Author’s Note: Partially in honor of opening day of the 2015 Major League Baseball season and partially in response to a winter that is having a hard time letting go, this piece is written to celebrate the traditions of baseball, seasonal life in Maine, and family bonds. And yes – it does owe a nod to former MLB Commissioner Bart Giamatti’s “The Green Fields of the Mind”.
It seems that as a child, the roots of my development intertwined. Things cross-pollinated or were grafted. My time went largely into sports and exploring deep pine woods, ever-wilding farmland, and waters ranging from shaded rills to the oft frigid Gulf of Maine. Though hockey was always in the mix, baseball captured my imagination most vividly and matched my developing talents most congruently. These two headwaters, baseball and the natural world, came to a confluence at some point and they’ve always seemed to be imbued with one another since.
Being the youngest of four kids and the son of a passionate volunteer coach, I grew up at ballparks. I absorbed the rhythms of not just the game but the seasons. Again, my baseball life and my growing sense of nature’s cyclical calendar intertwined.
In Maine, baseball does not start on fresh green grass under blue skies. It begins in gyms and plowed parking lots. Preseason baseball involves digging errantly thrown balls out of the wet spring snow hesitant to relinquish its grip on the landscape. Once on the field, the grass is dead and skies often retain the gray steel hue prone to birthing snow showers as late as May. When the grass does green and warmth kisses the diamond, it’s just about the time mayflies and other insect delicacies present themselves to wild trout and salmon in hauntingly beautiful ponds and pristine streams. The arrival of true green spring, whether in the verdant outfields of small-town fields or fiddlehead lined brooks pulsing with aquatic life, fills the soul like a fresh breeze into a sail.
The start of summer ushers in the core of the baseball season. Hay grows fast. All the birds are present and the morning woods are alive with music. School vacation begins. The ocean waters begin to be swimmable – though maybe not for those from away. Long-sleeve undershirts and bulky jackets worn while on the bench become mostly unnecessary. Sweat mixes with warm earth when diving back in to first base on pick-off attempts. High-school tournaments transition into American Legion league summer baseball. This is where memories of my father run deepest – with especially sharp memories of the sights and sounds at the now demolished field at the Togus Veterans Hospital where the state Legion Baseball tournament was held. Tournaments at this classic, hitter-friendly park were a rite of passage for Maine baseball players.
August for youth baseball is a time when, unless you win a lot in tournaments, things come to an end. For me and my baseball childhood at least, August has always been a time of melancholy. Sure, blackflies and mosquitos so heavy in the spring and early summer are diminished and the days remain warm, but the energy and optimism of spring’s wild growth ebbs. August’s emotion can be like the first hint that nearly all ballplayers have when they realize that the dream is finite and Fenway or Wrigley will require a ticket, not a pair of spikes. Thankfully, perhaps Maine’s best season arrives on the heels of summer with bull moose rattling antlers amidst fire-colored leaves and cold water fish coming back to cooler surface waters out of their late summer depths.
Even though pennant races and the World Series run deep into the fall and “hot stove” baseball signings occur over the winter, these months, to me, hold less personal baseball meaning. As winter bleeds into March though, thoughts of the game and recollections of practicing in any suitable indoor space flow like the tree sap coursing through awakening timber those very same weeks. I strongly recall truck rides in late winter or March returning from ice fishing with my future father-in-law and his high-school daughter I’d go on to marry. We’d drive back with Maine college baseball on the radio after drilling or chiseling through feet of dark blue ice in search of brook trout, landlocked salmon, or togue. Later, I’d be on those road trips to Florida, Texas, or other southern locales where trekking across a flat, frozen canvas while trailing steaming breath like organic locomotives is, to the locals at least, utterly alien. I still have a small part of me that associates ice fishing on frozen white expanses with baseball, despite the seeming polar opposite nature of the two settings.
Seasons cycle year after year, and unlike my youth I don’t discover I throw harder, run faster, or hit further each spring. I’ve gone the other way. Despite that, or better stated oblivious to that, the loons will arrive and haunt Maine’s lakes with yodels that translate wonder and awe into symbolic sound. Hermit thrushes will haunt sunset woods with delicate whistling. Baseball will return. And now I have two young children embracing another spring. Their lives are theirs, but as I help nourish their growth, I do hold onto some hope that their roots also mingle amidst full counts, full moons, pine tar, hemlock boughs, hook slides, and hooked trout. If baseball and Maine’s outdoors are twin streams converging in my life, then sharing their beauty with my children only deepens the river of tradition in which powerful memories and timeless connections churn and eddy.
Still, even if they don’t end up sprinting out on the diamond making sure not to drag a foot on the clean, white chalk lines or if they don’t yearn to camp under a milky way framed by spruce silhouettes, their grandfather provides a lesson for me and thereby for them.
My father died in late August of 1998. I was just out of college, and my transition from ballplayer to something else had begun. While I am sure my dad would have loved to see me play beyond college, I don’t worry that my stopping playing baseball broke my dad’s spirit. He simply had a heart attack and passed away in his sleep, albeit too early in life. I received none of my love of nature from him. Still, not long before he unexpectedly passed he spent a good long while looking at a bird guide with me trying to identify a bird that caught his eye. Though it wasn’t completely transparent, I know he showed the interest not just out of (mild) curiosity, but out of interest in me. He did recognize the bird – which based on his observations was a male indigo bunting- was not typical around our house, but it was the fact that I would be interested in its presence that made him spend the time. Any who knew my dad knew he was not the bird book type. This simple action still resonates with me.
Am I starting to create visions in my mind of my children on the diamond? Sure. Will I take interest in their passions whether they are baseball, backpacking, or something else? Absolutely. My father’s passion was not just sports or his kids playing sports but most simply his kids. That may be the tradition that trumps both nature and the national pastime.
Happy Opening Day!