Opening day—the infield grass, a manicured emerald island surrounded by a stream of beige sand furrowed by the tines of a rake, still innocent of cleated footprints, beckons players to take positions and PLAY BALL.
The Cardinals’ pitcher walks slowly up the mound, picks up a small dusty bag, works it around in his hand and tosses it behind the little hill. He takes his warm-ups, motions his readiness to his catcher who yells, “COMING DOWN,” and tosses a slightly off-target throw to the shortstop covering second base, who throws to the second baseman, who chucks the ball to the third sacker who walks it to the pitcher, places it in his glove, pats him on the back and says, “You got this.”
The pitcher takes the mound again, toes the rubber, bends from the waist, holds the ball behind his back, feels the laces, finds his grip.
“Play,” says the man in blue standing behind a freshly swept home plate. The pitcher, making his first ever opening day start, a moment he’s dreamed of for years, ever since his first season in T-ball, looks to his catcher, sees one finger held just to the right of the mitt, nods his head once, goes into his windup and delivers the first pitch of the season.
“Ball,” the umpire mutters.
“Looked good to me,” says the center fielder. “You got this,” echoes his third baseman. “Chunk it to me,” growls his catcher.
He winds up and delivers a second pitch. “STRIKE,” the umpire yells with more emotion and a definitive right hand thrust into the air.
Ball, two, ball three and “take your base,” follow, accompanied by a few groans from the home side and “good eye, way to watch,” from the visitors.
A stolen base, an errant throw, another walk, two strikeouts, a nice catch and put out by the pitcher—Hunter Jones, my grandson—and the inning is over, only one run allowed.
The field may not be as pristine as the ones shown earlier in the day on a half-dozen sports networks; the skill level is not yet up to Major League Baseball standards, and the crowd does not number in the thousands. But it is baseball where it’s still just a game, played by little boys, and a few girls, for the sheer love of the game. Crying occurs—from skinned knees, errant throws that catch flesh instead of leather, and the “agony of defeat.”
At the end of the game, the lopsided scores, the scrapes, the bad plays are soon forgotten in the joy of post-game snacks, provided by a volunteer Little League mom.
Opening day, sadly, there was no joy in Mudville. The hometown Cardinals lost. Hunter pitched two innings, gave up the one run, switched to shortstop and fielded the position well. Opening day jitters against a team that played a little bit better, gives them something to build on. And they got to play baseball. And I got to watch it!