||One farmer warned me of the likelihood that I would one day find myself priming tobacco in the hot sun, but it never came to pass. Summer Thursdays at least had the potential to be exciting; my mother would always buy groceries at the A & P on this day. I was almost guaranteed lunch out on these days, usually at Anna’s Italian Restaurant, and that was always a treat. We didn’t have a summer camp. For us, a glove, a softball, and a wooden bat were all that were required for a good time and friendships that would last forever, or at least until next season. Three practices were enough to inspire friendship, mutual trust, and respect among twelve youngsters who would otherwise have whiled away the hours on “Happy Days” reruns, “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” “The Price is Right,” or whatever soap-opera their mothers happened to be watching. We were kids bound for some greater mission, some larger purpose in life during the summer. We wore the CC on our jerseys with great pride. To our opponents, we were the Country Chickens, but in our minds we were the rural equivalent of the New York Yankees, playing to proud moms and dads driving Plymouth Dusters, Chevy Caprice Classics, and Gremlin Pacers in an asphalt jungle at ninety-five degrees. In actuality, our team was the Community Churches because no single church in our area had enough twelve-year-old boys and girls to field a softball team. Our coach brought together several interested youngsters, and on most days we gelled. A number of girls and boys invested the whole summer in this league before returning to school, and the games were frequently well-attended. Somehow, in the summer of 1979, we were bound to regain lost respect. The bock! bock! bock! we overheard in the opponents’ dug-outs served only to inspire us.
It all started during one of our practices when Coach put me in left field and called me bushel basket, a term of endearment which all young men worked hard to earn in the sweat and dust of that hot summer. I suppose I was able to catch most of the pop flies hit to left field, but the upcoming tournament would test my abilities like never before. We were playing in the season’s last big tournament in Halifax, North Carolina. It had been the standard fare of the weekend tournamentmoms and dads selling hot dogs and fountain sodas, teams either preparing for games or on the field hoping to advance to the next bracket, and rowdy fans exhorting friends and relatives to get that elusive base hit or strike out the batter. Frequently, some unsupervised kids could be found skipping rocks across the parking lot. “Oops, what was that crashing sound!” the coach’s son inquired from the stands. Obviously, not everyone’s attention was fixed on the game like ours was.
Unfortunately, we started the tourney in the losers’ bracket, falling victim to Lakeview Park’s batting arsenal in game one. The word on the street was that this team had two thirteen-year-olds and the league was fine with that. We had only one. Each of their players sported new cleats, a fancy green shirt with matching knickers, and a big pack of what I mistakenly took for Red Man chewing tobacco. Apparently, they were legitimate. They looked like the larger-than-life players one might see in Major League Baseball games. There we werewhite sneakers, blue jeans, and a holey red shirt with yellow numbers and the letters CC. Brand new, the shirt smelled like grape blow pops. Misshaped red caps rested backwards on our heads. To Lakeview Park, we were the Country Chickens, but we loved the game and they knew it. We put up a competitive effort against Lakeview Park, but they won. The losers’ bracket was not where we wanted to be, but we didn’t have much choice. It sounded so badthe losers’ bracket. Were we branded and scarred for life? Would we make it through puberty? Would we raise families as our parents had? What right had the tournament sponsors to typecast us after only one outing?
How was I to know that my whole life would change in an instant? I went up to the plate against the hapless Halifax Hustlers. I swung at the second pitchbarely hitting the ballbut it gained momentum and rolled quickly past the pitcher and the shortstop, finally scooting between the legs of the left center fielder and rolling ever so slowly deep into the outfield somehow. Could homeruns really start out as wimpy grounders barely making it past the pitcher? Left center fielder Sally Louor whatever her name wasfailed to put her glove far enough down to halt my gutless grounder, and it was too late. I had officially hit my first homer. How did she miss that pathetic grounder? I remember the low fivesthen the trendas I approached home plate. She was more than willing to discuss her blunder after the gamewhich of course we won by landslide. I remember Sally Lou’s words as we dusted off our gloves and bought Cokes. “You have beautiful eyes,” she observed, as I struggled for something to say. “Thank you,” I replied as though she were in reality filling an empty bucket with water for some thirsting animal in the desert. My world was looking up as I offered to buy her a second Coke.This is what people meant by rites of passage I supposeda homerun and a compliment minutes apart, a life-changing couple of moments brought together merely by chance. Playing air guitar to Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” or The Knack’s “My Sharona” in their entirety, incidentally, did not count. All little boys could and did accomplish this feat with a record player and a 45 rpmand a thumb which could pivot up and down. I was on top of the world, and everything looked good from this lofty perch. The phrases beautiful eyes and bushel basket had a profound effect on me. I suppose I let these comments go to my head a bit in that summer after sixth grade. Was there really any difference between playing left field and playing right field? What do nice eyes mean in the grand scheme of things? She offered only one person’s opinion. However, I did notice that things could get very quiet in right field at times. Charley Johnson played that position, and he often could be seen pulling up daffodils and blowing a green grass harmonica unless a lefty came up to the plate, in which case he seemed very nervous. Was I really carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders in left field? I felt safe in left field, and Coach liked me there; this was mutual respect.
