It’s the Little League season.
Dinner time is now at 3:30 p.m. or 9:15 p.m., or in the car.
The new washer/dryer combo added in the basement never stops.
A hard plastic mat covers the 10 or so steps from the front door to the kitchen for when the little rascals forget to remove their cleats.
Players names are not on jersey backs but you know them by their mini-van arrival in time for the first pitch.
As the great Yogi Berra said, “Little League baseball is a very good thing because it keeps parents off the streets…”
I have no clue when I discovered baseball. I do remember my first award however.
The fanfare of walking up to the podium.
The out-of-sync applause from teammates, opponents, and adults who monitored our sportsmanship.
The awkward handshake.
And then my mother, the awards presenter, announcing:
“For getting hit the most times by pitches… Klas Stolpe.”
And my friends laughed.
Most of them were the opposing pitchers anyway, one of them was a catcher.
They knew my base-reaching abilities were not on par with the finest players in our league, but they also knew that plunking me with a pitch was safer than those higher-than-average swings in which the ball found a nice spot on the field to avoid the opposition.
And, to be honest, I wasn’t very good at avoiding pitched baseballs.
Looking back, it took all I could do to balance that wooden club on my shoulder. I could feel my hiked-up uniform pants slip slightly, my hat bill dropped over one eye, my helmet echoing the beating rain, my head tilted sideways to see the huge side of beef that was glaring at me, his blazing eyes peering over the path of his fiery pitch, and my grimace as the burgeoning orb was about to impact some part of me,
My first season I spent playing in high-top white canvas Converse Chuck Taylor’s.
Yes, they were basketball shoes, but at age 10 I could care less what type of shoe I used to splash mud puddles on the field when the interest in play waned.
My first time in cleats at age 11 resulted in a misjudgment of speed on a polished linoleum kitchen floor, the braking of which was provided by a refrigerator.
My team pants were always too short and I had only one uniform sock, which I switched from foot to foot game by game.
My jersey top was of heavy cotton construction that differed only from every other team’s by the red piping of our Tigers mascot.
The Braves were piped in green, the Yankees blue, and the Pirates black.
I never had a clean hat. We seemed to drop them straight from their issuance and their bright colors were forever faded by Rainforest days and Scandinavian nights.
I didn’t play at age 9. You see, my brother played for the Tigers and he was 12, thus, per our league rules, you went to the team of your heritage.
We fought enough at home that I figured fighting on the field was a waste of time when I could safely jeer at him from the bleachers. And all my neighborhood gang played for the Braves so I thought I would be drafted by association.
My thinking was wrong, however, because at age 10 I was still drafted by the Tigers coach, who assumed I could throw a baseball with the same velocity as my brother.
The coach’s judgment was not entirely misguided as I was accurate, but unlike my brother who could knock me over in the winter with a snowball thrown from 30 yards away, I relied more on the beautiful slow pitch.
Thus my velocity resulted in a nice array of opposition batters placing my pitches all about the field.
And since our team had been drafted more for other qualities, none of which seemed to relate to anything “basebally,” and opponents knowing they had the “Stolpe fastball” coming, well, we were often chasing balls until they stopped rolling.
Our field was just that.
There were rocks and holes that showed only when the rained subsided.
Right field extended only 20 yards past first base.
It featured a large wooden gymnasium that was considered the home run fence if a ball hit the roof on the fly, which was easy to do if you were left-handed. But since most of the players were righties many of the delayed swings would strike the iron mesh-like coverings on the windows or the weathered boards and bounce back toward the infield.
Usually the weaker-armed fielders were in right as the ricochet bounced back to the infield anyway and a team’s larger-armed youths could better spend their time chasing after balls hit to the fenceless field in left that instead was lined by muskeg and small pines, or the spots between the center field shop building which was too far back to be hit on the fly, except for that one game when Freya Thorsen proved she really was stronger than all the lads.
A gap between the shop building and the gym was where balls seemed to ricochet and settle. Center fielders were usually agile and would steal balls from every other position and, quite frankly, the rest of us could not care less.
Left field was wild and open.
The dirt outfield stopped where muskeg and shrubs began. There was no dead ball area. Only Inga Christenson had connected hard enough on a pitch to put the ball in flight into the muskeg; the rest of us poor Scandinavian lads were thrilled just to watch our little hits get past distracted fielders.
Left fielders usually played back until their shoes were wet from muskeg, and they could run forward as the ball slowed enough to be picked up by a bare hand.
Anyone who could actually stop a ground ball was in the infield.
I became very adequate at doing so as most of my pitches made a wonderful sound connecting off of opponents’ bats and returning to me at a higher rate of speed. I was thankful when batters swung hard enough to crack their wooden implements of destruction and produce a less hearty ball, albeit with other debris.
Needless to say we got dirty.
God bless our parents, who dried our tears as balls struck body parts, and old Norse grandmothers, who would still pin washed uniforms to dry on clotheslines in the yard.
The dirt of the field could never be limed out but some of the stink would subside.
Unless, of course, jerseys were washed with an older siblings fishing clothes or the lutefisk baker’s wardrobe.
Mine would have a faint tinge of salmon scree, something that bothered me if I was stuck in left field where the warning track emptied into blueberry bushes.
When we went for a family ride in the International pickup or in the neighbors’ Rambler there was always a “boo” emitted from the back seat if we saw another team’s colors dangling in the wind.
Our Little League history began at age 9 and ended at age 12. Our town had nothing beyond that at the time.
The lessons learned, though, were enough:
Don’t wear cleats in the house, and turn your side into the pitch to soften the blow.