Opinion

Centre field to centre stage

Until I was five, I lived in Keswick, a bucolic small town near Lake Simcoe. After that, dad got a job in Toronto. Mom hated the summers in the city finding no respite from the heat in the un-air-conditioned little house or the treeless, postage stamp backyard.

That changed when I was eight. Not wanting to face another summer of mom’s discontent, dad started looking for a cottage in Keswick. He found one that the realtor euphemistically called a “fixer-upper” but normal people would call a dump. Never mind. Mom loved it and dad was happy because they were only asking a thousand dollars. It may have been cheap — my bedroom was made of plywood ­— but mom had her “place in the country.”

We soon discovered that a lot of young families had cottages at Pine Beach. None of the lots were fenced so we soon started all-day baseball games running horizontally across several back yards. I knew my future at eight. I was going to play centre field for the Yankees just like my idol Mickey Mantle. And somehow I knew Mickey was rooting for me. One afternoon, the first batter walloped a pitch deep to centre. This was my moment in the sun. How would I play it? A fancy behind the back snatch, a Willy Mays basket catch, maybe a nonchalant bare-handed grab? Then the unexpected happened. The ball missed my glove completely and hit me squarely in the mouth. The right fielder turned to me and said, “Next time try catching it with your glove not your face.”

Naturally my lip started to swell and I soon looked like an eight year-old Quasimodo. Worse, my sports reputation was ruined. Unbeknownst to me some of the kids at Pine Beach came from my neighbourhood in Toronto. Tattletales! After that, instead of being picked first I was always picked second last, just in front of the kid who held the bat like my sister.

The next year, we formed an intramural baseball league at school. Despite my obvious similarities to Mickey Mantle, no one recognized my talent. The teacher decided I should be the shortstop which met with immediate shouts of outrage from Pete who played second base. “But he stinks. He’s a doofus!” The teacher stood his ground. “Ray’s the shortstop.” By this time, I wanted to hide under the rosin bag.

The game started and the first batter slammed a hot ground ball right at me. I somehow snared it with my glove and, nervously, tried to throw it straight to first. And I did – except that I threw it ten feet ‘straight’ over the first baseman’s head. Pete was apoplectic. “Doofus!” The teacher tried to calm him down by saying that all of us got to play — no matter “how awful” we were. Strangely that didn’t make me feel any better.

The next batter walked and I began hoping that the third batter would hit it anywhere but to me. Pete moved over to the left. I stayed where I was not daring to move. But on the first pitch the batter punched a grounder just to my left catching Pete out of position. Both runners were off at the crack of the bat. I grabbed the ball, tagged the base runner, stepped on second and threw a perfect strike to get the batter at first.  A triple play! Everyone on our team applauded except Pete. I threw him a condescending look and said, “Now who’s the doofus?”

After that the guys stopped razzing me. But baseball was losing its allure. Once the Beatles hit the scene I decided playing rock’n’roll on centre stage would be more fun than playing baseball in centre field. Accordingly, I never did sign a contract with the Yankees. I can only hope that Mickey Mantle got over the disappointment.

Ray Smit is the author of The Trouble With Tapioca available at Amazon.com. His columns appear every other Thursday. You can contact him at Raymonsmit@shaw.ca

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