This is a story of a boy and his bat. And a grandfather and a whiffle ball and a bit of Americana. And the booming voice of James Earl Jones.
My 4-year-old grandson Joaquin got his first baseball bat a couple weeks ago. Aluminum Louisville Slugger, 24 inches long. It almost made Grandpa tear up watching him carry it proudly around the house and yard.
It took me back to my youth baseball days in the 1950s and ‘60s, when my Dad would take me to the sporting goods store every spring to pick out the bat I would use for the upcoming baseball season.
I am 71 years old, but I still vividly remember walking into that store and seeing its rack of wooden bats. Hefting each one, feeling the grip in my hands. Was the handle too big or small? Was the weight too heavy or too light? Was the length just right? It would take some time, but I always went home happy, cradling my new weapon that I was sure was going to scare every pitcher in the Pico Rivera Little League.
Fast forward to 2019. I just signed my grandson up for his first try at Tee Ball in Selma. Even at four, Joaquin has developed (in my biased opinion) a decent swing.
Last year I hung a Pickleball (a whiffleball, holey and light) on a string from the patio cover. He had been swinging at it with a plastic bat, as well as off the tee. Now he has graduated to the aluminum Slugger, which he will use in Tee Ball this spring.
Joaquin has added a wrinkle to his backyard batting practice. When he whacks the ball hard, he says, “Ladies and gentlemen, a grand slam!” A cheeky uncle taught him that. It annoys me, but the kid seems to relish the announcement and I want him to like hitting the ball.
Yes, I am a baseball lover. So are my sister and one brother. We talk on the telephone much more often during baseball season than at other times. My sister lives in Southern California and roots proudly for the Dodgers. I root for the Giants —and whoever who is playing the Dodgers. My brother who lives in a Chicago suburb follows both the Dodgers and Cubs.
Pundits continue to ponder baseball’s demise. You’ve heard the criticisms: It’s too slow; It’s too resistant to change; kids are switching allegiances to football and basketball.
Yet to many of us, baseball is just right. Its pace allows us to chat and visit during a game. We know its history. We have played, so we know how to grip a baseball, how to swing a bat. We understand the chess match between pitcher and batter.
We opine about our favorite team’s lineup — eek, the Giants have no outfield! We shake our heads at the salaries of the superstars, wonder about the effectiveness of 13-year contracts. We fret about our team’s ace when his fastball speed drops from the high 90s to the mid-90s.
So now I am wondering about Joaquin. Will he bat lefty or righty or both? Will he be a good teammate? Will he figure out how to catch a ball with a glove? Will he use his speed to be a smart baserunner? Will he listen to his coaches?
Then I stop, take a breath and slap myself. The kid is just four. He’s never played organized sports. Shoot, I still don’t know if he favors throwing with his right or left hand (currently he does both).
What I really want is for him to love the game, because to love baseball is to love America. Every time I hear the phrase, “Make America great again,” I want to add: “Go to a ballgame.”
And when he is older, I will read to him this mini-sermon uttered by James Earl Jones in “Field of Dreams”:
“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and that could be again.”
And all God’s people say, Amen!
(Longtime Selma resident Ken Robison is a former newspaper reporter, editor, columnist and photographer. Selma Stories runs regularly in the Enterprise.)