Baseball season has begun, and that's always an occasion of joy in my own psyche. I grew up loving baseball, and had some middling success at it, mostly before I was 15. Once the other guys hit puberty, and started throwing real curveballs, and fastballs too fast for me to get around on, I sighed, learned how to drink beer, and moved over to the softball diamond.
Since I've been a father to sons, I've taken a lot of joy from watching my sons play (I've enjoyed watching my daughters play, too, but none of them played baseball; or even softball. . .). All of my boys have been ballplayers, and among them, they've had at least as much success as I did in my day; and, what I'm happier about, they've come to love the game almost as much as I do. My three oldest boys all learned how to play catcher, because I told them that coaches love a kid who'll volunteer to catch (and I wasn't even a catcher; but I did coach for a couple years). I took 'em to see the local minor league team a few times every summer, and I'd point out to 'em how the catcher would subtly 'drag' a pitch into the strike zone, and sometimes get his pitcher a strike call that wasn't quite, uh, true. And the first time I saw one of my sons do that in a Little League game (it wasn't exactly even minor-league subtle, but it worked on the teenage ump who was calling the game that day), I burst out laughing, which is to say, busting my buttons with pride. . .
But that's not really the story I set out to tell you today. It's really just setting the stage for me to tell you about my friend Todd. . .
I first met Todd probably about 10 years or so ago, when his son and mine were on a Little League baseball team together. For most of that time, our relationship has been defined by our mutual fatherhood of athletically-inclined boys. 7M and Todd's son Joel were on baseball, basketball and football teams together, roughly from age 9 all the way through high school, and were often among the better players on the field for their respective teams. I blogged five years or so ago about a memorable weekend of baseball, during which their team won six games in two days, in 95-degree heat, winning the championship with a suicide squeeze play in the bottom of the final inning of the final game. Todd was the coach of that team (and I had some complimentary words regarding his, um, endowment afterward). When Joel and 7M were on the high school football team, Todd and I ended up sitting together for most of the games, all the way to the state finals their junior year (they lost), and another run to the state semifinals their senior year. And along the way, Todd and I built a really nice friendship. We had both grown up as jocks of one degree or another (his degree was a lot higher than mine, at least in terms of actual athletic success), and we enjoyed talking through the games with each other. When our sons graduated, our two families joined together for their open house.
Todd is a bear of a man, thick and muscular, and strong as an ox. You can easily imagine him as a football player, and he was. But his first love was baseball, and as a young man, he had more-than-modest success. When he was in high school, he was probably the second-best high-school ballplayer in Our Town. The best was a young man named John Smoltz. Todd played for the Catholic high school, and he and Smoltz were actually teammates during their freshman year. After that, though, young Mr. Smoltz moved to Waverly High across town, and he and Todd would play against each other a few times every season. As you might imagine, Smoltz cut quite a swath through the baseball world of Our Town, as all future major-leaguers do. But Todd held his own, and even hit a home run (or two?) off young Smoltz. In those days, John Smoltz was the kind of high-school pitcher that young ballplayers would congratulate themselves for even fouling a pitch back off him, to say nothing of actually putting the ball in play. Much less getting an actual hit; much less hitting a home run.
I don't know what happened with Todd's baseball career after high school, if he ever played college ball, or what. I don't think he ever got a pro contract. For at least the past 20 years or so, Todd's life has been the typical, ordinary grind of work and raising kids. And putting in his time on aluminum bleachers, sitting next to me, watching our kids play. . .
John Smoltz, on the other hand, did get a pro contract, and went on to a distinguished 21-year major-league career, virtually all with the Atlanta Braves. He was eight times an All-Star, pitched in five World Series (winning one), and won a Cy Young Award as the National League's best pitcher in 1996. Pretty rarefied air for a guy who grew up playing on the sandlots of Our Town. Heck, along with Magic Johnson, he's one of the most distinguished athletes to ever come from here. . .
Since our sons graduated from high school last spring, I've seen less of Todd, but we still enjoy the occasions when we bump into each other. Two summers ago, John Smoltz was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. A short time after that, I bumped into Todd, and he started reminiscing about when he and John Smoltz had been the two best ballplayers in Our Town, back in the day. So I stopped him, and said, "You know what this means, don't you?"
He looked at me. "What?"
"You hit a home run off a Hall of Famer."
He grinned, as big a grin as I've seen him grin (and he's got a pretty big smile, just normally). "I did, didn't I? How many guys can say that?"
Indeed, my friend. . . Not very many, indeed. . .