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Last year I finished my first novel. The book is about being young and loving baseball. It’s about growing up in an era of social anarchy. It’s about the summer of 68 and a safe haven for a group of Black kids, called “Washington Playground.”
Remember the days when baseball was a game played by kids who longed to be in the big leagues? There were no umpires barking balls and strikes. Actually, the kid playing catcher called the balls and strikes. Somehow it added a measure of integrity to the game. If there was a close play at first, you’d hear, “the tie goes to the runner.” A play too close to call went to one team the first time. The next close play went to the other team. These rules were universal around the neighborhoods. It didn’t matter whether it was a rich neighborhood or a poor neighborhood, the rules stood. Most of the time we didn’t even have real bases. We’d simply use a piece of cardboard or anything that could withstand the summer breeze.
The game had very little, if any, stress. If there weren’t enough players to cover all the positions in the field, we’d close right field until someone showed up. Problem solved. There was never a good reason to spoil the game. Before the game, we’d warm up by playing three flies up. Once the game started, the summer songs of swinging wooden bats and sliding blue jeans, high top sneakers rounding first base and perpetual arm motion and chattering mouths filled the city with its most glorious melody.
Every once in a while a player could be caught daydreaming. My favorite daydream was picturing myself playing centerfield at Candlestick Park. The crowds chanting and yelling my name felt and sounded all too real. Like my Momma waking me up for school, the crack of the next bat connecting with the ball cruelly brought me back to Washington Playground. Pick-up baseball at our own private "Stick" made all the problems of the chaotic outside world go away. We knew the problems of the world would be real again, but they would have to wait for our game to end.
My dream of playing in the big leagues has long since faded away. In moments of nostalgic bliss, memories of Washington Playground, Candlestick Park, and Willie Mays still dance across my mind. There are new worlds to conquer and new friends, friends who weren’t there and who just might believe the stories of my heroics at Washington Playground. One story I tell is about hitting a monster home run. The ball went so far that I was crossing home plate before the left fielder caught up with it. So, what if I forget to mention the part about the dog running onto the field and running away with the ball? Every legendary story sounds better leaving out something. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
In school, my best friend was a guy named Mark Thomas. Mark was a White kid, whose father was our school’s dean of boys and athletic director. His house was like my second home. Often we’d sit in his bedroom and listen to the music of Tower of Power and the Temptations on his stereo. On his wall was a poster of Bill Buckner. In fact, Mark wore Buckner’s number on his baseball jersey. Buckner and his brothers were local heroes. The Buckner boys were from the Vallejo-Napa area of California. Bill was playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Like Buckner, Mark was fast on the bases.
Later in 1977, after a couple years at Solano Junior College, I headed to Boise State University, in Boise, Idaho on a football scholarship. Mark ended up at Chico State University in California.
Upon completing my college and falling short of a dream of playing in the NFL, I was singing at the church I attended in Boise. After the service, I was selling my latest cassette, when a man walked up to the table and said he enjoyed my music. I look at him and asked, “Where are you from?”
He said, “Boston”.
I replied, “Hey I know you. You’re Bill Buckner. We grew up in the same part of California.” There I was standing in front of a man who had been where most guys like me had only dreamed of being. He had been in the big leagues for twenty-two years!
Over the years, besides going to the same church, Bill and I have golfed a few times. He always has a better score, but he can’t out drive me. Once, when he was coaching with the Chicago White Sox, I caught up with him in Seattle. They were playing a three-game series with The Mariners. Bill made arrangements for us to play golf at a country club after one of the games. To our surprise, we were the only ones on the course. Again, I showed power, and he produced a better scorecard.
Because he was a busy man, I tried to stay out of his way. However, last summer I got the treat of a lifetime. The next best thing to going to the big leagues is knowing someone who has been there. I was on the golf course when my cell phone rang. It was Bill, and he wanted to know if I’d like to hit nine holes with him. The time he wanted to play gave me just enough time to finish my current round and get across town to the course he wanted to play on.
I could tell there was something different about this early evening summer day of golf. The course was quiet and still, except for our chatter and my perpetual searching for my ball. Of course, I out drove him and he outscored me. Watching his major league swing was always fun. He did it so smooth, and it appeared to be without effort. I imagine swinging a bat for twenty-two years in the majors could make a guy’s swing appear automatic. He once told me that the golf swing and a major league baseball swing was the same swing but on a different plane. There was one hole where our balls were almost equal in distance. In fact, he may have been a foot or so in front of me. So I kindly reminded him that I used a three-wood, while he hit a driver.
