Thursday, November 1, 2012

End of Days

The heat of summer was gone. It slipped away without much fanfare or notice. It drifted off sandy beaches and gravel-dirt ball diamonds without so much as a word. It stopped burning my face and neck. It even left pool decks and sidewalks behind. It was gone all right, just like that - another wrinkle in time, another wrinkle in the mirror.

Summer had slipped into fall almost overnight, and now fall is hanging by a thread. It is the end of days for me. Days I’ll never get back. Days when I became a kid again, a 12-year-old, to be exact, the best age there is in a life full of ages. An age unaffected by real life, draped in innocence and ignorance, maybe with a ding or two in the armor, but innocent nonetheless.

It took me 35-years to make the journey. Thirty-five years filled with good and bad, highs and the lows. All of that is behind me now. None of it matters. No award, no achievement, no death of a parent, nor loss of a job could make any difference.

It was a summer I know I’ll never get back, but it also was a summer I’ll never forget. A 90-day journey carved out of red clay infields, dandelion pastures and bubblegum-stained benches. A journey taken on base path roads with sunburned noses, bloody knees and dirt-filled socks.

I had a dozen kids take the journey with me. They had no idea I was really one of them; they just called me "Coach." My son was one of them too. He turned 12 in February, but he'd been growing like a weed since his birthday, three inches in 90 days, in fact. His voice had dropped an octave or two as well, and his body was starting to sprout muscles where kid parts once stood. This was it for him, his last, first chance at being a kid. It would be gone for him as well once the summer was over, and now he’ll have to wait, just like I did, for his second chance.

Maybe he’ll never get a second chance. Maybe this was the last chance for both of us. I think about that all the time. I was lucky enough to have a son who loves the same things as me. I could just as easily have missed out on my second childhood had that not have been the case. I might have cruised straight into middle age without one solitary thought about what I was missing, and that would have been a shame. 

I never would have felt the aches and pains of my 47-year-old body dissolve into dust with every cleat I put in the dirt. I wouldn’t have discovered my aching right arm suddenly becoming strong again as I reached back into time and space, gripping down hard on the laces of 1977, before slinging a fastball into 2012.

Age melted away like blacktop chewing gum every time the ball left my hand. I was transported back to a time when girls didn’t matter, I had no bills, my bicycle was my best friend and my heroes came in packs of 2.5” x 3.5” cardboard rectangles.

Baseball this summer, was, in a word, medicinal.

I was smart enough to put my real life on hold for 90-days. I tried hard to soak it all in as I trudged my way through a Michigan summer heat wave watching my team snaring liners and cracking out hits along the way.

My team loved to play and they were good. We played nearly 50 games this season, and we always had fun, even when we didn’t. It was magical and amazing. Time seemed to stand still as it zipped below our feet.

Before we knew it, it was over. Nothing ever ends the way it should, but on a ball diamond in Cooperstown, N.Y. during the second week of August, our season did. It was the perfect place for an imperfect ending. With one swing of the bat, the birthplace of baseball turned into a graveyard for lost youth as my childhood came crashing down. My son’s landed right along with it.

Neither one of us knew it at the time, but the moment his arm reared back and got ready to fire one, last, fateful fastball, we both would step into adulthood. Him for the first time, me, for the last.

The ball spun into a blur as he snapped it hard off his fingertips toward the plate. This was it, do or die for him ... for me ... for the team. It was a scoreless tie at the end of the game - a full-blown pitching duel in our biggest tournament of the year. If we lost, we were done. The boys in the dugout across the field looked no different than us. They were kids from Jersey, but they were carbon copies of my boys in the field - a bunch of nervous 12-year-olds on the verge of elimination.

The batter, who was littler than most and looked plenty scared, swung as hard as he could at the incoming pitch. He connected. The sound of the rawhide baseball hitting the sweetspot was unmistakable. The trajectory of a ball well hit was equally unmistakeable. I didn't have to watch, didn't really want to in fact, but still, I did. I watched the entire flight of the ball, tracing its arc against the blue August sky until it disappeared over the centerfield fence.

My son looked at me as the batter circled the bases. There were no tears in his eyes. He was just mad.

I knew right then and there it was over - over for him, and over for me. My son was no longer a kid - a kid would have cried, but he didn’t. 

I did.

My son will go on to play baseball at a higher level now, I'm sure of that. But girls soon will make a difference in his life, cars will be more important than bikes, and his cardboard heroes will most likely fade away in some shoebox in a closet. Maybe someday he’ll pull them out again and give them a look, relive the old days, just like I did this summer, maybe not. Who knows, maybe someday, he’ll even have his picture on one.

But me? I am done.

My arm is aching again and the wrinkles in the mirror have returned. My summer is done. My childhood is over once more  ... this time forever.

It is the end of days.