Sporting Life

Field of Dreams

Rekindling an old love affair

By Tom Bryant

“The future ain’t what it used to be.” — Yogi Berra

The  baseball World Series had the New York Yankees battling their archrivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers. I remember it so well because the final game was played on my birthday, Oct. 7.

I was 11 years old and had just come out of a Little League baseball season where I had hit my first home run. Everyone knew I was gonna be a baseball player, because that’s what I told every solitary soul who would listen. My hero was Mickey Mantle.

My daddy played baseball in high school and won a scholarship to play at Clemson University. Along came World War II and canceled those plans. He came home in 1946, put his baseball plans on the back burner and proceeded to raise a family of four children. I was the first, and the story was that before Dad left for the Navy in ’41, he bought me a toy baseball bat, ball and glove with the hopes that I would be a chip off the old block. I was 3 months old and Mother often said that the baseball toys were my favorite, sort of like the way other kids had a security blanket.

Pinebluff, the little village where we lived, was the perfect place for a youngster who loved the grand old all-American sport. There were enough kids to start our own competing leagues. The boys on the west side of Highway 1, which bisected the town, comprised one league, and the players on the east side made up the other. Most times, when we played at our makeshift diamond behind Virgil Carpenter’s home, we didn’t have enough players for nine on each side, so we would choose up, and sometimes the opposing west team would have to lend players to the east or vice versa. This was our way of fielding teams, but later, along came our first formal structure of organized baseball — Little League.

I was hooked. Many game-day mornings, I would sit on the steps of our front porch, looking toward the clouds, hoping and praying that it wouldn’t rain and shut down the afternoon game.

I met kids from all over the county who loved the sport as much as I did, and later some of us would be on the same baseball team in high school. There was H.B. Ritter who played center field and could hit the ball a country mile. Sonny Smith caught and pitched and was an all-around talent. Jimmy Veasy played third; Marvin Lewis, shortstop; and Billy Marts, second base. They covered the infield like a blanket. Not much could get by that amazing trio. Oh, I played first base and helped where I could. Our coach was Bill Russell, one of the best. He knew the sport and had as much fun coaching as we did playing.

Our senior year we almost won the state championship, losing that game to Southern Pines. I can’t remember the score, but it was heartbreaking. The day after that evening game, Mother and I left for Brevard College to see if I made the cut and could become a student.

It was a melancholy time, my last year of high school and the last year I would ever play baseball for good old Aberdeen High. I was afraid my baseball career was ended but I lucked out, got into college, and was able to play baseball there.

So what got me on this memory road trip about the days of old when baseball was such a big part of my life? It was a character I met recently, at church actually, named Bill Berger. In the Air Force Bill flew those huge tankers that refuel jets in flight. After retiring, he did several years of contract work for the government, having great experiences along the way.

Bill and his lovely wife, Bonnie, live in Seven Lakes, and both are very active in our communities. As a matter of fact, Bill introduced me to our church’s men’s prayer breakfast that meets at Sizzlin’ Steak or Eggs restaurant two Tuesdays a month. It was at one of those gatherings when Bill told me that he and Bonnie were going out to Omaha to attend the NCAA Men’s College World Series. I was entranced.

Baseball was my favorite sport, but after I aged out and laid my glove down and watched a few pro games, I figured I was done. It wasn’t the same. Today’s pros get paid a gazillion dollars to play. They move from team to team, traded at the whim of the coaches or wherever the money is greatest. It was hard for me to develop a loyalty to a team when you have to keep a roster to identify the players. So I let it go and concentrated on other outdoor pursuits.

Flipping through TV channels a day or two after Bill told me about his impending trip to Omaha, I came upon the network featuring the college teams, and I was hooked. I watched most of the competitors and marveled at the young talent on the field. Not only was there plenty of ability, but the players actually looked as if they were having fun.

I remembered the letter to The Pilot that Bill penned after he and Bonnie got back from their road trip out west. “Omaha is a long drive, but the games are worth the effort: not expensive, great new stadium, clean city, good food, and most importantly, exciting games played by the same old rules we all employed years ago. It’s a treat and a trip back to our youth.”

So there you go. Next year, if I can persuade Linda, my bride, we’re gonna head out to Omaha to enjoy a couple of games played by youngsters the way it should be, for the fun of it.

I guess it really is like my favorite baseball coach of all time, Yogi Berra, said in his own special vernacular, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”  PS

Tom Bryant, a Southern Pines resident, is a lifelong outdoorsman and PineStraw’s Sporting Life columnist.

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