THE HEART OF THE GAME

THE HEART OF THE GAME

From Chicken Soup for the Baseball Fan's Soul

The Heart of the Game

It took a while before you noticed the skinny, towheaded boy. He was around eleven, smaller than most of the kids playing softball in the park on a warming summer morning. It didn’t take long to realize he wasn’t a ballplayer, however; everything was a struggle.

He never got a hit, not even a foul off a slow pitch. Popped to right field, the occasional looping fly ball would come his way and you’d watch as he hoisted an oversized catcher’s mitt and missed, always missed, the catch. It wasn’t just the awkwardness of the glove that contributed to the misses; you could see that he was rarely in position to make the catch—and that’s when you noticed the leg braces.

The sight of those braces revealed the source of the sound that had been pecking away in the background of the game—Clack! Clack! Clack! Clack! They were cumbersome affairs of steel and leather that reached to his knees and banged together as he ran, or jumped, or walked—the only instance of quiet came when he sat at the picnic table with his mother and little sister.

Animated and happy, the boy seemed oblivious to stares or comments from parents and kids. The game was there to be played and he played it. He didn’t ask to play—no one else asked.

In this neighborhood park if you were a kid who wanted to play ball, you walked up and started playing. Adults never involved themselves and informality reigned—captains weren’t chosen as much as they evolved. Teams ebbed, flowed and played until the last out.

A group of kids would start out together, split up, add players, shuffle positions—this boy knew his role. He’d wait until the team without a right fielder went to the field and he’d walk out and take up his position. Most of the kids knew him; some liked him. So he’d smile and wave, and they’d start the next inning.

Occasionally the random chatter of the game would drift to his mom and the little sister digging in sand beneath the table. Mom would raise her head from the knitting she was doing to pass the time.

A picnic basket waited for the game to wrap up, usually around noon. The end of the game was always signaled by the arrival of the older kids, players from local high schools come to practice. But until then the mom would occasionally raise her head.

“Catch the ball, Boob!” “Geez, he missed again!” “Aw, man—no fair hittin’ to him, he can’t even get to it.” “Hey, new rules, new rules—one hit to right per game . . .” “Hey, yeah? You already hit to ’im twice.”

And the mother’s face would turn to the small shadowed frame engulfed in the hot green shimmering waves of right field and she would wave as he raised his hand, smiling—always smiling. He’d smack his small hand into that large mitt, bend at the waist and wait for the next moment, the next play of the game.

Clack, clack, clack. “Did you see me, Mom?”

“I did, Ricky, did you catch that last ball?”

“Almost. I almost got it. I got a hit, too.”

“Really, when did you get a hit?”

“It was a foul really but I hit the ball. I think if I hit left-handed, I can get a better angle. I tried it and I hit it foul. I’m gettin’ better. We got potato salad?”

“We always do.”

“Yeah, hey Sissy, you look like a mud duck. Wanna samwich?”

There was a new game now and the older boys played with practiced athleticism and grace. Their expertise revealed greater concentration and a change in their awareness, a sense of the play as something of importance—local fame in the game next week, a scholarship and a career.

The picnicking families watched grounders being clipped hotly to third, listened to the crack of a bat and watched a white blur disappear over the sagging wood fence. There were sliding dusty scrambles into home plate, beautifully timed loping underhanded catches in far left, and back . . . back—a sudden leap in right field then the mitt held high in triumph.

Ricky watched intently, smiling and bobbing his head— sometimes he’d mutter a small grunt of pleasure at a nice play. Mom was reading now; Sissy was napping on her lap.

Ricky was digging his hand into a bag of potato chips when—craaaack! His eyes found the ball immediately, looping hard and foul over the shoulder of the batter—hot toward Mom’s downturned head. A single clack! accompanied his leap, his bare hand stretched, potato chips flying and whack! He tumbled to the ground. Mom grabbed Sissy and jumped out of the way—of nothing. It was over. Ricky stood as the catcher walked up, and it was a long moment before he handed over the ball.

The older boy said, “Nice catch,” as he took the ball and moved off.

“Thanks.”

Mom was smiling as she started gathering things together.

“Nice catch, huh, Mom?”

“Very nice catch, Ricky, very nice.”

“Almost beaned you.”

“I know, Sweetie, you were very quick. I’m glad you were here to catch it.”

I watched them walk away, the sound of their conversation hammered over by clack! clack! clack!

Looking back on the sports I’ve watched or played, I can recall spectacular games and amazing individual efforts of courage and skill. Like you, I can name the greats of the games, the Olympic moments, the last-second plays that won it all, but when I think of that day many years ago I’m not even sure his name was Ricky.

I have no idea how large that catch may have loomed in his life, whether it stayed with him through the years. I like to think that it did though; because without that catch I may never have remembered that day and how much a child can love a game.

It was a small, simple lesson I learned and never forgot: There is always a heart to any game and until you feel that, until the game, whatever it is, lives in your heart you can only think the game—and that’s no game at all.

Steve Minnick

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