“You must get all that power from that big butt,” he yelled.
“Until I get a real golf game, power be fun,” I smiled and replied.
On the last hole, I watched Bill go from two under to two over with the help of a shot out-of-bounds and the bunker sitting in front of the green. He took it in stride, and we jumped into his golf cart and headed to his truck. To my surprise, Bill wasn’t in a hurry. He drove his golf cart onto the trailer. I stood on one side of his pick-up with my foot on the bumper, and he was on the other side. I decided to take advantage of the situation and ask him questions I was dying to hear the answers to. I asked him what was it like to play in the major leagues? The detailed answer I got was a dream for a wanna-be major leaguer.
It has long been said that the eye is a window to the soul. If this is true, then I saw Bill Buckner’s soul. Listening to him talk baseball brought a glow to his face and a sparkle to his eyes. The war-torn man was again a boy playing baseball.
I think Bill could tell that I needed to hear his stories. More importantly, I think he needed to tell it. He talked about having a heart for the game. He mentioned that real big leaguers never wanted to sit the bench and watch other ballplayers. In the old days, most of the time the trainer didn’t know who was hurt because a real big leaguer played with pains. Listening to him made me realize how a lot of today’s ballplayers needed to hear former big leaguers like Buckner talk about the game. In my opinion, maybe they wouldn’t be such crybabies.
As the sun went down Bill talked about my favorite player, Willie "The Say Hey Kid" Mays. A few years ago, he ran into Mays as they were shooting a commercial with Michael Jordan. My mouth fell open even wider. Not only had he played against Mays, he had played a round of golf with Jordan. Bill told me about some of the great baseball players he had met during his playing days, and some of the great retired players he met along the way. I was on every word like a hanging curveball. The stories were funny, sad, and some even had social ramifications.
There were a couple of things I wanted to ask before it got too late. I had read someplace that it was Bill trying to climb the fence to get Aaron’s historic home run. “ Hey what would you have done with Hank Aaron’s 715th home run, had you got it?”
He smiled and said, “I would have given it to him.”
In my younger years, I remembered watching Aaron’s home run on television. I remember reading about the threats Aaron received. I remember the tears that came to my young eyes.
Bill mentioned how wrong it was that Aaron had to go through, what he went through. “I think it has affected him to this day,” he said.
“Yeah, the man should be making tons of money in endorsements,” I replied. “He’s the greatest home run hitter of all time.” Of course, I was now adding my two cents in. “Just like Babe Ruth, he did it without any supplements legal or ill-legal.” I realized I was on a soapbox talking and not listening. I closed my mouth so Buckner could continue.
As Bill talked about fun times in the dugouts, card games, and flying place to place, I thought about his National League Batting title in 1980, his 1,208 runs batted in and his 2,715 hits. I knew enough about baseball to know 3,000 hits was almost a sure ticket into the Baseball Hall of Fame. I asked him, “Man, do you know how close you were to that magic number?” Of course he did; it was a silly question.
“I was a lot closer than most people remember,” he replied. He explains to me one of his proudest achievements. “I went back to Boston and the fans there accepted me back and I earned a spot on the team. Despite the ankle injury and the memory of Mookie Wilson’s ground ball, the fans wanted me back. When the season started I was hitting great. I could see every pitch.”
Sadly, while he earned a spot on the team, an early-season injury kept Bill from getting the hits he needed. Because of his hitting abilities, there is no doubt in my mind he would have made it to the magic 3,000 hits. According to The Random House Pro Baseball Dictionary Bill was only 89 games from cracking the top 25 of all-time in most games played. His 2,715 hits put him only 285 hit s away from 3,000 and only 115 hits away from the top 25 hitters of all-time.
A passing thought occurred to me, in the five years I’d known Bill, this was the first time Mookie Wilson’s ground ball had ever come up in conversation. I could tell he was at peace with the past. It was a paragraph in a twenty-two-chapter novel. Any real baseball fan would gladly accept his one unfortunate moment, in exchange for a chance to play twenty-two years in the big leagues. I would have in a heartbeat.
Just like waking up after daydreaming in centerfield at Washington playground, the realization of darkness brought us back to reality and made us aware that it was time to go home. I let Bill know how much of a treat listening to his stories had been for me. While he had again beaten me in golf, this time I would be the winner for a long time to come. As I drove away I called my wife on my cell phone. She wanted to know why I sounded like an excited kid. I was silent for a second. Then I told her I had seen the soul of a big leaguer.