Except for me, waiting for everyone else to show up, and a guy walking his dog, the park is empty.
Past the soccer nets where little girls were playing a couple days before is a baseball field.
It’s a youth field, and even though there’s no one there, I see all sorts of activity.
This … this is where I belong.
I had played first base before — softball, a Senior League team because we had a lot of infielders — but I always thought of it as temporary until my high school coach said my days of playing another position were over.
It becomes home in no time at all. I love the action whenever a ground ball is hit on the infield, holding runners on base, talking to everyone who crosses my path, pop flies from home plate down the right field line.
Don Mattingly is my hero, and now I’m playing his position.
And even better, I’m a captain. Every ball on the infield comes back to me to give to the pitcher. Sometimes I give advice, sometimes a pep talk.
I’m a leader.
I’m a real player now.
As an 8- or 9-year-old, I realize that the players at that age who aren’t as good go in the outfield. Less chance to do damage there.
It’s so boring. Each team only has one or two kids who can hit the ball to the outfield. I’m not sure a fly ball ever comes my way.
But then I move to second base.
And I’m really good.
Ground balls between first and second become outs. Remembering the advice I got to think about what happens if the ball comes to you, I grab a grounder, tag the runner as he goes by and throw to first for a double play.
I run as fast as I can to my left, snaring the ball on my backhand and throwing out the runner at first. I’m not quite sure how I did it, but everyone thinks it’s awesome.
It doesn’t matter that I’m left-handed, and left-handers aren’t supposed to play second base.
I was playing second base.
And I was a real player now.
I’m fighting two battles, although I don’t tell anybody. Maybe they know.
Somewhere along the way, I got skittish about ground balls. I keep waiting for them to hop, and sometimes they don’t.
Over time, I force myself to buckle down on ground balls, and I get over it.
The other battle, though, is with my arm. It doesn’t seem as strong as it used to be. Maybe it was the time I warmed up to pitch by throwing as hard as I could at 60 feet, 6 inches, because our assistant coach mistakenly set that as the distance instead of 46 feet.
My throws don’t go as straight as they used to, either. It eventually turns into a case of the yips. I still have it today. (Good thing first basemen don’t have to throw much.)
Plus I miss second base. We have other players for that position, which is why I moved one position over.
It’s probably not even 90 feet. If feels like a different world.
It’s a cloudy, damp, upstate New York late afternoon.
We’re being beaten pretty soundly by the time I get in the game. I bunt my way on — basically a popped-up effort into the no-man’s land between the catcher, pitcher and third baseman — and am now on third.
Our coach calls for a suicide squeeze. I take off on the pitcher’s first move, but the pitch is high and outside, impossible to bunt.
I hesitate for just a moment, but when I see the catcher drop the ball, I take off again. I slide … safe.
I’ve stolen home.
Our team doesn’t have full uniforms, so I’m wearing sweatpants instead of uniform pants. I’ve already hit the deck once on this trip around the bases, wiping out on the wet grass as I slow down after hitting first base.
The slide into home has finished the job. Most of the right leg is ripped.
It’s worth it. That pair of sweatpants died a hero.
The invitation comes in about the second inning, and the parent in the PA booth at our Little League field turns the microphone over to me.
We don’t normally have announcers at our games, but this is an all-star game against the best players from a neighboring town.
I’m 15 or 16, dreaming of being a sports announcer, and I am having an absolute ball. The adults seem to like it too. They tell me all the time how good I am.
My brother’s in the outfield. He had been playing the infield, but moved for all-stars, and he’s a natural out there — running down balls and uncorking huge throws.
Eventually, the coaches start shifting his position based on how hard his team’s pitcher throws — harder means right field, as balls are more likely to go that way.
I never did become any kind of outfielder. It was still boring, and my arm still wasn’t very good. Plus, while the vision gods gave me great peripheral vision, they made up for it with lousy depth perception, which made judging fly balls difficult.
And unlike when you’re 8 or 9, lots of guys can hit fly balls to the outfield.
But my brother looks like he has been doing it all his life.
The advice I get is to not be afraid.
Too late … I’m already petrified.
He’s a couple years older than me, so I’ve watched him for years. He’s the best player I saw growing up — hitting home runs and striking guys out. (By the way, I bowl with him too, and he’s great at that.)
But he was always far enough ahead of me that I never had to hit against him … until now.
And did I mention he’s also left-handed, and his pitches look like they’re coming from behind me? In spite of the advice from one of our coaches — who happens to be his best friend — I’m not sure if I’m worried more about striking out or getting hit.
Getting a hit isn’t even something I contemplate, but I don’t get embarrassed, either. He walks me on five pitches.
I never face him again.
A woman interrupts my walk around the field.
It’s a little before 9 a.m., and she hollers to ask if anyone is playing pickleball, because I’m the only person she recognizes.
I tell her I hope so, especially since a couple days before, we played when it was so cold a few of us wore gloves. At least it’s warm, even if it’s windy.
I grab my paddle out of the car.
A few more people show up, and we set up the nets on the tennis courts and play, the game of my youth giving way to the game of my middle age.