Sunday, April 2, is baseball's Opening Day, the real first day of spring.
Fourteen springs ago, my son’s eyes brightened when he saw his first baseball glove. He was about to start a sort of pre-school for baseball players, and he couldn’t contain himself as he buried his face in the smell of new leather. He was only 4 and had only tossed a ball in the backyard, but his very own glove … well, that was just too much.
“I love baseball,” he said, and I laughed.
He delighted in the game, as if it were born in him. He even had a pretty good arm for a 4-year-old. Maybe it was born in him.
My grandfather, an Arkansas sharecropper, played town ball in the dusty days of the Depression. He was a wiry boy in his late teens who left the fields at the end of the day to play on a loosely gathered team that traveled no farther than nearby towns on weekends. The games were attended by the local farmer’s daughters, and among them was one who’d become my grandmother.
It was my grandfather who took me to the first professional ballgame I ever saw, and I got a glimpse of the last golden days of Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris – all in separate states of decline in the summer of ’66 – as the Yankees lost to the California Angels in extra innings. I was only 8, but from where we sat just off the first-base line, I saw instantly I’d always love baseball, too.
My grandfather must have known. A few days later, he bought me my first real leather glove, a Willie McCovey model that was a little too big for my hand. We sat on his back porch where he coaxed and rubbed it with Neatsfoot oil, making the pocket as soft as outfield grass, while he told me stories about his baseball days in long-past Arkansas summers.
It wasn’t just baseball he missed, but his roots, too. He eventually left his farm to make a better life for his family by working in factories on the West Coast, but he couldn’t leave baseball. He’d spend Saturdays at ballparks and I still marvel at his uncanny ability to watch the Angels on TV while listening to a Dodger game in his transistor-radio earpiece.
A couple baseball seasons passed before I hit my first Little League home run. Not one of those five-error, inside-the-park bag-cleaners, but an honest-to-God-over-the-fence-not-under-it homer. They gave me the ball and life was good – until the next game when I struck out three times swinging for the fences. I wanted so badly to give my second-ever home-run ball to my granddad, a trade for what he’d given me.
Nine summers later, my grandfather died. My hand had long since grown into his glove and I was playing my first and only season of semi-pro ball – the last summer I’d ever play organized baseball.
In that twilight of dusty roads, night games in small towns and fresh-sprinkled grass, my life connected with my grandfather’s in a way I never really understood before. In the oiled, brown leather of my old Willie McCovey glove, my grandfather’s memories were preserved and my hand fit perfectly there.
I sat on the floor with my own son that day, coaxing and rubbing his new Ken Griffey Jr. mitt with Neatsfoot oil, telling him stories about games won and lost a long time ago. I told him, as simply as I could, that his great-grandfather was a baseball player, too.
Maybe he loves baseball in a different way than his dad. Like so many things a 4-year-old sees, it’s all a happy adventure without an ending.
And his Ken Griffey Jr. mitt was more than a tad big for his little hand, but in a few summers, softened with more Neatsfoot oil and memories, it fit as well as it should.
“Why do we rub oil on it, dad?” he asked me so long ago.
“So it will be soft,” I told him, “and so you’ll have it for a long time.”