Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Father’s Day 2013

I’m taking a bit of a detour in this week’s blog.  For the moment, these musings will not be about old trails west… wagons… or stagecoaches… or any type of western vehicle for that matter.  This week’s blog is about baseball.  Yep, baseball.  Well sorta anyway.  Now, before you run off thinking that I’ve lost my focus and enthusiasm for all things western, hear me out.

The things that are important to each of us – you know, the stuff that makes us tick, the things that make us smile, get us excited, prop us up when we’re down – all of this comes from somewhere, right?  I mean, there’s a reason we become who we are.  In other words, those pieces of our past, those roads from yesterday, they all play a role in how we define ourselves while also shaping our perception of things.  That’s why this particular blog is focused on baseball, or more specifically, baseball and my dad.  Beyond the hundreds of horses (yep, he’s got it that bad) I estimate that my dad has owned during his life to date, many of my fondest, early memories center on baseball outings with him.  During my childhood days in the 1960’s, he both played with and coached a small semi-pro team in Heber Springs, Arkansas.  

Every so often when visiting my parents, I have a chance to see some of my old stomping grounds.  Almost without fail, I find myself reminiscing; driving by the old ball field and covered grandstand.  The stands have seating for as many as a couple hundred folks – just the right amount for a small southern town in the 1960’s.  Today, though, the aging wood frame structure leans in multiple directions, crippled from decades of exposure, use, and neglect.  It’s a symbol of sorts; an icon from a bygone era, bending under the weight of inattention and faltering from the kind of busyness that often distracts us all.  You know what I mean – those daily diversions that have a habit of rerouting priorities, convincing us that yet another project can wait.    
Stopping along the street running parallel with 3rd base and home plate, I close my eyes and peer backward through history.  For that moment, I’m 8 years old again.  I can hear the low-droning of countless conversations in the crowd.  The night air is cool but comfortable and the big floodlights spilling over the field bring an air of significance to the entire affair.  I catch the smell of fresh popcorn and can instantly picture myself tearing open and assembling a toy from a box of Cracker Jacks.  For a kid, it was a time of few worries and plenty of opportunity to just, well… be a kid.  It was a lot like the lyrics in a song by country singers, Joey and Rory.  The recollections in the tune, "Diamonds Are A Boy's Best Friend" take me back.  It’s a reminder of just how personal and impactful music can be, instantly transporting us to another time and place. 
Back to my daydream at the ballpark… I can still see myself with that coveted Cracker Jack toy.  Below me, my buddies were scurrying under the smooth-worn bleachers looking for loose change that had fallen from those seated above.  Suddenly, there was a sharp crack of a bat followed by the umpire’s cry of “Foul Ball!”  Instantly, I’m fully aware of the game, following the looks of the crowd, and off at a dead run as every one of these horsehides straying from the field is worth 10 cents when brought back to the club manager.  Now let me tell you; that kind of money was a big motivator to a child in those days.  Unlike today, it could buy a lot of valuable things for a kid with few other opportunities to earn some spendin’ cash.  Things like a soda pop – not from a cup or can – but, a glass bottle that was worth another 3 cents when returned!  It was just the kind of incentive that could get the entrepreneurial juices flowing in a young boy and, as a result, there was never a shortage of kids racing to be the first to find and bring back every foul and homerun ball. 

Ultimately, these local competitions were carry-overs from my dad’s love of the sport during his journey through high school, the Air Force, and college.  At Arkansas State Teacher’s College (now the University of Central Arkansas - UCA), dad was more than an honor student.  He was the guy to watch when he stepped up to bat.  Faded and yellowed newspaper clippings tell the stories… “Wallace Sneed slapped a home run…  Sneed collected five hits in five trips to the plate…  Sneed hit a double…  Wallace Sneed was the batting star going three for three… Sneed’s homer landed on top of the gymnasium…,”  and many other similar reports.  A few additional remnants of those days have also survived.  There is a records book from my dad’s games in the Air Force, a few old boxes – still sealed – with new old stock Rawlings baseballs inside.  I even have one of his original uniforms.  Beyond the handful of curled, chipped, and faded photos from a Kodak Brownie, there are 8mm movies as well.  I’ve probably seen those flickering films a hundred times.  The silent black and white frames are dusty, scratched and showered with colored streaks from light leaks in the wind-up camera.  The images are imperfect but they hold something I need.  Something I never get enough of – a connection to something deeper than myself, older than memories, and stronger than a seasoned stick of hickory.  They hold a reminder that life is about relationships and I have my own responsibilities to share with others the same way my dad did with me.  Every day is a chance to add to the roster of those experiences.

