My grandson is a sports nut. Depending on the season, he's always engrossed in football, basketball or baseball. Most kids enjoy sports best when they compete on an Xbox 360 or a Wii. But Dat - that's his name - is always happiest when he is out there taking his own cuts. Whatever the sport, he just loves to play.
Fortunately for him, he's no biological relation to me. If he were cursed with my genes, he would likely spend most of his time warming benches or playing "way outfield," as I did at his age. Still, nothing gives me more delight than watching him involved in a game, either organized or pick up, with a group of like-minded kids.
This past weekend, as you know, it was downright hot. It was also the first really beautiful weekend we've had in some time. So when I visited Dat's Allentown home on Saturday morning, he was anxiously waiting to play ball. His Little League and tournament teams had no practices until Sunday, so he collected a group of kids between 8 and 15 for a pickup game.
Off we went to a baseball field at Bucky Boyle Park, where Allentown city council member Michael Donovan was recently assaulted. Kids crammed into my little jeep, sitting on each other's laps. Asses, arms, legs and bats spiked out each window as well as the back of my jeep as we bounced along potholes for the fortunately short drive. Yes, I broke about 7,000 vehicle laws.
Arriving at Bucky Boyle, those kids still alive tumbled out and began to warm up as other young ballplayers arrived on bicycles and scooters.
Now, selection of two baseball teams in a pick up game is always a contentious matter that sometimes requires NATO intercession. There are also endless discussions to determine if stealing is allowed and whether "pitcher's poison" is in effect. Worse of all is the inevitable war over who bats first. Wisecracks, insults, trash talk and jawing are all a part of that. I settled that dispute like I always do. I throw a bat, somebody catches it, and kids from both teams go hand over hand until they reach the top. Winner's team bats first. Nobody gets killed that way.
We were just about to start when an ice cream truck jingled its way into the park. Bats and gloves dropped as kids ran for cones, Italian ice, snow cones and milkshakes. Fortunately, prices were reasonable.
And so things continued throughout a very hot day. At least every half hour, a different ice cream truck would roll by, selling more cones and milkshakes, as well as bottled water. Humble water soon became everyone's favorite.
Several games were played throughout the day, with teams changing as some kids left and others dropped by. I was most amazed by a young seven year old boy named Emilio. He came out of nowhere equipped with glove, a big rubber softball and a very dented T-Ball bat. It was prominently marked in a Magic Marker with this note, "This bat belongs to Emilio." Not only was he allowed to play, but kids purposely would drop balls to let Emilio get on base.
At the end of the day, one of these Allentown kids scrounged around and gave Emilio a real baseball with no nicks. My grandson also gave Emilio a bat, the very first real baseball bat Dat had ever used. Sleek and black, we call it "Midnight Thunder." I hated to say good-bye, but it's in very good hands.
Around 5:30 PM, five of us went straight from Bucky Boyle to Coca Cola Park. Thanks to my brother, I had lucked into five club level seats. Dat and three friends went from playing to watching a group of bigger kids play baseball. They ate more ice cream, too. They erupted when John Mayberry hit a solo homer that sparked an IronPigs rally late in the game.
That's the thing about kids. And baseball. It really brings out the best in us. Yet most of these Allentown kids play on no organized teams. Some families are transient. I think many are simply unable to afford the fees, as low as they are. That's a shame because these are mostly good kids. Some are very gifted athletically.
When I finally got home Saturday night, it was nearly midnight. Old and out of shape, I collapsed, not knowing if I'd ever get up again. Sleeping soundly, nothing would wake me. Nothing except the summons of a ringing phone. Like a Pavlovian dog, I answered a Sunday morning phone call telling me baseball practice was cancelled because of the heat. So when I limped into Dat's house later that morning, he was waiting with bat, ball and glove.
"Wouldn't you rather go to a movie?"
Nope. Off we went again. Now, I can't move.