In the Philadelphia suburbs of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, before the internet and mobile video and asking your child’s opinion, longer daylight hours just meant you wouldn’t see your kids for longer periods of time.
One spring, my parents drove me to a field and left me there.
In the Philadelphia suburbs of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, before the internet and mobile video and asking your child’s opinion, longer daylight hours just meant you wouldn’t see your kids for longer periods of time. Little Johnny or Susie might be playing in the creek by the waste management plant or laying pennies on SEPTA rail tracks or chatting with the Army vet who lived behind the Burger King. Most of us survived, so it worked.
But on one spring day, possibly because I kept finding my way home, my parents decided to pay a stranger to hurl an object at their son and shout weird commands like “hustle” and “run it out” and “stop all that crying” or what some call “baseball.”
I was eight years old, a third-grader at St. Luke’s Elementary in Glenside, concerned with nothing more than fitting in, keeping my head down, being cool. We were cloistered Catholic kids, our kingdom’s borders mapped by bicycle, our life experience limited to dog-eared magazines swiped from older brothers.
For boys that age, being identified as cool was a fickle title, day-to-day, bestowed by despots who might be overthrown at any moment. But aside from the latest Trapper Keeper, cool was earned on the court, on the field, in the game. Before we knew girls existed, we were proving ourselves to each other.
I remember the teams had colors instead of names, and the best of the Glenside Youth Athletic Club (GYAC) seemed assigned the darker shades — maroon, purple, black. I was on Team Green, the color of queasy, a collection of nearsighted asthmatics and future accountants. My desire wasn’t victory but survival without embarrassment. While others moved with purpose, I’d wander as if in a foreign train station.
“Excuse me, but if you could point me in the right … sorry, could I just … ”
I was tall for my age, which confounded coaches who associated height with athletic prowess. I’d contribute the most in-between innings, encouraging the other guys, slapping backs. If they did well, I wouldn’t be needed. And away games were always preferred, since people there would cheer when I made an error.
Most young pitchers lack any control, sending tiny projectiles slamming into shins, elbows and thighs. It got so bad that I tended to swing before they even threw the ball and I disagreed with umpires that it really was a strike, sir, a fine pitch, best I’d ever seen. Worse than the fear of being hit with a pitch was the knowledge that it would put me on base, and I’d have to be in the game longer.
The final insult came when I was taken out by my own teammate. I don’t know how it happened because we were both where we were supposed to be — him swinging his bat to warm up and me kneeling to study a daffodil. The next thing I remember was a severe ringing in my head. He claimed it was an accident, but with me out of the lineup it was the only game we actually won all year.
Most of us, the honest ones, do not pass by the freshly-cut fields of our youth with nostalgia. Our lives, after all, are friction, the once-smooth hands of our memory made rough by corns and calluses. A lot of us were scared then, sensed the potential for calamity, the promise of humiliation. We learned that if we practiced real hard and hoped for the best, bad things would still happen.
I don’t remember the pain of that season, but I do remember the relief when it was over. I started to see as a child what we’ve come to know now as adults — that we aren’t entitled to joy, that joy is often sudden and beautiful because it arrives after times of hardship. Joy is perspective, found for some in a home run and for others in just coming home.
Sean Carney is a writer and communications professional who grew up in Oreland and currently resides in South Philadelphia with his wife, Kellie, and Goldendoodle puppy, Sally. He does not play baseball anymore. His family still lives in Oreland, “and we love walking the Avenue whenever we can.”