Dad played 3rd base.  He was a right handed player that batted left, was quick on base and was good at knocking the ball to open holes.  I always enjoyed the game and had a few moments in school but never achieved success on the diamond like dad.  Incredibly, nearly 60 years later, his collegiate batting average still holds the UCA record as the highest for a single season with a minimum of 50 at bats.  So it was that in 1956, as a sophomore, he batted .493 (33 hits in 67 at bats) and repeatedly scored accolades from area news sources.  I’m told that he was even scouted by the St. Louis Browns.  In those days, though, the road to the big leagues was lined with hard times and little money to survive on, let alone support a family with.  The game, while popular, had yet to mature with the sponsorship levels we’re accustomed to today.  So, while still enjoying the game, dad held to a different road.  One that gave me the absolute greatest mom in the world and a sister and brother I think the world of. 
When it comes to his accomplishments, you won’t hear much from dad.  Like a lot of men from his era, he’s vocal with some thoughts, yet quiet when it comes to talking about himself.  So, in honor of Father’s Day, I’ve written this piece about one of the most important people in my life.  Beyond filling the title role as my father, he gave me a strong work ethic, full childhood, and equally healthy sense of humor.  He was a disciplinarian that taught me to think before I act, stand up for what I believe in, and push myself to grow in areas where I’m weaker.   Today, I guess they’d call it, ‘instilling character.’  For me, it was just the way I grew up.  You worked hard at what you did and never went back on your word.  Reflecting on those times, I see how they helped prepare me for a world that plays hard ball with first impressions and is equally stingy with second chances.

So, while this blog is indeed about my appreciation for baseball – even more, it’s really about thanking my dad for all he’s done.  It’s also about life and the opportunity to make the most of the time each of us has been given.  Like the surviving wagons and western vehicles I write about, there is a day coming when each of us will leave a legacy; legacies that have the power to go beyond memories and change lives for the better.  Thank you, dad, for always pushing me.  For reminding me that challenges are opportunities and a little friendly competition can be just enough to help us out of a rut.  Thanks especially for teaching me to laugh – especially at myself.  That’s one trait that still guides and strengthens me.  Like most folks, there are stories I could tell.  Tales of runaway tractors, motorcycle accidents, bucking barrels, poison oak, thorn trees, wild colts, counting fingers, a horse called Sox and others like Mary Mackett, Sally, and Hank as well as a multitude of horse wrecks scattered throughout the pages of our lives.  (Yes, I know most won’t know what I’m talking about here – but, dad will.  In fact, I’ll bet he’s smiling right now). 
Back on the field, while other kids were hot-dogging with one-handed catches, sometimes with no family in the stands, my dad was always there.  There to watch, there to encourage, and there to remind me – “two hands” while fielding a baseball.  He wasn’t an armchair coach.  He had rounded those bases more times than I could count and the insight he offered was exactly what I needed.  We all need folks reminding us to play and live smart, not get too cocky or too discouraged, and take care of business in a competent, consistent way. 
Here’s wishing every father a special day this coming Sunday, June 16th.  And to my dad – thank you for helping me recognize the ‘diamonds’ of life.  From looking past the long winter hair of a horse to recognizing the value of water on a piece of property, your experience has driven me home many times.  Thanks again, dad, for so many great memories.  I love you and look forward to many more.  Life is truly a ball!