The first Monday in April has long been one of my favorite days of the year, for it is the day that the Boys of Summer take to the field and begin the long, difficult journey through the baseball season. Since I was just a child I have loved baseball. I grew up listening to the sounds of the game spending every moment I could on the field.
My earliest baseball memories go back to the days I lived in Unionville, Ontario which at the time it was a small town just outside of Toronto (it has now been assimilated by the growing urban sprawl known as the Greater Toronto Area). We lived in a beautiful house on a property with almost an acre of grass in the backyard. Though this afforded me many opportunities to practice batting and throwing, I most often spent my time just down the street at the side of a strip-mall near my house. Years before someone had painted a strike-zone on the outside wall of the upholstery store, and for hours and hours every day I stood facing that wall, throwing a tennis ball at the strike zone. I would practice my repertoire of pitches, though in reality there is not much variety when throwing a tennis ball. As the ball bounced back to me I would practice my fielding and practice relaying the ball to an imaginary first baseman. Day after day, all summer long, I would throw a tennis ball against that wall, sharpening my skills.
When evening came my favorite past time was to ride my bike to the local park where every evening there would be some kind of ball game. Usually it was overweight, middle-aged men playing slo-pitch. I would head to the concession area, buy some licorice or Gobstoppers and then sit back and watch the men play. It was not awfully good baseball, of course, but I really didn't care, for it was still baseball. Sometimes I would be brave and head for one of the dugouts to ask if the team needed a batboy. More often than not they would gladly let me play that role, so when the plays were over I would sprint over to the fallen bat and retrieve it. That, along with ensuring the bats were all nicely lined up against the fence in the dugout, were my only responsibilities, yet I felt ten feet tall, knowing I was playing my part in the game. I would inevitably lose track of the time and as night was falling I would see my brother walking through the field, coming to tell me that mom and dad said I had to get home right now! As soon as my days of being grounded were over, I would be right back at the park, watching and hoping to be able to be batboy once again.
When I was 7 or 8 years old my grandmother bought me a clock radio. As a matter of fact, that same radio still sits beside my bed and still wakes me most mornings, though lately my children often beat the alarm. As a child that radio was my gateway into the world of professional baseball. When I was growing up we had no television (for which I am very thankful) so the radio became my indispensable friend. Every night I would tune in to AM 1430 which was the home of the Toronto Blue Jays in Toronto and would listen to Tom Cheek and Jerry Howarth do the play-by-play. My parents would tuck me into bed, and as soon as they had left my room I would turn the radio on and I would be at the ballgame. On the weekends I would stop what I was doing at 1 o'clock in the afternoon and head to my room to take in the game. If I was feeling ambitious I would even pull out a scorecard and score the game myself. The commentators would often help out, saying "that's a 4-2 putout, for those of you scoring at home."
My obsession for baseball led me to try my hand at the game and for several years I played in various softball leagues. Though I was never a star player, I had a much better head for the game than the rest of the kids, for I knew the rules inside and out. I was occasionally even able to talk my way past the umpires. Once I remember talking myself out of an infield fly, even though I knew full-well that I should have been out. I began my playing days at third base, but soon found that first base was where I really loved playing. I was good enough that I never got stuck out in right field, but not good enough to get placed at shortstop. But that was fine, for as long as I was on the field I was happy.
Some of the fondest memories of my childhood are the times my father would take me to see my heroes in action. Once a year we would sit down in front of a schedule and choose a game we were going to go to. As we drove downtown, first to Exhibition Stadium and later to Skydome, the excitement would rise. We would climb to our seats and for the next 3 hours my eyes would be fixated on the field. For the same 3 hours my father's eyes would be fixated on the crowd as he watched bizarre human behavior. While I was an avid baseball fan, my father was not - he derived his pleasure from watching the drunk guy who held the bell that would ring whenever George Bell came come to the plate or from any of the other strange shows of behavior one sees where tens of thousands of people gather. After the game we would always go to the same little pizza parlour for some slices of pepperoni pizza and a can of Coke. It was the perfect end to the perfect night.
When I was in eighth grade my family moved to Ancaster, a small town outside of Hamilton. It was here that I got my first taste of playing hardball. I loved knowing I was playing the same game as the men in the major leagues. At our first practice I remember the coach watching me play and saying "you've got a rocket!" That, of course, meant that I could throw the ball hard and he decided he would try me at pitcher. What an honor it was to get to stand there on the rubber, knowing that the game was in my hands. I honestly do not recall how many games I pitched and how I did. I do remember my first strikeout and with shame remember my first balk. Unfortunately, though, my pitching repertoire consisted of only a few pitches (slow, fast and faster) and it was not enough to set me apart from the ace on our team. My greatest memory of that season, my final season playing baseball, was the final game of the playoffs. We had advanced that far and were playing a team which had some very strong hitters. It came to the final inning and the score was tied. My coach put me in left field knowing that I would be able to track down any fly balls that came that way. Sure enough, there came a pivotal moment where the opposing team had a runner on second with two out. The batter knocked a solid hit into left - a good single. Naturally the runner from second was going to try to make it home with the go-ahead run. I fielded the ball on a hop and without breaking stride, launched it at my catcher. It bounced perfectly halfway between third and home and hopped right into his mitt. All he had to do was wait for the runner to hit his glove. He did, and just like that the inning was over and the threat had ended. In our next at-bat we scored the winning run to win the championship. My memory is not of winning, but of people celebrating the catcher's perfect play at the plate when I had been the one who made the perfect throw. I think there is a lesson in there somewhere!
Two of the happiest moments of my life came in 1992 and 1993, for those were the years that the Blue Jays were at their best. They won the World Series in 1992, beating out the Atlanta Braves in a spectacular 6-game showdown. 1993, though, was special, for that game ended in a way that has happened only twice in baseball's long history. In the bottom of the ninth inning in game six of the World Series, Joe Carter hit a home run to win the game. I can still remember the commentator's voices rising and breaking as they called that long homer to left. I remember the celebration as in houses all around the city cheering broke out. Cars drove down the street honking their horns. I jumped and leapt and celebrated a great victory. My long years of following the Jays' every move had finally paid off - twice!
I do not follow baseball as closely as I used to. As I have gotten older I have found other hobbies and interests that take my attention from the superstars on the baseball diamonds. I have found people whom I respect far more than the boys of summer. Yet when the white of winter begins to melt into the green of spring, my mind always returns to the simple pleasures of my youth - the pleasures of the crack of a bat and the sharp sting of a ball hitting a mitt. My heart always beats a little faster on the first Monday of April for it is the day the Blue Jays return to the field and announce that baseball season has, once again, begun.