Our team advanced several more rounds, led by our clean-up batter, a young man affectionately known as Dink Huxton and our thirteen-year-old third baseman, Ray Robertson. Thanks to solid hitting, we battled all the way to the finals to face undefeated Lakeview Park, who had been making a mockery of all teams it had faced to this point. For the tournament to be ours, we needed to beat them twice. We surprisingly took them 2-1 in the first game, forcing a final championship game, and the fact that Coach had put me in left field had pleased me a great deal. After all, I had earned my title as bushel basket.
We held a 2-0 lead going into the bottom of the ninth, and our pitching had kept even their strongest batters from getting on base. Lakeview went into the last inning hoping to reverse things. Two men were on base, and their mean-as-a-snake third baseman, the same guy who had an obsession with chewing the gum that I mistook for tobacco, came up to the plate. He didn’t need tobacco to be tough. He could not stand still as he looked for the perfect stance, burying his cleats into the defenseless ground with each movement and beating home plate with the bat between pitches. This, I thought, could get ugly. We only needed one more out! I would have loved to have saved the day. Immediately, my fellow players signaled for me to back upway back. “I’ll tell you when to stop,” yelled our third baseman, motioning.
Coach, on the other hand, could be heard saying, “Marshall, come in. I can’t hit the ball that far, and I’m a grown man.” So of course on Coach’s orders I came in a good ten feet, hoping to please our patient leader.
With two strikes on him this callous third baseman drew back and nailed a deep hit far into left field. Was it ever going to drop? I followed the ball with my eyesno thanks to the sun and the sweat. All I could hear was beautiful eyes and bushel basket. Would I live up to these words in one of those great defining sports moments? Would they hold me shoulder high? The ball went in and out of sight twice! This final rite of passage was supposed to be everythingthe girl, the tourney, revenge, honor, and bragging rights for all of seventh grade. Unfortunately, I was officially burned, as they say in the game. To be burned is to underestimate the hitting ability of a batter and to have said batter rip the ball far over your head as payback for having sold him short. Coach was wrong! This man-child had put the ball far out of my reach. By the time I had chased the ball down and picked it up, he was darting around third base, laughing and pointing at me as he hurried home. The game was overno championship for us.
Immediately after the game, Sally Lou approached me. I was certain that she wanted to tell me that it really wasn’t my fault that our team lost although I imagined it was to an extent. Instead, she proceeded to grill me. She asked, “What is your favorite song? Where do you go to school? Will you sign my yearbook? What’s your phone number?” The subject quickly became music. “Chuck E.’s in Love” happened to be her favorite song and, at least for the moment, it was also my favorite. I tried to focus on the positives. I was not even sure if Sally Lou knew about my error in left field. Inadvertently, she took my mind off of my epic blunder and brought it to the safer realm of popular music. She knew all the words to Raydio’s “You Can’t Change That” and sang them just to prove it. We exchanged phone numbers, and I made a point of calling her whenever I was at my grandmother’s house. This way, it wasn’t a long-distance call. I imagined that she was starting to forget about the so called beautiful eyes, and I was not about to bring them up. Plus school was about to start! Meanwhile, Coach on occasion still called some of us bushel basket even in later years. It gave us hope.
Somehow, even to this day I am chasing that shot hit to deep left field. However, it is not a bad memory, and I am far from bitter. No one was really at fault. We were going for the win, but it was not to be on that day. We must always be on the search for somethingpraise, triumph, success, or some such goal worthy of its pursuit. Such things kept the summer interesting. No moss grows on a rolling stoneno moss grows on a rolling shot hit to deep left field either. We shook hands with Lakeview, called it a season, and went to seventh grade as grown men. It was better to have failed in pursuit of some deep shot to left field than to have not had the opportunity to pursue a deep shot hit to left field. This was surely not a bad way to spend the daylight hours of a Saturday in small-town North Carolina, where the local hero would frequently make his presence felt by hitting the game-winner or tagging a player out at the plate so as to save the game. This field had a history of crowning heroes in the summer.
Four summers later, in high school, this same third baseman sat at my table in Fundamentals of Art, one of my favorite high school electives. I could not help but bring up his famous hit one day in class, in the middle of our still-life paintings. He remembered the hit very fondly, yet he never really rubbed it in that he had had a big day at bat, and I had sold his ability short. He could have gone on and on about his hits, RBIs, and other tournament accolades, but he very modestly smiled, recalled that great day, and returned to painting. I suppose that there is also an unwritten rule honored by those who play this sport: Make light of no one’s efforts, for you will soon take the field yourself. I often wondered if he had ever fumbled a grounder hit to third base with the game on the line, but I decided that it would not be kind to ask him for fear of the memories he might have to relive.
Marshall Lancaster eventually hung up his cleats and traded a shot at the pros for a shout at the prose. He is currently English Department Chairman at St. Vincent Pallotti High School in Laurel, Maryland.
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