Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Growing up baseball

I thought some of you might enjoy a little background bio to get a little insight into this particular blogger.  I'm 50 years old and was born the eldest of my generation, a fourth generation (at least) baseball fan.  I attended my first Red Sox game at Fenway with my grandparents in 1970, though it was a very rare treat since I grew up poor, rural and at least three hours from Boston.
But I had a baseball in my hand as a very young boy and was playing organized baseball (none of that t-ball crap) at the age of 5.  The following newspaper clipping is pretty contemporaneous.  I was probably 7 or 8, front row, 2nd from the left.
If there wasn't an organized game to play in, I'd usually be found trying to scrounge up a handful of local friends for a pickup game in the fields around my house.
Let me step sideways for a second and state that my grandfather was a very good player who taught me most of what I learned as a very young boy.  He played American Legion ball into his 40s and I played organized softball with him when he was in his 50s.  My mother was a fair player and two of her brothers were excellent players.  I went to a high school that was found in the 1860s and there's a cup in the trophy case that is awarded to the outstanding player from every senior class.  My grandfather, both uncles and my kid brother's names are all on that cup.  Alas, my name is not, much to my chagrin but that's a long story for another day.  Suffice to say  if I hadn't had a falling out with the coach and quit during my senior year, it would be.
If I couldn't scrounge up a pickup game, you could find me throwing myself flyballs, throwing the ball on the roof and catching it, hitting rocks into the field with an old bat or any number of other self-designed drills.  And you could usually find me on weekdays catching the Game of the Week on television, one of the few opportunities to watch games on TV back in those days, along with Red Sox games on the weekend.  Then the playoffs and World Series would be on TV, and I would be watching those games with great interest with my grandfather or my uncles or my mother, who still to this day is a huge fan.  During the season, I would almost daily be checking the box scores in the newspaper in the morning and at night I'd be listening to the game on the radio.
 Growing up in this little town of 700 people, farm league and little league teams were not well organized or instructed.  This town had one of each and I played on the farm league team through the age of eight, when my father decided his son (being the best player his age) was not going to play Little League here and I was given the opportunity to try out as a nine-year-old for a team in the neighboring town.  Now it was the town we would all go to junior high and high school in but very few kids from the two smaller towns in the district were able to play in their Little League, which had four teams, because they simply weren't good enough.  Well, not only was I good enough, I was good enough at 9 (unheard of even for kids who lived in that town) and I started (doubly unheard of).  The above picture is of yours truly playing in that league, probably 10 to 12 years old.  Notice the Carl Yastzemski stance, left foot back and the bat way too high; and yes, I wore number 8 and played left field.  I am right handed but most of the men in my family naturally swing from the left side, like Yaz.
This is a picture of that league's All Star team, which I was selected to as an 11 and 12 year old.  I'm in the back row, just left of center.
I hope this doesn't come across as bragging; I simply was the best player my age from about 5 to 17, when natural ability and constant, constant practice and drills were no longer enough, and size and strength came much more into play.
Anyway, after Little League, I played as a starter on the junior high team in the town my dad had moved to, a town twice the size of the one I had played Little League in and where they all laughed at me until I showed them.  Coming from that little town I couldn't possibly compete with them.  Well, here's the letter to prove it.
After starting there for two years, I moved back to my hometown and played junior high one more year as a 9th grader because back then my high school was for grades 10-12.
I then went out for the high school team as a 10th grader and not only made the team but was the starting right fielder, again something relatively rare.  That was probably the last year that I genuinely had fun playing.  The coach of that team had been the coach for 20 years or so, and he decided to retire after my sophomore year.  The new coach my junior year inherited a very talented team of seniors, who quickly "took over" the team.  Many of them had brothers who were sophomores.  What resulted was that instead of me becoming the starting left fielder (the previous left fielder having graduated), I had to fight and scratch for playing time in left and right, where I was the starter the previous year.  Despite hitting nearly .400, I was not an everyday starter.  The coach was always finding reasons to play sophomore brothers of seniors in those positions.  I hadn't planned on going down this road, sorry.   Anyway, despite that we had an excellent team and won the conference regular season.  In the first round of the State playoffs we encountered a junk throwing kid who kept us scoreless the whole game, a guy I knew I could hit had I not been sitting on the bench for the last game of my high school career.  The same coach came back the next year, and I would have started and done well but I just couldn't stand playing for the guy.  My only regret is that now I can't go back to my high school and see my name on that cup.
Left is my high school letter and I'll share another picture down below that was taken just before the State playoffs and was in my high school yearbook.  I'm in the back row, right of center.
I played in men's softball leagues in the summer between my junior and senior years, on a team with my grandfather, and then again the summer after my senior year before joining the Marines.  There were no American Legion teams in the area at that time.  The popular softball back here was called modified fast pitch.  It wasn't windmill fast pitch but more straight underhand fast pitch, as opposed to slow pitch.  I had fun and hit for a good average but I found I didn't have the power to be truly successful playing softball.  I did continue to play on office teams during a good part of the eight years I was in the Marines but it wasn't anything you could call highly competitive.  I think the highlight would be our team from the Camp Pendleton Legal Office playing in a Southern California tournament against other legal office teams.
I'm sure you've found that incredibly boring but hopefully a little charming and maybe sparks your own walk down memory lane.  I guess the only thing I left out is that I also played Babe Ruth baseball in the summers of my junior high years, 13-15 years old.  My father left the family when I was 11.  I taught my brother, who's six years younger, to play the game; and I was the little league coach in my little home town during the summers of my high school years.
To wrap up, I bowled (candlepin -- look it up) competitively through much of this same time and played football through most of my junior high and high school years but baseball always was and always will be the sport that's most in my heart.  I would encourage the other authors here to tell similar stories, if they have them.


Anonymous said...

That wasn't boring at all. I'll likely post something within the week regarding my hockey misadventures.

NottaJohn said...

Zeb, I thoroughly enjoyed the post. It brought back some great memories - including those Legal tournaments! Thanks for sharing. J

dasnake said...

no boring in that story, i had my first trip to fenway in '08 at 64 years old i let my family take seats down first base side, i went to the top of the stands and patroled the walkway, i had visions in my mind of williams and yaz patroling the monster, i still remember his last bat with a homerun. i was enthralled with the fenway experience, when we left we did a walk around and took in all the ambience.

i have a lot of story in me but i never talk about anything, i just look at my life, my wife, my kids, and that is all the story i have to think about, again zeb, great site, i love coming here.

Zebster said...

And I and the other writers here appreciate your comments, Snake. I like SRO tix at places I'm only going to get to visit once because it gives me the freedom to walk around during the game, see all the angles, take in the ambience of the place, etc. I did that at Tiger Stadium, Maple Leaf Garden and Montreal Forum to name a few.

dasnake said...

king kelly autograph for auction, you boston fans will love this story, google king kelly trunk autograph. great story.