When you throw it, throw it strong and accurately. When you hit it, hit it hard. When you catch it, catch it softly. It’s a cowhide cover with a core of something special – the stuff of dreams.
My oldest brother got me interested in Major League Baseball when I was nine. It is the sport of the gods. On a rainy Saturday afternoon we watched extra innings of a game between the Detroit Tigers and the New York Yankees. Television of 1961 was a three-channel choice with the reliability of an alley drunk at a church revival. The then-hated Yankees won. They immediately became the “hated Yankees” because that “Y” word was vehemently unpopular in my hometown of Charleston. We were still experiencing the enthusiastic celebrations surrounding the 100-year anniversary of Charleston’s role in the Civil War. Yup, we started it.
Eventually, we finished second in the league standings. Thus, the word “Yankee” could not be said in any context that elevated it beyond words like villain, carpetbagger or scoundrel. Because the Yankees had an opponent that was not named to stir the animosities of my household, I adopted the Detroit Tigers that day as my favorite team. Just like the Civil War saga, it took the Yankees much longer than expected to beat the underdog Tigers. It never occurred to me that the city of Detroit was up yonder way as well.
My lifelong addiction of the sport had started. I became voracious for baseball cards. I could not find enough articles written about those great diamond heroes. The Sunday paper that listed the batting averages was in my hands before the lights came on at our home. What was known as our “National Pastime” was a sport that became the focus of my entire youth, my challenge for greatness and a rainbow upon the horizon.
My personal favorite was the great bulwark of the Detroit lineup, Al Kaline. He played in historic Tiger Stadium, since torn down in 2009. He roamed an expanse of grass there that was designated by sports announcers as right field. I lived vicariously there from spring to fall. ?Kaline had all of the proverbial baseball tools. It was propitious that he was also known as one of baseball’s all-time great gentlemen. His career was a picture of consistency, excellence and success. He remains in the annals of the sport as the youngest batting champion ever. His rifle arm was legendary. He earned 10 Gold Gloves as the best fielding player at his position.
He played in 15 All-Star Games. This emulation of greatness was fostered throughout my formative years. It was a North Star and a hope. As silly as it was, it gave me a goal to pursue.
My Southern upbringing made it logical that I had time for the necessities of life: food, water, school and baseball. I could forego the first three. I played Little League. I pitched some, but wanted to play right field because Al Kaline was a right fielder. Being tall, coaches tried me at first base. I usually convinced them that my major league position would be in right field.
The sound of a snap into the glove, the smell of that Neatsfoot-oiled leather, the clack of a batted ball, the infield chatter and the evening symphony of crickets – baseball is alone within its moments. It is the still of exhilaration and the ecstasy of sudden movement. It is the ultimate test of a team in unison against an individual and yet it is the epitome of inner personal fortitude against stealthy and formidable odds. No player can be in the contest uninformed, unaware or unprepared.
Though I played sports year round, baseball was my first love. I could field. I could run. I could throw. I could never quite get the rhythm of hitting. Years later, I would chalk this up to my chronically poor eyesight. I practiced and practiced. I threw tennis balls up against the side of our brick garage so that I could field, catch and throw in two steps. I hit loose rocks with a broomstick in my Kaline stance.
I played hard in high school, never giving up the dream. I wore my Kelly-green hat with the brim bent low to the sides. My trousers were always faintly stained with the red clay of my Kaline-like slides. My number was 6 because that’s what Al Kaline wore.
My baseball career ended miserably. We were playing a much better team, James Island High School. They had a stocky, strong-armed pitcher who struck me out twice on six pitches in my final two at bats. He threw pitches that whizzed past me at 90 miles per hour. He insulted my Kaline stance. I hit one foul ball. The pitcher, Gorman Thomas, went on to a fine 13-year major league career as a power-hitting center fielder for the Milwaukee Brewers. He played in the 1982 World Series. He led the American League in home runs twice. Ironically, the end of my career was just the start of his. He took my dream.
I never really saw Kaline play in the majors. I went down to spring training in Lakeland, Fla., to see my very first live game in 1973. I saw Kaline hit a double off of the left center field wall, and I had lived! A pinch runner came in for the aging star (he was 38). I never saw Kaline bat again. His retirement in 1974 was a time that was personally sad for me, though I was already an adult. It didn’t matter to me that his parents had not considered the lifelong ramifications of naming him after a flashlight battery.
In the last few years I have had the good fortune to sponsor a local event that has invited current and former players as featured speakers. The event, the annual Hot Stove Banquet, has brought new coal to the flickering embers of my wistful youth. I have designated them as Exuberance, Achievement, Humility and Pragmatism. They came as Jeff Francoeur, Gaylord Perry, Dale Murphy and Bobby Cox. It does not escape my sense of order that these four gentlemen represented the same-sequenced stages of my baseball aspirations. Each has given me insight to what I had weighed and measured as the substance of all that matters. They each excelled at the sport that I dreamed would have sustained my own lifetime. It made those days of hitting rocks with a broomstick seem worthwhile. They must have done this as well.
Al Kaline once famously stated that he played baseball simply because he loved baseball, adding that “getting paid for it was a bonus.” Somehow, I had the feeling that there are still Kaline-like sensibilities even today in this zillionaire-contracted sport. There are boys that breathe in the smell of the leather still.
It is anachronistic now. Time has begotten life but has not forgotten the times of life. There was a constant always. Baseball has sustained my lifetime.
In the years of wishing for what could have been, I wished I had made some investments I considered, but declined. I wished I had dated a girl that I deeply admired but was much too shy to ask her out. I wish I had better eyesight in my youthful playing years. Oh, and I wish I had remembered to remind my mother to check the attic for my baseball cards before we moved.
There is no wish I have wished more than the wish of playing the game I loved in the park I never saw with the verve and panache of the great Al Kaline.
Tommy McQueeney is a born and bred Charlestonian who graduated from The Citadel with a BA in English, and is a 30 year agent with State Farm Insurance in Mt. Pleasant.