Recently, it occurred to me that one of the most important decisions I ever made happened in the summer of 1967. Back then adults always seemed to ask kids, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” In ’67 the answers were much different, but it seems today the “growing up” question is asked far less often and kids stay kids a lot older. For me, it was a no-brainer. Other than passing fancies to be Batman, it was the field of dreams for me. I decided being a baseball player would be easier than a superhero since trying to be Batman was perilous. I would swipe my mother’s dish towel and transform it into a cape, which never turned out well. If I couldn’t evade my mother, how was I going to fight crime and remain an anonymous enigma to the general public I protected?
Baseball was it and to this day it has never left me. Not the game, but what I learned trying to be like my heroes. Purpose, planning, and commitment came easy since I had to stuff down dinner and be out on the streets to practice before the “line-up.” In those days people would pile out of the Bronx apartment buildings with folding chairs and line up along the sidewalk to shoot the breeze. I had to get nine innings of pitching to the bricks before Mrs. Rosenberg chased me off with her cane.
The use of space and function was a hard lesson to learn. With endless imagination and my trusty tool of chalk, I drew a “stadium” complete with an on-deck circle so that I could kneel with my bat and wait my turn. This idea was born of the baseball card poses of the day (“Got ‘em, Got ‘em, need ‘em!”). Unfortunately, Bronx side streets are narrow and I innocently drew the batter’s box and the on-deck circle right on top of each other. Again, it didn’t end well as I took a wooden bath to the chops while imitating Mickey Mantle on-deck. Stitches, blood, teeth flying, and a memorable first communion that weekend. Amen.
It didn’t matter that I didn’t get far. That chapter of the dream ended when I was only 16. But, the smell of grass and leather meant so much more. While I still remember that last time I played, the long walk to the car, the sound of metal cleats for the last time on the asphalt parking lot, and the dark heaviness in my heart, there was something inside that could not be extinguished. Not by formal schooling, coaches who messed with my young head, or other dream-snatchers.
That something inside is what I wish for my sons, those whom I am fortunate to coach and teach these days, and every other soul I meet. Seems today it is harder to answer that “growing up question” because so many outside forces are trying to answer it for you. Whenever I witness that clash between what the soul impels and what the world tries to sell, I tongue the on-deck-circle scar that has been in my mouth, my smile, and my heart for half-a-century. And the smell of grass and leather reminds that it’s always between you and the Divine.