by Herschel Cozine
With baseball season upon us it seemed a perfect time to share this short story by Herschel Cozine, first published in Paes Of Stories in 2011.
I was eleven years old. Living as I did in a small town with houses separated by acres of farmland, I had no birthday party. But my family was there. And cake and ice cream. And presents.
I picked up the small square package and unwrapped it in typical eleven year old fashion, ripping off the carefully prepared wrapping and tearing into the box. Inside was a baseball. White, with bright red stitches and the word “official” written in blue ink, it was a sight to behold. I had never seen or held a brand new baseball before. I marveled at the brightness of it. It was magical.
I lifted it from the box with a reverence usually reserved for precious works of art. Transfixed by the beauty of the ball, I turned it over in my hands, drinking in every little feature of it. Never had I seen anything so beautiful.
Baseball was my passion. And back in those days we had no Little League or organized sports. Looking back on it, we were fortunate. We played the game for the sheer fun of it, with no pressure from parents or coaches to win. We were kids, playing a kid’s game with boundless enthusiasm and determination, free from the responsibility of school work, chores and civilization itself. We played on the school grounds, vacant lots, front yards and even the cemetery parking lot. But never in all the times we played did we ever have a new ball. The ones we used were usually wrapped with black electrical tape. Some of the “newer” ones were scuffed beyond recognition, with stitches unraveling and a surface rougher than a New England country road.
I turned the shiny new ball over in my hand, reveling in the pristine beauty of it. My father, a mild mannered, silent man, beamed with pleasure as he watched my face.
“Well, son,” he said. “What are you going to do with it?”
I looked into his eyes. I had no ready answer for him. It seemed a sacrilege to use it in a real game. There was probably not another ball like it in the entire universe.
But baseballs were made to be hit with a bat. Their purpose was to provide kids like me with the tools necessary for a rousing game of sandlot baseball. It cried out to be used.
“I don’t know,” I stammered, never taking my eyes from the incredible beauty of the ball.
“Don’t you think it would be fun to play a game with your friends?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I guess so.” But I wasn’t sure. To think of this work of art being desecrated by a grass stain or smudge from being hit was more than I could stand.
That night, as I settled into bed, I put the baseball on the nightstand. It would be the first thing I saw in the morning. Gently, as if it would break if I handled it too roughly, I positioned it so the smooth unblemished surface, free of writing, faced me. The brilliant white, made even whiter by the bright red stitches, made my eyes water. I couldn’t stop looking at it. Nothing in the world could be more beautiful than a new baseball.
The next morning was a Saturday. I woke to a sunny morning, yawned loudly and stretched. As I opened my eyes, I caught sight of the new baseball sitting on the nightstand. I reached over and picked it up, savoring the smooth feeling of the white horsehide and the delicate red stitches. I examined the stitches closely. 108 of them, each perfectly formed; an endless red road on a field of white.
Dressing quickly in my cutoffs and tee shirt, I stuffed the ball in my pocket and went downstairs to breakfast. I poured a few cornflakes in a bowl, smothered them with sugar and milk, and wolfed them down.
I started for the door, but my mother stopped me before I could get there.
“Dirty dishes in the sink,” she said.
I returned to the table, took the bowl and sent it crashing into the sink. Mother winced, but said nothing. Once again I headed for the door.
“Where are you going?” she asked. It was a ritual question. She knew the routine as well as I did. It was Saturday. Time for baseball.
“Be back by noon. For lunch,” she called after me as I hurried down the front steps and climbed on my Schwinn. I waved in response. I pedaled hard, sending the bike whizzing by the fields of corn, the open pasture where cows and sheep grazed side by side in the morning sun. My baseball glove swung back and forth on the handlebars. A Pee Wee Reese model, worn to the point where stuffing was oozing out of the thumb, it was the only glove I ever owned. Like baseballs, gloves were never new.
Most of the kids were already there, gathered around the garbage can lid that served as home plate in Newby Phillip’s back yard. It wasn’t really a back yard; more of a clearing between the house and the woods, big enough for a ball field if you were eleven years old and could not hit a ball farther than seventy-five feet. A tree stump stood in the middle of the yard, close enough geographically to the middle of the infield to be considered second base. A rock the size of a dinner plate was used as first base. A jacket, cardboard box, used tire or any bit of debris that was available on a given day became third base. The infield itself was pock marked with gopher holes and tufts of grass that made fielding a ground ball a challenge that would tax the skill of a major leaguer. But we didn’t mind. After all, this was baseball, and there was nothing more important than that.
“Hey! Here’s Cappy,” one of the kids yelled as he saw me approaching. Then, spotting the ball in my hand he let out a whoop.
“Let me see it,” he said, reaching for the ball. I pulled it away and held it behind my back.
The others joined in, jostling one another to get a look at the ball. Finally I held it out for them to see.
“Wow!” Porky said. He took the ball from me and turned it over in his hand, his eyes reflecting a reverence as he studied the jewel.
The ball was passed from one to the other, with each adding a comment of his own.
“Jeez! Awesome! Allriigghht!”
I took the ball back, examining it for any sign of damage. It seemed to have survived the ordeal none the worse for wear.
“Let’s play ball,” Shep yelled, looking at me expectantly. I made no move.
“Well,” he said. “Are we goin’ to play ball or stand around all day?”
