I was baseball crazy in the spring of 1966. The Braves of Milwaukee would soon begin their first season in Atlanta. Already, I knew their players, Felipe Alou, Hank Aaron, Rico Carty and Eddie Matthews. I had the season’s schedule cut out of the Atlanta newspaper with the first-ever Sunday double-header circled on the page. My father already had promised me the trip – I suspect just to keep me from badgering him further.
Pony League baseball would not begin until the summer, but I could hardly wait. The first warm days of April smelled of green grass, leather and saddle oil, and little else mattered to a boy convinced that one day he would become the next Mickey Mantle. Many an afternoon saw Kim Carter and me, hitting grounders to one another, our tools of the trade a broken 32-inch Louisville slugger given to me the previous year by Jefferson’s head baseball coach himself, Charlie White, for shagging foul balls over the grey wall and returning them to the umpire.
The bat had been nailed together. Our baseball, after it was torn at a seam, was enclosed in black duct tape. Great glove-men Kim and I were, knowing every rut and furrow in our yards, fielding all the bad hops and imagining how spectacular we might be when our day came and we played on a level field with true bounces.
On this spring day I stood alone in the front yard of our house, a lingering winter chill descending as the sun went behind the trees to the west. Assigned the task of sweeping the front yard of hickory nuts, I had instead decided to get rid of them in a more creative fashion. I tossed them up and hit them with the Louisville Slugger over the house and into the back yard. Occasionally I would miss and a nut would hit the front of the house – a double off the wall in my mind — but I was fairly proficient in launching homeruns over the house.
My revelry that afternoon was broken by the approach of an unfamiliar car ascending the driveway. The driver pulled to a stop and emerged from the car. I stared in horror. It was Coach Lofton, my eighth grade English teacher.
When he barely acknowledged me, but went straight to the front door, I knew I was in for trouble. I just didn’t know what. Was it the poem I wrote? My parody of “Sea Fever.”
I must go down to the baseball field,
To the lonely field and the sky.
And all I ask is a tall Pabst,
And a cup to drink it by.
Good grief, it was all in fun. He’d asked for us to write a poem, and I’d given him one that had meter and rhyme. But maybe it wasn’t the poem. Maybe it was something worse; maybe, Coach Lofton had found out some of us had smoked cigarettes on that camp out. He was in our house for a long time. Finally, my father came to the door and called me inside. He led me to the kitchen where Coach Lofton, my mother and he were conducting council.
Shuffling in, I approached my doom.
My father took a deep breath and said, “Son, tomorrow afternoon, you’re going to track practice.”
I looked up at my dad and then over at Coach Lofton who was studying me. Quickly, I lowered my gaze.
“I don’t want to run track,” I said. “I want to play baseball.”
“You can play baseball this summer,” Coach Lofton said. “You’ll be a better baseball player, a better athlete all the way around if you run track. We want all our athletes to run track.”
“I told Coach you would be there tomorrow,” my father said. “It’ll be good for you.”
A lot of things were “good for me,” distasteful and even painful things to me like broccoli and asparagus and Sunday School, things like studying algebra and writing poems. And now running – track.
The next afternoon, I was running track, my lungs burning as I was tested for the mile run and for the 880. Plodding along, my lungs a blaze, I wondered why things that are “good for you,” are so painful. And I thought, “wouldn’t I be better off running down pop flies? And taking batting practice? Maybe learning how to slide into second base?”
As I ran along, feeling punished, I questioned and groused. Those adults? Did they really know what was good for you? Or were they selling what was good for them?
All I knew then as I suffered through a season running 880’s and the mile relay was that I was not one stitch closer to being a baseball player. And two years later, when our high school disbanded the baseball team after my sophomore year, I felt that the adults really weren’t all that concerned about what was “good for me.”