Like most young boys in the 1950s, baseball was my first sports love.
Many summer days consisted of grabbing my mitt and bat, climbing aboard my bike, and peddling about a half-mile from our farmhouse in the Center Grove area to the subdivision of Mount Pleasant. There, where necessity mothered invention, my friends and I literally carved a diamond out of the rough of a vacant lot.
It was perfectly imperfect … both center and right fields were up a hill. Foul balls down the left-field line (and, really, there was no left-field line, only an idea of where it ought to be) endangered the Smith house (though, to my recollection, we never broke a window). The “infield” was a bad bounce waiting to happen. The outfield was where the tall weeds grew until someone’s father would get out a lawn mower about once every three weeks and take them down.
Home plate and the bases were slabs of plywood. We called our own balls and strikes and outs. Of course, that did lead to the occasional argument. There were no batting gloves or helmets or catcher’s equipment. We improvised every manner of repair on broken bats and battered baseballs—electrician’s tape “borrowed” from someone’s garage extended the life of both.
But mostly we just played and played and played, until hunger and thirst sent us home.
Evenings were spent on the back porch with my father, Charlie. With a cold Stroh’s beer in his hand, he would dial up the Chicago White Sox and, while the crickets chirped and the lightning bugs danced, we would listen through the static to the exploits of Luis Aparacio, Nellie Fox, Minnie Minoso and the men of Manager Al Lopez.
Sure, I played organized ball—Little League and then Babe Ruth. I was a flame-throwing left-hander with absolutely no control. Later in life, I would joke that I would strike out 10 batters, but also walk 10 and hit 10. But it was a career that ended abruptly when I dove to the dirt to avoid a pitch that I was sure was going to hit me flush in the temple, only to hear the umpire shout, “Strike.”
Hello, curve ball. Goodbye, baseball.
To this day, my all-time favorite player is Willie Mays. And a particular childhood thrill was the Sunday my dad loaded the family into the station wagon and we made the trip to Cincinnati to see the (then) Redlegs host Willie’s Giants for a doubleheader. Willie had a huge day at the plate and in the field, going up that elevated terrace in Crosley Field to make a sensational catch.
Man, I thought those days would never end. But they did. And I’m not sure why.
These days, I don’t give baseball—Major League Baseball—much of a thought. I kind of follow the Reds and the Cubs, but not too much. Without looking, I couldn’t tell you who the division leaders are. The only box score I look at regularly is that of the Washington Nationals, and that’s to check on Brownsburg’s Drew Storen, WNDE radio host Mark Patrick’s son. (Storen, with 19 saves and an ERA just about 2.90, is having an outstanding year by the way.)
The All-Star Game is coming up, but I won’t watch. In fact, I likely won’t watch any baseball until the World Series and then, only if it doesn’t interfere with football.
The exception is the occasional trip to Victory Field, home to our Triple A Indians. Sixteen years after it opened, The Vic remains a gem, providing the quintessential baseball experience. Just a few nights ago, I gathered with friends in the right-field seats and watched the sun go down and the lights come up and the families enjoying the outfield berm. It was a simply idyllic evening, even if the Tribe (which otherwise is having a good season competitively) lost.
Over a four-game homestand, the Indians drew more than 45,000 fans and they’re on pace to hit nearly 600,000 for the season. Notwithstanding our desire to become “big-league” in so many ways, the Indians and Victory Field—under the painstaking care and guidance of Max Schumacher and Cal Burleson—prove that bigger doesn’t mean better.
Yes, I’ve lost that lovin’ feeling for big-league baseball. But an evening or a matinee at Victory Field sure helps rekindle the romance for the game.•
Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.