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"Thunk" Again

Baseball is, and has always been, my favorite sport. Since I can remember, I've been a fan, and for many years, I played at various levels before coaching my son, Will, through a number of Little League seasons with varying degrees of success.


Last week, Spring Training began for all Major League teams, marking the official start of another year where we -- as fans -- can wipe the slate clean of any past disappoint and pencil in our team as the prohibitive (or at least, sentimental) favorite for winning it all. (My wait, along with all other Milwaukee Brewer fans, has spanned 50+ years, but still, I hold out hope.)


After a strange, abbreviated 2020 season, I'm hoping 2021 will find the sport -- along with our lives -- returning to some semblance of normalcy. Time will tell, won't it? Anyway, today I'd like to return to a simpler time, in those days when my love for baseball was blossoming. This piece was written on July 8, 2013.


Thunk.


“It’s the top of the third. Milwaukee leads Baltimore 2 to 1 on a two-out single in the second by Johnny Briggs . . .”


Thunk.


The Brewers are trying to snap a three-game losing streak behind right-hander Billy Parsons."


Thunk.


The sound was repetitive, metronomic, occurring hundreds of times each evening. Yet no one in the house or around the neighborhood ever complained, not to me anyway.


Thunk.


It was a typical summer evening for me in the early 1970s. An orange rubber ball, a baseball glove, a brick wall on the back­side of our house, and a portable radio transmitting the voices of play-by-play announcer Merle Harmon and color commentator Bob Uecker.


In those days, before handheld devices and earbuds, video consoles, and ultra-competitive youth sports organized by large committees of adults, we listened to radios, ran around outside, made up our own games, and sometimes, just threw orange rub­ber balls against brick walls.


Thunk.


Powered by four “D” cell batteries, our radio was the size of a four-slot toaster, with a large black mesh screen across the front to cover the speaker. It had three dials: one for volume, one to toggle between AM and FM (back then, AM was preferred for everything from sports to Top 40 radio), and a third to change the station, accomplished by moving a red bar along a vertical grid of numbers until we found the right frequency.


In those days, a good, working-class radio would also have its share of battle scars: paint spatters, dents, scratches and probably a bent antenna, if it even had one anymore. In those days, antennas (antennae?) on consumer-grade electronics were generally flimsy and easy to snap off, the standard replacement being a wire clothes hanger.


Thunk.


On this night—or just about any hot, muggy, mosquito-filled July night back then—I was tuned to 620 AM WTMJ, the ra­dio home of the Milwaukee Brewers. The team had played one year in Seattle as the Pilots before a Milwaukee car dealer named Albert “Bud” Selig, along with Edmund Fitzgerald (yes, that Edmund Fitzgerald) purchased the team and moved it to Milwaukee. I’ll always be grateful to Bud for that. (Years later, Mr. Selig sold his share of the team when he was named commis­sioner of Major League Baseball.)


Thunk.


I was five when the Brewers came to town, and I immedi­ately fell in love with them. To this day, they're still “my team,” as much as the Yankees are to a kid who grew up play­ing stickball in the streets of the Bronx or the Cardinals are to someone living in the shadow of the Gateway Arch.


Thunk.


As an expansion team, the Brewers weren’t very good; correction, they were horrible. In the early years, it was common for them to finish at or near the bottom of the American League East. But I didn’t care if they were good or bad. They were my team, and I loved to flip open the sports page every morning to check the box scores, look at the photos, and eventually, read about them, playing out my own baseball dreams by throwing that orange rubber ball against a brick wall, fielding ground balls, catching flies and striking out imaginary hitters with my blazing fastball or unpredictable knuckle-curve.

Thunk.

The brick wall and that battle-worn radio were critical to my development as both a player and a sports fan. It was these iconic symbols of my childhood, along with that orange ball and my Rawlings glove, that helped me teach myself how to play and understand baseball, how a ball bounces, how to field a short hop, how to transfer the ball to my throwing hand to set up for a throw, and generally, it helped me develop the hand-eye coordination and muscle memory necessary to play the game throughout my childhood and into my adult years.

Thunk.

But it wasn’t just baseball. I did the same with basketball and football. It was the way we did it in those days. We showed up at a playground, an open field, a kid’s driveway or someone’s backyard, and if no one else was around, we’d head out on our own with a glove, a rubber ball and a radio, and we’d play. No referees. No coaching. No drills. No helicopter parents. We practiced, competed with, taught, coached, arbitrated, argued and cheered for each other and ourselves, whether playing pick-up games with one another, or simply practicing on our own, using whatever gear we could find or manufacture.


It didn’t matter if we had full teams, or if all the kids were the same age or ability level. We didn’t care. We made it work. And it was fun. It was always fun.


Thunk.


But things are different today. Not better or worse, just different. When I was a kid, I played, first and foremost, because I wanted to. And by the time I started playing organized sports, I already had the skills and had mastered some of the nuances of the games I played, and I could see myself getting better on my own, without anyone ranking or evaluating me.


Back then, we didn’t get overuse injuries, and we certainly didn’t “specialize” (a popular word in today’s youth athletics that for some equates to “success.” I’ll save my opinions about that concept for another day.) Hell, I don’t think the terms “specialization” and “overuse injury” had even been coined back then. We just played. And after we went home to have something to eat, we came back out and played some more, whether it was 10 of us on a basketball court at the local school yard, my cousin/best friend Mike and me playing a game we made up ourselves, or just me, throwing the ball against the wall, as I listened to Merle and Bob call the game.


Thunk.


Today, kids play because they’re expected to; because they have a reason to. Because their parents want them to. And that’s a shame. There’s so much to be learned from playing games on your own, and from teaching—and learning from—your friends, or even from a rubber ball, a backyard brick wall, and the quirky caroms and bounces it produces.


Thunk.


The ball rebounded hard off the bricks, short-hopping to my right. I deftly snagged it, stepped on “second,” (a dirt patch worn by many days of play), threw to the wall, and caught the ball at “first base,” a tailor-made double play where I occupied all the positions, something of a baseball one-man show.


"Parsons winds, in comes the pitch. Belanger rips a line drive down the left field line! This is going to score two . . ."


Thunk.


And just like that, my Brewers had managed to lose the lead again. It would be their fourth loss in a row, but on a warm summer evening, it didn’t matter. They were my team, and I was playing my game, a game I still love.


Could life be any better?


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