Thursday, April 29, 2021

Baseball Is Alive And Well

It was an epic matchup: the green-clad O’Reilly Electric little leaguers against the maroon-clad boys of Fairfield Rotary. The game would begin at the stroke of noon on a beautiful early-Spring Saturday at Highwood Park.

The young ballers, most of them 5 years old, had been practicing at home with their dads, and already had a 3-inning game under their belt. But this was serious stuff: word had it the boys of Fairfield Rotary were not to be taken lightly. Big hitters, those guys.

This is T-ball Little League, organized by the Rec Department of the City of Fairfield, Connecticut. Our grandson, Joey (Joey B to his teammates) plays in this league, and my wife and I have every one of Joey’s games on our schedule. We moved from Madison, Wisconsin to coastal Connecticut a year ago, at the height of the plague, to be closer to our daughter and her family. It was exactly this sort of thing – the prospect of watching two of our grandkids grow up – that led us to weigh anchor after more than 30 years in Madison and set sail for Long Island Sound.

We live in the Black Rock section of Bridgeport, Connecticut’s largest city. It’s a beautiful and very safe neighborhood, bordered by the vast expanse of Long Island Sound on the south, and the city of Fairfield on the north.

Make no mistake about it: Fairfield is a wealthy community. As my wife and I roll into a parking spot at Highwood Park in our late-model high-end Chevy SUV, there’s a Range Rover parked ahead of us. We’re surrounded by BMW’s, Audis, a few Benz sedans, big Volvo SUV’s, a Lexus or two, and the occasional Honda. Our big white Chevy would fit right in at Lambeau Field or Miller Park… er, American Family Field. Whatever.  I still call it County Stadium. But here, we’re outclassed up and down the parking lot.

However, everyone we meet is friendly, down-to-earth, and most cordial. Many of those we meet are grandparents, like us. We are all eager to engage in conversations about our darling children/grandchildren, and how they’ve taken to the Great American Pastime.

The young man with the bright blue glove and the perfect infield stance playing first base is our grandson, Joey. He’s got great form, we think. On the right side of the photo, the dad overseeing things is our son-in-law, John – Joey’s coach and mentor. John and Joey have been working on catching, throwing, batting, and running since February, when the snow disappeared.

Nearly all the dads are present, coaching their sons, being patient and encouraging. A couple of the dads are missing, but the grandparents’ grapevine informs us that those dads are “away on business.” The moms are just as supportive.

As the dads dispense advice and give tips on form and style, moms provide the loving nurture of assuring their kids that they’re doing a great job and dispense kid-friendly granola bars and hugs. Pictured above, our daughter Mallory assures Joey that his uniform looks awesome and that he’s really throwing the ball well.

Many, if not most of the moms, have solid sports credentials. You can overhear them talking about the team sports they played in high school and college. Sitting to our right is Brandon’s mom. The family lives in the same neighborhood as our daughter, but their son plays for Fairfield Rotary. Both he and Joey wear uniform number 8.

I comment that Joey’s dad is a Yankees fan, so Joey’s number 8 is the same number Yogi Berra wore. “My husband grew up in Maryland,” she says, “so Brandon’s 8 stands for Cal Ripken. You know, Ripken not only was a star with the Orioles, but he was also actually born in Maryland,” she adds.

These ladies know their baseball.

My Chicago-born wife and lifelong Cubs fan quietly assumes Joey B’s number 8 is for Andre Dawson.

The boy who’s a favorite with all the moms is a spirited lad nicknamed Chip. Chip’s family lives just a few houses from our daughter and son-in-law, and he and Joey are good buds. Chip is a bit small compared to the other 5-year-olds but possesses an indomitable spirit and plays with reckless enthusiasm. He has a huge head of light blonde hair that flows from under his baseball cap to his shoulders. When Chip runs, his hair flies wildly, and everyone cheers for him.

Not surprisingly, all the boys like to bat far more than they enjoy playing infield. Here’s Joey B swinging for the fences. He knocks the ball off the tee and follows through, something his dad has been coaching him. The first practice we went to, the concept of running to first base after you hit the ball off the tee was something that didn’t come naturally. The boys would whack the ball into the infield, then stand and admire their work – as the dads and moms yelled, “run to first! Run to first base!”

The boy at bat would then dutifully run toward first base, after the vocal cues from the parents and assembled fans. At the first practice, most of the boys carried their bat with them all the way down the first base line. By the second practice, the dads had managed to coach that out of them.

My love of baseball started early, and I have a tremendous coach to thank for that. When I first played organized baseball, the late Russ Tiedemann was our summer rec league coach in Hortonville, WI, where he was also the high school varsity baseball coach. He drilled us on fundamentals in every practice session and taught us the beauty of in-game strategy. His love of the game was contagious.

After several years at Hortonville, Coach Tiedemann was hired by UW-Oshkosh to be varsity baseball coach, where he established a true baseball dynasty, winning 15 conference championships and a national championship in 1985. Coach Tiedemann has sent more young men to careers in Major League Baseball – 28 – than any other baseball coach in Wisconsin history.

It was my great fortune to have been coached by an icon like Russ Tiedemann.

But, before Coach Tiedeman, my coach was my dad – just as Joey’s coach right now is his dad, just as all the young t-ballers on the field, as shown above, are being coached by their fathers. In the photo above, Joey is standing on first, looking right at me, saying, “Papa – I got a hit!” And, considering the formidable infield Joey faced at bat, that single was quite the accomplishment. There’s not much need for an outfield in t-ball for 5-year-olds, so everybody plays infield.

Perhaps Joey will grow up to be a singles machine, just like Papa (me). Thanks to Coach Tiedemann, I could always make good contact with a pitched ball. It was the running part that did me in. What would have been an extra-base hit in the many bar leagues I played in over the years was usually a single for me.

But there was that one night, years ago, when our radio station team was playing a team of county sheriff's deputies, that I blasted a ball over the fence and out of the ball park. I had to run/trot/walk all the bases on that sweet summer night. It was the game-winning hit, so the guys made me a little trophy engraved with the date and the legend "Game-winning homer - boy, am I good!" I still have the trophy.

So many great memories - from the sandlots of my youth in Hortonville, to the bar-league games of my adulthood, to the t-ball games of my grandson.

As long as there are dads who volunteer their time as coaches, and young men like Joey who love to get together and have fun playing t-ball, baseball will remain alive and well.

And there’ll always be grey-haired grandpas like me to cheer them on from the sidelines.