By Tim Hayes
The community park where the Little League baseball games got played as I grew up featured dirt. A lot of dirt. Dirt in the infield, dirt in the outfield, dirt in the dugouts. Dirt in your shoes, dirt in your eyes, dirt in your hair.
When you walked into your kitchen after an afternoon or early evening of hanging around that baseball field (and could it really be called a “field,” with such a dearth of grass?), your mother told you to march straight into the basement, get those clothes and shoes off, and head upstairs to take a shower. We didn’t just clean this whole house to have you track clouds of dirt everywhere, like “Pig-Pen” in the Charlie Brown comics, you know.
But amid all that dirt came some of the happiest moments of childhood.
I may not know much, but I know myself, and I knew even then that when they passed out the athletic genes during DNA distribution, I must have been in the bathroom. As a result, I never tried out for Little League and never actually played a game on that field, other than when my friends would play pick-up.
At the same time, I wanted to be around during the games, and not just a sorry baseball wanna-be observer on the rickety bleachers along the first-base line. So instead, I helped with everything else.
To be in the dugouts with my friends on the various teams, I learned to keep score in the official books for the league. As the half-inning ended and the players came from the field back into the dugout to bat, I loved crying out, “Johnson! Lewis! Trumble! And Ryan in the hole!” to let them know the batting order for the next inning. Little snatches of power.
I didn’t ask for much, really. Somewhere in the dusty, musty records of that borough where we lived, my scorebooks may lie in wait to this very day, aching, burning to be discovered and revealed to a waiting public. Or they got unceremoniously thrown into the garbage 40-plus years ago. Who knows?
Eventually, they let me chalk the lines on the field. The apex of non-player status. The zenith of responsibility for someone who would never be able to smack a ball over that plywood fence out there. It might have looked like Otis the Drunk from “The Andy Griffith Show” put the line down between third and home on occasion, but this was Little League for God’s sake, not Yankee Stadium. Give me a break.
Then there was Mr. D., who umpired a lot of the games and who lived on my block. Mr. D. thought our little dirt field WAS Yankee Stadium, calling balls and strikes with such aplomb and an over-the-top flourish that you couldn’t help but enjoy. When Mr. D. umped a game, you were in for a show, baby.
Every time a pitcher threw one over the plate, or the batter swung and missed, the fireworks began. Mr. D., holding his chest protector in one hand and wearing his umpire’s facemask, would quickly pivot to his right, point his finger with his free hand, and vigorously shake his arm and right leg in the air about 10 times in unison, all the while shouting, “AIIIIIIEEEEEEEEE!!!!!”
This happened with every strike. The whole game. It was an awesome display. One I’d never witnessed before or since. Unique in the annals of umpdom.
As the years passed, you started to worry that the man, with his high-volume, high-energy strike calls might have a heart attack or something. Eventually he did, not on the field in his ump garb, but in his living room sitting in a recliner. It didn’t seem fair, somehow. Mr. D. deserved to go out with a bang, behind home plate, face down in that ubiquitous baseball dirt. Not enveloped in Naugahyde with his feet propped up and the TV blaring. He’d gotten cheated out of his big sendoff, the poor guy.
So as we wait for the Major League season to begin in some modified form, with its perfectly coiffed emerald sea in the outfield and the pristine uniforms, with a fresh brand-new ball introduced every time another might have been slightly scuffed, I’ll continue to think about that diamond in the dirt way back when, where we first learned to love the game.
And the spectacle of Mr. D. calling strikes.
Copyright 2020 Tim Hayes