Ryan Keating is a wonderful friend and fellow avid sports fan, tennis player, and writer. Find his ruminations at http://ryankeatingsavidfandom.wordpress.com/
A Baseball Childhood
By Ryan Keating
Part One: The Never-ending Whiffle Ball World Series
As a child growing up I was obsessed with Mark McGwire. I collected over a hundred of his baseball cards, which I still have somewhere, in dusty albums. I remember the summer of 1992, when I was eight and my brother was thirteen, we thought we had discovered a deeply held secret by obtaining addresses of all the major league baseball stadiums. We could just write the players to get their autographs, sending them their baseball cards through the mail instead of standing by the dugout, elbows out, with all the other suckers pleading for a quick scribble. We wrote to a few and I heard back from McGwire and Nolan Ryan. I particularly liked Nolan Ryan, who was then 45 years-old and still hurling for the Rangers, for the simple reason that his last name was the same as my own. I was elated to receive autographs from these two players, though I don’t think any worked for my brother – probably because he wrote Jose Canseco, which is something I always give him a hard time for. It was then the hot debate in the neighborhood if these signatures were in fact real. I tried to prove to everyone that they were by smudging out a little bit of their autographs with water to prove that it was indeed pen and not a printout. However, then the debate turned to the conspiracy theory that maybe someone else signed it. I couldn’t win but I believed they were legitimate, so the autographs went up on the McGwire shrine in my bedroom. Nolan was an exception on that shrine.
I always wanted to play first base due to my obsession with McGwire. As the years passed I was glad that nobody ever put me there. In pee wee baseball when I was 5 and 6, I remember my coach saying he was going to throw me some home run balls so “Be ready.” Basically balls hit to the outfield were home runs and sometimes home runs came with any ball I hit because I was a speedy runner and I usually wouldn’t stop chugging until I crossed home plate. Until high school baseball it is easy for a fast kid to get out of pickles.
I always played up in competition as the years went by and there was nothing more scary than making that jump at age 12 to the professional diamond. A hit out of the infield was a major smash and reaching the catcher from the pitching mound was a laborious effort and throwing from shortstop to first base practically required a crow hop. It was the first time in my life where the game felt a little slow, and my interest sometimes waned. To me that just meant that I needed to be with the better kids. I could always play second base without a problem and steal bases with ease. Hitting on the big diamond meant getting singles by obsessively taking batting practice and learning to poke it right over the third baseman’s head. Needless to say I became a heavy pull hitter. I saw a niche and quite literally ran with it.
I ended up excelling at baseball. In high school I was a starter on the the varsity team as a freshman at a school with 2500 kids and at the end of high school, I received a full ride scholarship to play at a Division One school in University of California Santa Barbara. I attribute all my childhood success to having a few good coaches, escaping the atrocious ones, but mostly to my friends whom I played Wiffle ball with practically everyday of our childhood until high school. The good coaches were just parents who had calm demeanors, were positive and supportive, and could actually play the game. They could pitch to us, hit to us, kept the tempo of practice at a good pace, kept things light-hearted and fun; they were just generally good people. Having a few coaches that were horrible really made me appreciate the good ones. There’s nothing like a bad coach or a bad teacher in a kid’s life that can dramatically alter their path. I have never underestimated this as I became a coach and a teacher years later.
I grew up in a suburb about 45 minutes north of San Francisco in a little comfy city called Rohnert Park. Rohnert Park used to have a big sign by the freeway that said, “The Friendly City” and it really felt that way to me. There was no downtown and the city was alphabetized. I lived in G section and everything in G section started with a G. The park names, the pool names, the school names, and each section had all these amenities. There wasn’t a section for every letter of the alphabet, either. There was A-H, then J, L, M, R, S. It was convenient because if you ever didn’t know where a street was, or where someone lived, you could just go to the section and eventually find it. It was weird because, well it is just weird to have an alphabetized city, but another aspect was that it really segregated people.
The poor parts of town were A-C and if you ever knew someone from those areas you instantly thought they were different. I guess it’s no different than being from that side of the tracks or living on the west side or whatever but it seemed like it just made it easier to label people. Rohnert Park in the 80’s and 90’s was a hodgepodge of cheap housing which attracted all the families from the expensive San Francisco area. Upon reflection it is crazy to think about the amount of kids that were around. For example, every street in G section had kids running all over the place. Each street could field their own large team to play at the park in baseball, roller hockey, basketball, football, etc. and depending on the season I constantly played sports everyday of my childhood out in front in the street or at the park from about the ages of 5-16.
Some of my most memorable times at the park were when entire streets would play each other. Keep in mind this was only G-section, which probably had about 10 to 15 major streets, mainly long cul-de-sac courts. With these dead-end streets, the pavement was the playground. You could drive down thoroughfare streets and look into the courts and see kids running around playing whatever sport was deemed the sport of the day. Many other sections in RP were like this and if it sounds like a fairy tale, it’s because that’s really what it felt like. As an adult I now know that most places are not like this at all. I wonder how much of the way people raise kids these days has to do with the lack of safety and lack of communal neighborhoods, and how much of it was to with being isolated with electronics. Kids who don’t get a chance to spend childhood outside are at a loss. All this thrown together really makes me appreciate where I grew up and the era I grew up in.
As high school approached I was given access to a car, the internet became ubiquitous, and childhood officially ended. Rohnert Park is not at all like this anymore. It is simply too expensive to live there as families always go to where it is cheap. A lot of the schools have shut down or been demolished and everyone I ever knew is basically out of Rohnert Park. It seems like it’s lost that energy that existed when I was growing up. The economic changes in our country have impacted the city’s trajectory. Now it’s the sort of place with fewer up-and-coming families. Driving through, I see very few kids and what appears to be a very boring suburb with little to do. I suppose it may be that my childhood grass will always be greener.
