoke their native languages in their rural Wisconsin village homes. I don’t know if they ever played beisbol, but I’d like to think they would have liked it as much as these kids do. Play ball!

    Reply
  4. Jan - July 23, 2020 11:50 am

    Beautiful story. I can picture these boys and this field. This is what America should be. Not riots, hatred and hostility but love, children, parents and a warm summer evening with people sharing a game with the people they love.

    Reply
  5. Margaret - July 23, 2020 12:27 pm

    Been a long time since I’ve heard someone say “Dadgum it!”. Thanks, Sean.

    Reply
  6. Becky - July 23, 2020 12:33 pm

    Beautifully written. Again, I see the scene in my mind and my memories. I grew up in Mississippi watching my brother play baseball in our yard and in youth leagues. Play Ball!

    Reply
  7. Robert M Brenner - July 23, 2020 1:10 pm

    I grew up with that same love of “Beisbol”! Nothing like that game as a little boy. ⚾️ ❤️

    Reply
  8. Celia Bass - July 23, 2020 1:11 pm

    I think I’ll get through a column without crying, and then you always get me with the last line or two. I see many young men like this in my area of South Georgia, and see their love of sports. A joy to watch their enthusiasm and fun in playing.

    Reply
  9. Lynn Schroeder - July 23, 2020 1:34 pm

    I loved this blog until you got to the “only one Cardinals man in the bunch” part. I’m a born and raised die hard Cardinals fan so watch it buster!
    Seriously though…this blog is great! I’m so excited about the season starting up today! Go Cardinals!

    Reply
  10. Penn Wells - July 23, 2020 2:03 pm

    “…and they’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it, for it’s money they have and peace they lack…. the one constant through ball the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time… it reminds us of all that was once good, and that could be again.”
    Play Ball!

    Reply
  11. Stephanie W. - July 23, 2020 2:07 pm

    Thank you for this, for confirming the American dream is alive and well, even if a third of the population might not be able to see it in this image.

    Reply
  12. Donna - July 23, 2020 2:10 pm

    <3 <—that is a heart.

    Reply
  13. Phil S. - July 23, 2020 2:14 pm

    Great down-home beisbol story, Sean. Reminds me of the movie Sandlot. I urge everyone who hasn’t seen it to check it out. If you have seen it, it is worth watching again.

    Reply
  14. Patricia Gibson - July 23, 2020 2:32 pm

    God bless those boys and you🙏

    Reply
  15. Nell Thomas - July 23, 2020 3:26 pm

    Sean this was so inspiring. Glad you came upon the scene and shared it. Thanks.

    Reply
  16. Ann Mills - July 23, 2020 4:48 pm

    Yes! A thousand times yes!

    Reply
  17. Nita - July 23, 2020 5:00 pm

    This one really brings back memories! My husband played baseball with our youngsters from the time they could hold a bat. The neighborhood kids would watch for him to come home from work then rush over to ask if he could come out to play baseball!

    Reply
  18. Karen Callis - July 23, 2020 5:05 pm

    Love it! All of it!

    Reply
  19. Linda Moon - July 23, 2020 5:10 pm

    I like Miguel and his seventeen friends. The water in the brown eyes of the proud and sincere mother leaked into my blue ones, partly because I’m the wife of a chaparrito man who coached his son and TRIED to be impartial. And also because of this story from a true baseball fan. Bienvenida a Alabama, Sean!

    Reply
  20. allisvant - July 23, 2020 5:43 pm

    Beisbol’s been berry, berry good to me! My father loved baseball; he died when I was eight; I took up the mantle & learned to love baseball & a guy named Mantle; reading biographies, devouring stats, the Sporting News, Sat. afternoon baseball on TV, all helped fill that huge hole that was left in my life. {and I read a comic book, or two} Thanks, Sean!

    Reply
  21. Christina - July 23, 2020 5:48 pm

    Thanks Sean for capturing such a genuine excitement and love for béisbol. Reminds me of countless scenes in the streets and vacant lots of Argentina where the love for fútbol always runs higher than any national crisis.

    Reply
  22. John M. McLaughlin - July 23, 2020 6:29 pm

    Sandlot, the birth place of greatness. Wonderful piece. Long live beisbol and great writing.

    Reply
  23. Katie Watson Nelsen - July 23, 2020 7:38 pm

    I love this! It brings back happy memories of growing up, playing baseball in the street. And, Go Cubbies!

    Reply
  24. MAM - July 23, 2020 11:53 pm

    I agree with Celia above. I thought this one wouldn’t make my eyes leak, but in the final two lines, it did. Crying is good for me, I like to think! Thanks as always for a great story!

    Reply
  25. Tammy S. - July 24, 2020 10:26 am

    I spent three summers in a row, 1 week each of those summers, with 45 other adults and mostly teens building a total of 6 houses in Juarez, Mexico, for six different families. Some of the hardest working, most precious people I’ve ever met. Adults and kids alike there loved béisbol and fútbol! In the evenings, after a long, hot day at the construction site, and after a baby-wipe bath and dinner, we, as a group, would head to the local field and watch the local youth play. Nothing like the sounds of children’s voices calling out to one another as the sun sets, and the crack of a baseball as cheers rise to the heavens. Just as when we stood in church alongside our Mexican brothers and sisters and sang hymns just a few days before, at that ball field, our voices rang out In one accord, English mixed with Spanish, cheering the boys on. Not even sure they were keeping score. It was just fun. You took me back there Sean, with your ever present gift of using words to paint a scene.
    Thanks!! ⚾️💚🤍❤️

    Reply
  26. Jason Kennedy - July 25, 2020 12:17 pm

    How do you know the Latino mother you mention in this post is an American citizen? I trust that you did not ask her, which would, in itself, be a racist action. I have have never held a conversation with a Latino during which the subject of citizen arose. Just wondering. Your reader, Jason Kennedy

    Reply
  27. Dawn Bratcher - July 25, 2020 1:24 pm

    Yes! Our kids need to play! I am so glad you came upon these so you could tell their story. ❤

    Reply
  28. Lynda Gayle Knight - July 28, 2020 11:31 pm

    For over a year, I have been getting your articles in my Inbox every day. I haven’t received one in two days ! I don’t know why! I want to resubscribe❣️

    Reply

Leave a Comment