ONLY TO ME: Installment 3
Say Hey: One of the few times I had absolute confirmation I did well
No one in my family was much of a baseball fan. No one rooted for a team, watched a game on TV or listened to the radio while doing other things so my love for the game wasn’t etched in my DNA nor was it absorbed by countless team logos and paraphernalia. It came from the activity. I loved to play ball. Before Little League if I wasn’t out with the kids in our neighborhood engaged in a two-on-two game I was tossing the ball high up in the air to practice catching.
Over and over again and again.
This activity warrants a bit of detail. My backyard had several tall trees. Their canopies creating a cavernous arena with a small patch of sky visible where the leaves failed to overlap. This is where I took aim. I could just barely reach the tree tops throwing underhanded but that wasn’t good enough. I developed a rather awkward overhand throw straight up.
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Man did it go. I would sometimes lose the ball in the bright sun above the treetops making it necessary to dart quickly for the catch. With the ball descending nearly plumb and the need for a quick decision it was difficult to raise my arms in time to make a proper catch. The prescribed method to catch a high fly ball was to bring glove and bare hand side by side to cover and protect ones face. This had been ingrained by some gym teacher, random adult, or maybe picked up from a pal… “Two Hands, Two Hands” was the refrain but I found it much easier to loop my arms out and away from my body and catch the ball down near my belt as if I had a basket in my arms instead of a glove.
I would do this over and over again and again.
When I got to play Little league the hand/glove near the face technique was a very important lesson and I struggled to comply again the refrain “Two Hands, Two Hands”. I managed to make the team without too many high fly balls so my inability to catch them properly was not an issue. As it transpired I was a pretty good player and soon found myself in center field.
Our coach, Coach Watson, was an African-American Police Officer. This was in the mid 60s and I suppose was not the norm at that time even in the little Connecticut town I grew up in. Prejudice was not yet a vocabulary word for me and I was unaware of the concept; I was just a kid trying to play ball. But an adult, which my coach was, a Police Officer, which my coach was, a Coach which my Coach was was something I was well aware of. I had some big time authority issues going so to avoid them I learned the myriad rules baseball had to offer and tried as hard as I coud not to cause trouble. AND staying out of ANY situation where I became the focus of attention like dropping the ball in deep center field.
I did well racing straight back to grab a frozen rope. Did well going left or right sometimes far enough to catch a ball just behind a fellow fielder who had misjudged an arcing fly ball. But those long, lofting fly balls that hung in the air forever, frozen in place at the apex, just like the ones I had tossed over and over in my backyard, those were the ones where I tried to raise my hands and catch with “Two Hands, Two Hands” but at the last minute I would loop my arms out and away from my face and catch the ball down near my belt as if I had a basket in my arms instead of a glove.
My classmates were diverse ethnically. Thinking back there were more caucasians than children of color but the caucasians compiled no more that two or three from any given european country. I mention this because I got pretty good and picking up on accents, and figures of speech that each child seemed to bring to conversations but I hardly ever, really, understood what coach Watson was saying. Fortunately, one of the many beautiful things about baseball is the activity can transcend language so I was pretty sure I was doing OK, except of course I knew I didn’t catch the high fly balls right.
However, this ability did not prepare me for what the Coach would yell every time I did the “loopy” arm catch. In his booming Police Officer voice he would shout “Say Hey, Hey loka dat!” Being way out in Center field didn’t help my comprehension so at that distance I could sense that more than a few parents in attendance seemed to be making comments as well. This was not good. I knew I wasn’t catching the ball properly and was certain the commotion involved how best to deal with my rule breaking.
The catches and the “Say Heys” continued throughout the season. I could not break the habit and was feeling more and more anxious. One day waiting to be picked up from practice, we had to sit in a dugout chatting among ourselves until one by one we all went home, all the kids had departed and the last adult left, leaving coach Watson with no one to talk to but me. He bent into the opening, assessed the situation, and asked if someone was going to pick me up. I had been standing, facing the direction my Mother’s car would come willing it to materialize and failing that, hoping to disappear into the cinder block wall.
I turned and mumbled something in the affirmative and we both eventually starred out onto the abandoned playing field.
I have no Idea what, where, or how I mustered the courage to say to this adult, this Coach, this Police Officer, a stuttering “Coach, Coa-coa-coach, why a, why do you say, say hey, when I catch them high fly balls?” Coach Watson froze for a second, blinked a few times, cocked his head, started to say something then raised up to his full height nearly hitting his head on the ceiling. He propped both fists on his hips and said to me, “You neva heard o’ Willie Mays and his famous basket catch?”
I realized I had not taken a breath since he had blinked and managed to reply “ No ah, n-no” He looked out to the empty field then out over my shoulder to the parking area. I was sure I’d get it now for all the bad catches. “SIT DOWN” he commanded and wagged his finger toward the battered wood bench. I sat down quickly awaiting my punishment.
I don’t remember the words he told to me on that day in that dugout. All I remember is that a Coach, a Police Officer, an ADULT talked to me, for the first time, like I was a real person.
The next day our class spent time in the school library. I asked, with apparent shocking enthusiasm, if there was a book with all the best baseball players in it. The befuddled librarian quickly regained her composure, seized the opportunity, and directed me to the reference section where I was to look for a baseball encyclopedia. It didn’t take me long to find Willie Mays for he was in almost every top ten list there was most of the time among the top few. And there was a picture of Willie with his glove and bare hand together near his waist a blurred ball about to land in his glove as if it were a basket. The caption read ‘ Willie Mays and his signature “basket catch”.
And it didn’t take me long to realize I had it all wrong. Yes, I didn’t catch the ball in the prescribed manner but I did catch the ball. I was good! Coach Watson loved Baseball, worshiped Willie Mays AND he enjoyed how I played the game.