Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Baseball Lessons

It was a beautiful Little League summer in Portland, Oregon, 1960, when I would ride my Schwinn to practice at immaculate Atkinson Field, down bumpy side streets, to the fragrance of a fresh light rain. I was 12, and in my last year of Little League eligibility. The team was Lyseng’s Mobil. I started at first base.

I couldn’t pitch, and don’t make me throw a strike to home, even from first, but I could hit. Not those long looping shots over the army green canvas centerfield fence, like Erik Utterstrom could hit, but lots of singles, and doubles. My average was well over .300. And I was fast. Lots of those doubles were really singles, but I could stretch a right field single into a double almost every time. And get me on base, you might as well count the run. As I recall, we were not the best team, but we did win our share.

But when we won, it was usually because our best pitcher, Ron Sunseri, who these days labors as an Oregon State Representative, was on the mound. Ron was smallish, but he could hurl. Dude was fast. A bit wild, maybe, but that was probably a good thing. As the season progressed, one could easily see that Ron was “all-star” material.

The “all-star” team, a team picked at the end of the season by coaches, included all the best players from every team. With specially made all-star uniforms, and awesome hats that just screamed "achievement", this team would then go on to represent our league at the local Little League championships. The winning local team would then have a chance to go on to the national contest, held each year in Williamsburg, Virginia. Even back then, it was a big deal. These days, one can watch the International Little League Tournament on ESPN.

Since it was my last year in Little League, and I loved it so, man, I was really hoping to make the all-stars. I thought I had a good chance, after all those hits, and those “sliding into home for the winning run” moments.

Sports can teach a kid just about everything he or she needs to know about life. How to get along with others, how to be a team player, how cooperation and hard work begets success, practice makes perfect, never give up, keep the dream alive, and how to cope with disappointment.

Well, maybe not so much that last one, because it took me years to recover from that broken heart , after word came down that I did not make the all-stars. Ron Sunseri did, and he deserved it. But it took me awhile to understand that there were only so many slots, and it wasn’t my time. I knew I could’ve contributed, and I was a good enough player. When I think of that experience, I guess the best I can say about it is, I learned how deeply kids are affected by their successes and failures. I kept that in mind when I raised my own kids.

But I sucked it up, and showed support for the other guys in the league who did make it, some of them my friends at Atkinson Grade School. When the season ended, and the all-star games began, I was in the first row, at Scavone Field, in my Lyseng’s Mobil hat, root beer sno-cone in hand. All in all, it was a great summer.

And to top it off, our team coaches held a season ending, “hot dog feed” at the home of one of the coaches. As I was sitting there, with the other boys, snarfing my third dog, one of the coaches announced that there was something we all needed to do, which was, to vote for “most valuable player”. There would be a prize. I became immediately nervous, ‘cause I knew I had a shot. And this was a voting of peers, so, if I won, that would be cool.

After the votes were tallied, I was most pleased that my other teammates had voted me “most valuable player”. The validation I had missed by not making the all-stars was almost remedied. But I was truly shocked when, another coach announced, as he handed it to me, that the prize I had won for this honor was, are you ready for this.....a baseball signed by the 1960 New York Yankees. Apparently, the Yankees had cranked a bunch of these things out, and our Little League had gotten one.

I was in shock. There, before my eyes, in my hands, was an autographed baseball, on which was written a short sentence, obviously written by the Yankees manager, which read....”Greetings Portland Little League 1960”, and was signed below that by Casey Stengel. On the rest of the ball were the names Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, Tony Kubek, Bobby Richardson, Ryne Duren, Whitey Ford, Eli Grba, Clete Boyer, Gil McDougald, Bill Skowron, and others. We are talking actual signatures people.

Twenty-five years later, I picked up the ball, which had been in it’s box, hiding in my sock drawer, almost since the day I got it. Looking at it, I realized that it might be worth some money, and began contemplating selling it.

Those were rough financial years. It was just after my first divorce, my business was just getting by, and I had a new girlfriend. I put an ad in the paper.

And I sold that ball for, I can’t remember, like a couple hundred bucks, to the first guy who came over, a baseball nut, a collector. I can remember that he got it for less than I was asking.

I regret selling that ball so much, and it’s not about the fact that it is worth way more today. I sold it in a weak moment, I did something stupid. I would love to have that ball to show off to my grandsons. I would love to have it, just to have it, since it represented such a big moment in a certain little boy’s life. Can you imagine?.....The 1960 New York Yankees! And it was an award that meant so much to me.

Ya win some, ya lose some. Sports offer up all kinds of lessons. Disappointment can rear it’s ugly head all through life, and when you get thrown out, ya just gotta get up, dust off, and move on. Try to forgive yourself, and others, for misteps, and foolish behavior. I am still pissed I sold the ball. But the twinge of regret I feel is going to keep me from letting any of my other treasures go.

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