Field of Dreams
Whenever spring training begins, me sitting in the still-dreary North watching those impossibly sunny afternoons in central Florida, I always remember that quote.
Like nearly all of my lifelong friends, those whose bachelor parties I’ll be attending soon, my summers were spent playing baseball. I lived in Chesterland, a suburb east of Cleveland, and my leagues were handled by the West Geauga Baseball Federation, a strong and venerable organization that always made young players feel they were playing for something.
Yesterday, as my beloved Cleveland Indians fell Tuesday night to the New York Mets, the memories of that distant league still such a part of me felt as thick as they did for the Black Sox who materialized from Ray Kinsella’s field of corn.
An occasional homerun. Making the all-star team. Several night games played beneath the lights in the center of town. Proudly wearing jerseys sponsored by parent’s hair salon. My dad appearing at the side of a dugout to hand my teammates and I sunflower seeds and Double Bubble in monstrous bags.
But mostly I remember my favorite field.
Hall Field, which I later learned was named after late local coach Bob Hall, was located on Rt. 306, one of two crosshairs that dissected my hometown. Set back from the road a way, it nestled perilously close to the Chagrin River, which wrapped around two sides before tailing off through the forest into exotic parts unknown.
The river (a stream, really, in retrospect) was only 10 or so feet from the visitor’s bench, and a towering quilt of oaks and elms growing from its banks dwarfed the backstop. My parents would drop me off at Saturday morning practice, and my teammates and I would warm up to the sound of flowing water.
It gave the field a sense that it was secret and, therefore, special. Our own little hideaway in the woods.
To retrieve an errant foul ball, you’d have to tiptoe through high grasses and into the river, a bit wary of what you’d find perched next to the white sphere sitting in the water. After 10 minutes - I always undertook a bit of exploring – I’d stand with my sweatpants hitched up and, warning those near home, rainbow the ball from the water over the chain-link backstop.
The balls would return slick and heavy. Soon the dirt would collect on them and come off in the gloves. The grit ground between the laces.
We often played at nearby elementary schools and at community parks, but Hall Field was just a parking lot, two sets of bleachers and the best-maintained diamond in our district. I liked that it stood alone. Like the one in the movie, Hall Field serves only one purpose: baseball.
I went back to it a few months ago - on one of the last warm days in November - and it looked impossibly small, as if I can grasp it now only through the wrong side of a telescope. Back then, though, it lent the games the same esteem I attached to pretty much every pastime between the ages of five and 12.
Most weekday games started at 6 p.m., but in August, 6 p.m. began in a swelter. The suffocating heat radiated in waves; swarms of gnats came from the stream, attracted by the smell of leather and sweat.
The field faced east, and the trees shadowed the batters. Looking from the pitcher’s mound, where I often stood, the sun would blare under my polyester cap four innings before gradually sending fewer and fewer slivers of light through to the field. Gradually, the sunspots would fade.
In “Majors,” the league between “Minors” and “Pony,” we played seven innings – few teams had a bullpen strong enough to last nine. So by the fifth inning, things cooled off. Gradually, dads still dressed in ties and slacks would pull into the parking lot. My mom and other moms who all seemed to be great friends would return from blankets placed delicately in the shade to the sun-parched bleachers still warm to the touch.
Then, in the suspense of countryside twilight that is as tangible and distinct as the changing of seasons, the games would finish.
None of them meant a thing. Looking back, I can recall fellow players, teams named for major-league clubs, coaches, temperatures, the smell of my glove.
Not a single score.
By the end of a summer game, my caps would be soaked, and sweat would seep through to the brims where I kept tabs on batting and pitching stats. My face would be ruddy and hot. When we went for ice cream, always to the local outdoor counter Valley Villa, I’d track dust for an hour, a naïve and mystical boy who would play this dear game forever.