Baseball has been a constant in my life.
It probably was the sport where i should have focused. Football remains the most satisfying sport i played. i continue to believe the best all round sport for fitness is basketball. i really was too small for football and too short for basketball. i played them as long as i could. i played baseball until i was 46 — note i did not claim how well i played, but play i did. And i often wonder if i had the coaching they have now and concentrated on that one sport, if i might have been the follow-on-version of Nellie Fox.
i’m glad i didn’t because i enjoyed my time on the gridiron (as the old sportswriter for The Watertown (NY) Daily Times, Jack Case, would call it) and on the hardwood, which Case probably called the basketball floor as well). It was time well spent.
In today’s world such focus on one sport is almost required. Playing three sports in high school is virtually impossible today. i think that is a loss for most youths nowadays.
Baseball (and softball), however, have been with me throughout. Golf now is my go-to sport, but only because age has demanded i halt my diamond activities.
During my time on the diamond, i collected a few hits and a lot of friends. Two of those friends have been constants in my baseball. One was with me from the start. The other shares a love of the game and a team in more recent years. All three of us had a strong bond with the Pittsburgh Pirates of yore.
All three of us would agree with James Earl Jones character Terrence Jones in “Field of Dreams” when he urged Kevin Costner’s character Ray Kinsella not to sell the farm:
The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh… people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.
Mike Dixon and i were opponents in Little League and Babe Ruth League and teammates in American Legion ball when we went to the state tournament. We also played fast pitch softball on the Texas Boot team, even wearing the Lebanon factory’s boots for infield practice (Mike did not remember that little piece of trivia). That team beat all of its league opponents and then beat the all-stars of those other teams. Until we both left our hometown, we played backyard baseball of every variety.
Independently in the early 1950’s, Mike and i became big fans of the Buc’s” as announcer Bob Prince called our Pittsburgh team. We discovered our mutual fandom and built upon it. Although our love of the Pirates faded after Clemente, Stargell, and the others of our area were no longer there, we still rooted for them unless they played Mike’s Braves or my Padres.
When we went on road trips, Mike and i would quiz teammates on the bus rides as to the leaders in National League and American League batting averages, RBI’s, stolen bases, and home runs. Mike could hit for power and did so in baseball or softball into his seventies. He was a defensive strength in the outfield. He was much better at remembering all of the statistics. He was a better player and had greater knowledge of the sport than i did.
When Vandy rose to prominence in college baseball, we once again shared a passion for a team. During my time at Vanderbilt, Mike would occasionally drive to Nashville and sit on the right field berm with me, and we would watch the ‘Dores on sunny afternoons at Hawkins Field.
We were constant. Mike left me this past autumn. There is a hole in that constant of baseball for me. When there is some tidbit of hot stove news about a major league team or i learned of a news item about the Vandy Boys, i reach for my phone to call Mike and get the real skinny before i realize he won’t answer. i miss him.
The other constant is still here. Jim Hileman and i began going to games at Qualcomm Stadium with family members in the mid-80’s when Maureen and i returned from Florida and my penultimate Navy tour. Then on September 28, 1988, just Jim and i went to a game to see if Orel Hershiser could break the consecutive scoreless inning record against the Padres. He did, stretching his scoreless inning to 59. Hershiser and the Dodgers lost, 2-1 in 16 innings, with a superlative pitching performance by Andy Hawkins matching Hershiser through those 10 scoreless innings before relievers took over and the Padres’ catcher, Mark Parent, hit a two-run homer in the bottom of the 16th after the Dodgers had pushed across a run in the top of the 16th inning.
By the time it was over, only about 500 fans remained in the stadium. Jim and i were still there, high up in the plaza right field level. The game lasted 4 hours and 24 minutes. By the time it was over, Jim and i had discussed our favorite Pirates, the great seasons, the great players, our experiences, including Jim describing catches and throws he saw Roberto Clemente make during games Jim attended at Forbes Field when he was growing up in Pittsburgh.
There are lots of things you can talk about during a game lasting nearly four-and-a-half hours. We knew we both liked golf but i think that baseball game cemented our enjoyment of playing golf together.
We didn’t establish that Jim was proud of being an “asshole.” He remains the king but is admired by our mutual golfing buddies who even attempt to reach Jim’s heights in that category but fall woefully short. Still, it is something we all brag about. And underneath that mantle of assholedness, Jim Hileman is one of the nicest, most caring men i have ever known. i just wasn’t aware of either as we sat in those stands now gone.
Finally after those 4 1/2 hours, we talked ourselves into buying Padres season tickets for the next year. We shared those tickets for 13 years or so, although we had dropped to half-season tickets in the early 90’s.
i wish i could give Mike what i’m giving Jim this year. i can’t.
Mike’s and my passion for baseball remains a constant.
Jim will get his gifts soon. They will have some relevance to baseball.
Merry Christmas, Hileman.