The others started for the field where they would choose up sides. I was usually one of the last to be selected as I had mediocre fielding skills and could not hit a ball out of the infield. But what I lacked in ability I more than made up for in enthusiasm. And today, with a new baseball in my hands, I was the center of attention.
The sides being chosen, a captain being named, the ritual toss of the bat, hand over hand to determine who would be the first to bat ended with Mike winning.
The kids took to the field. Hippo, the pitcher, turned to me. “Where’s the ball?”
I stood back in horror. The ball? He wanted to use my new ball? My mind reeled at the thought.
“Didn’t you bring one?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said. “But it’s all beat up. Let’s use yours.”
“No,” I said.
The hue and cry that arose from the throats of the others made me blush with shame. I had suddenly gone from being the most popular kid in the crowd to a craven villain, hoarding treasure while others went without.
“C’mon, Cappy,” one of them said. “What’s the big deal? You can’t eat the damn thing. Let’s go!”
Shamed and beaten into submission by the outrage of the others, I relented. Slowly, with a reluctance that was palpable I handed the ball to Hippo. He turned it over admiringly, then slammed it into his glove and headed for the mound. With a heavy heart I made my way to right field, hoping against hope that every batter would strike out.
Biff Goren was the first batter. He was arguably the best player of all, certainly the best hitter. Standing a good six inches taller than any of the others, he could hit a ball to the outfield on the fly, even reaching the trees on occasion. And, I thought glumly, he seldom struck out.
Hippo stared toward home plate, looking for a sign from his catcher. The fact that he could only throw one pitch—a “fast” ball—was of no consequence. Signals were as much a part of our game as they were in the pros.
Hippo pumped his arms in the exaggerated windup so popular in those days. He lifted his leg almost to his shoulder, reared back and threw. My ball, blindingly white in the morning sun, floated toward home plate in a lazy rainbow.
Biff swung from his heels, hitting the ball with a solid thwack, sending it skyward toward right field where I stood. The brilliant white ball arced in the blue sky, climbing higher and higher until it was a black dot.
Physicists will tell you that a new baseball will travel farther than one with a scuffed surface because of a lower air resistance, hardness, and other scientific reasons. I didn’t know or care about aerodynamics. All I knew at the time was that I had never seen a ball hit so high or so far in all my days of playing ball. I stood mesmerized for what seemed an eternity as I watched the flight of the ball. Then I turned my back to the infield, put my head down, and ran.
Biff was rounding first and headed for second. I didn’t care about that. As far as I was concerned he could get a home run. My first and only concern at the moment was to catch up to the ball before it went into the woods where it would be hopelessly lost. Balls hit into the woods were seldom found until the winter when the foliage and weeds died off for the year. The thought of my new baseball lying in the weeds and dirt, being exposed to the rains and scorching sun for the rest of the summer, was more than I could bear. My heart was racing and I was unaware of my laboring breath as I ran toward the woods.
I caught up to the ball as it rolled into a small copse of trees beyond right field. I picked it up, turned it over in my hand, and looked at it.
It was scuffed! A grass stain covered part of the “Official” writing. There was a smudge of dirt as well as a black mark where the bat had made contact. I wanted to cry.
“Throw it, Cappy!” I heard someone shout. “He’s going home! Throw it!”
I held back tears as I rubbed the ball on my pants, hoping to restore it to its pre-game condition.
“Throw it, you dummy!” Wilson shouted from second base.
Finally my baseball instincts took over and I threw the ball back to the infield. By this time Biff had scored and was receiving back pats from his teammates while Hippo stood on the mound scowling at me accusingly. I didn’t care. Nothing anyone could do or say could be any worse than what had already happened.
I barely recall the rest of the game. For the first time in my life, I wanted a game to end. When it finally did, with the other team winning 16-2, I retrieved my baseball and went home.
In the privacy of my bedroom I took the ball from my pocket and studied it. It was horrible! Grass stains, scuff marks, smudges and abrasions marred the surface. A few stitches were frayed, and the name “Rawlings” was barely legible. I cleaned it off as best I could with a wet rag, and covered some of the smudges with white shoe polish. But it was hopeless. My baseball—my beautiful, precious baseball—was forever ruined. I consoled myself with the knowledge that it had died a noble death, serving the purpose for which it was made. But even that was not enough to hold back the tears.
By the end of the week I had come to grips with my loss. The damage was done, and that was that. There was nothing left to do except use it for our games. The following Saturday, with a shrug and a sigh of resignation, I tossed the ball to Hippo and trotted out to right field.
By the end of the summer, my prized possession was scuffed, worn and indistinguishable from those we had used in the past. That, I discovered, was as it should be. Baseballs, after all, are meant to be abused. It’s the nature of the game. I discovered, too, much later in life, that new baseballs were not the rarity I had thought them to be. And though we never again had the luxury of using a new baseball, it made little difference. It was still the same game with all the joys that went with it: the euphoria of having your bat meet the ball with a solid thwack; the thrill of having the ball settle in your glove after a long run in the outfield; the headlong slide into third base, beating the tag, spitting dirt and rubbing the “strawberry” on your knee. And the final thrill as you cross home plate with the winning run. There is nothing to compare.
Baseballs are new for only a few moments. Baseball is forever.
You can find more of Herschel’s short stories, Easter, and mystery short stories, in KRL’s Terrific Tales section.