10,000 hours of Wiffle Ball
Back to the wiffle ball. I had about 10 childhood friends who lived on Gladstone, my G street, but there were about six who I really bonded with and who were just as athletic as me. We played sports literally almost everyday, but wiffle ball was our choice probably 80% of the time. It was like the gods had erected the Rohnert Park streets and driveways of Gladstone Way to be the perfect dimensions for street whiffle ball. The pitching mound was in the middle of the street. We put a rubber pitching mound out there once on a hot summer day and it melted onto the street, the universe seeming to acknowledge the permanence of the mound’s purpose to us. That melted rectangle of rubber was there up until I was about 20 when they repaved the streets. I had a very precise and meticulous friend who had all the rubber bases and he knew the exact steps it took and the proper angles to put 1st, 3rd, 2nd and home at their precise spots. We had foul poles in fence posts that were also magically aligned and the pitching mound was about 50 feet away. The home run was into the driveway or yard that was across the street and it really was rather hard to hit it there, so a home run felt like a real accomplishment. We played pitcher’s hand so whenever the ball was hit if it got back to the pitcher before the runner was on a base they were out.
I don’t know how we ever regulated/umpired these games. I remember my dad always telling me that it sounded like we all hated each other out there as we were constantly getting into arguments which would escalate into shouting matches. A perfect strike was on the garage door knob which no one could argue and ties always go to the runner. I learned insanely good debating and negotiating skills during this time of my life and we were all hawks about it but somehow or another it worked out. Ultimately we were more interested in playing than arguing and I think we were ruled by the tit-for-tat/possession arrow on close calls. A call would go one way and then from that point on it would just go back and forth whenever we had close calls and we ALWAYS remembered who got the last close call.
On some nights when we outlasted the sun and the twilight would descend upon us, we would grab all of our family’s extension cords and garage workbench lights and put them all around our driveway field so we could play night baseball. This was truly an amazing feat and if I came upon this today I would bellow a big laugh. I can’t believe we did that and I’m sure our parents thought we were crazy, especially after playing for the previous 10 hours but sometimes we had a series that just couldn’t end at that moment.
Oh and that’s another thing, we never played single games. Everything was the World Series and had to be best-of-seven. Predictably, this led to many dramatic moments. I still remember my friends and I hitting home runs to win the World Series. For us, it may as well have been the real thing. We were all Kirk Gibson (except he was in an A’s uniform in our minds) circling the bases to win it all. The excitement and intensity was there and true. We had dog piles at home plate while our friends in the field would get embarrassed and mad and throw rocks at us, or worse, throw them out and about in frustration which cracked a few windows or hurt others over the years. One of my friends parents grounded him from playing wiffle ball once because he couldn’t control his temper when losing. I’m not saying I didn’t have my moments of rage. I remember being 8 and 9 years-old and crying when I struck out sometimes. Looking back, one of the life lessons was that you were instantly back up again, or half the time, we just started playing another World Series.
It was easy to relate to the fact that there’s always another chance that’s coming along and harder to dwell on what just happened. This idea of continuing on in the face of defeat has led me to wondrous things in life that don’t just relate to sports. I never feel too down and out about any current situation. Hell, I can always just do something different when the next opportunity comes up which is usually just the next day or the next moment in time. As a child I was forced to remain active and in the moment with so many different sports or another at-bat presenting itself on a daily basis that it seemed wasteful to take away from playing and maximizing fun when brooding over a negative memory.
We didn’t use the classic wiffle ball with holes only on one side as those were simply too hard to control and unrealistic to how an actual baseball flew through the air. It was impossible to throw a straight pitch with those. We used the wiffle ball with the holes all around it that acted more like a baseball. You could throw curves, changeups, sliders in pretty much exactly the same way as you could a normal baseball. All of my friends dabbled with those special pitches and blew out their arms in childhood at one point or another. Tommy John had nothing on us. I don’t know why I didn’t. For some reason, I never threw my hardest and relied more on accuracy, only throwing fastballs and changeups and my nasty Dennis Eckersley sidearm pitch. I couldn’t make a curveball work. We also all had our special bats. Arguments would rage when someone wouldn’t allow the other team to use their bat. This led to an insane obsession with making the perfect bat. We would cork classic wiffle ball bats to make them heavier, buy big thick red bats (the only bat officially banned on the street) or whatever we could come up with. In the end, other then the banned big barreled red bat they all did pretty much the same and we all just went back to the classic wiffle ball skinny yellow bat.
We would pretend to be teams and players as every kid does but we would also keep stats by marking on paper when we got hits. This obviously got a little out of control as most games were 2 on 2 or 3 on 3 and you’re up either one-half or one-third of the time in a nine inning game when there are only two or three of you. We eventually stopped keeping the smaller stats but all through the years we never forgot our career totals for grand slams. My friend Mike had an insane number of grand slams at about age 16 when we basically stopped. He was somewhere around 90 with my other friends in the 70s and I somewhere in the 50s. These were golden days. When more than a few of my friends went away on summer trips or at various times of the year I became insanely bored. I was not a kid who could be kept indoors for too long and playing at the park with other kids simply was not the same. I yearned to play wiffle ball every day of my life and that feeling went onto the official baseball field as well. Running around outside was all I wanted to do.
Stay tuned for Part Two in the upcoming week.
Read more of Ryan’s writing at http://ryankeatingsavidfandom.wordpress.com/