It’s 6:00 pm on a warm summer evening in Grandville, Michigan, and I’m running a little late. I know what time it is because I can hear the bells of St. Pius church ringing their normal tune that happens every night at exactly 6. You can always count on the bells of St. Pius. Right on time. I figure I’m almost to the field, and it’s going to be okay as long as the National Anthem doesn’t start. And then I hear the crackle of the loudspeakers.
I stop my fast walk and remember to take off my hat. This is Grandville. We stop and stand respectfully for the National Anthem in this town. I might be a little late, but I can’t keep going. As the Anthem plays, I can feel a little drip of sweat running down my brow, and another one down my back. It’s a warm, late June evening. The sun is still high in the sky because the days are long this time of year. It’s a little humid, which is a preview of the hotter, muggier weather that will be here soon once the calendar turns over to July. It’s a perfect night for baseball.
When the Anthem is over, I put my hat back on and start to hustle over to field two. The field is in the middle of the complex, so I have to hurry. I run past the concession stand, and narrowly miss a 7 year old with a handful of change waiting to buy a pack of Sour Patch Kids. I can see the field now, and I can see my chair, waiting for my arrival.
It’s an old bag camp chair, kind of an olive green, sitting next to field two, situated halfway between 3rd base and the home run fence, down the left field line. My son Jim has put it out there for me, because he knows I don’t like sitting in the stands with all the “little league parents.” I like watching the game by myself, where I can pay attention to things like strategy and coaching, and not have to hear someone complaining that the coach isn’t playing their kid enough, or that the umpires are unfair, or listen to parents trying to decide who brings the snack to the next game. Where I sit, it’s just me, enjoying the game. And the reason I’m here, the reason why I had to get here in time to see the first batter, is coming up to the plate just as I sit down in the bag chair.
An 11 year old boy approaches the plate, swinging a bat and checking out the pitcher. He is a little small for his age, with hair that’s a little long, the blonde ends sticking out from a little bit of a too big batting helmet. He looks like his mom, but through the eyes he looks like my son. He is my grandson, and he is the reason why, on a warm June evening, I’m sitting in a bag chair. As I take a swig of a water that my son put in the cup holder, I watch as the boy gets in the left handed batters box. He looks a lot like my daughter in law Kathy, and he acts a lot like my son, but the fact that he is a lefty? That’s all me. I’m the only lefty in the family, so he gets that from me. I watch him set up on the port side of the plate with a certain amount of pride, like I had anything to do with it. He’s just got some of my genes, nothing more to it than that.
He bats lead off for basically two reasons: he is fast and he is left handed. My family has a tendency to be a lumbering lot, but my grandson Joey has got some wheels, a trait he gets from his track star mother. Kathy was fast enough to set a few school records back in high school, and Joey has her speed. The other reason he leads off is most pitchers in little league haven’t seen many left handed batters, and they have a hard time finding the strike zone against someone who is standing on the wrong side of the plate. And if you walk Joey, you might as well put him on third base, because with his speed and aggressive base running, he’s going to get over there eventually. He is a true joy to watch play. I might be a little biased on that one. Okay, maybe I’m a lot biased on that one.
As Joey gets in the batters box, I notice the pitcher for the first time. He’s a big kid, who looks like he throws pretty hard. That suspicion is confirmed with the first pitch, an outside fastball that hits the catchers mitt with a loud POP! Whoa. The kid can bring it. But that’s ball one, and Joey isn’t intimidated. He stands in and waits for the second pitch. The big kid overcompensates for the first pitch, and brings this one inside, high and tight. Joey has taken a pitch or two for the team, getting hit to get on base, but self preservation wins out on this pitch, and he spins out of the way of the hissing ball. Ball two.
Joey stands up straight, and lets out a long breath of air while taking his hand and fluttering it near his heart, feigning fear and surprise. The crowd laughs at this, and he smiles and gets back in there. He may look like my daughter in law, but that sense of humor, the inner ham bone, is my son. He is a goof like his old man.
The next pitch comes in straight and true. It splits the heart of the plate, and the umpire’s right hand goes up. Strike one. I groan a little. That was a hittable pitch. But it’s ok, he’s still ahead in the count. I hear someone in the crowd yell,”That’s okay, Joey, wudn you, wudn you, kid!.” Which is midwestern little league chatter speak for,”That’s okay, Joey, that pitch wasn’t for you.” In other words, that pitch wasn’t any good for you, wait for a better one. Which, most times, is not true, but they’re trying to be encouraging. Which, for little league parents, is a good thing.
“Wudn you” is not to be confused with “Atta you” which is midwestern little league chatter speak for “Atta boy.” You yell this after somebody makes a good play. I’m not sure why. I don’t make up the rules of chatter.
The big kid pitcher winds up and fires in the next pitch, which tails inside, crowding my grandson, but he stays in there. He swings the bat hard, drawing his hands inside the ball and whipping the bat head through the strike zone, where it connects hard with a loud crack. He is a little late on the swing, but he hits it hard, and the ball takes off on a line towards left center field. The centerfielder is pulled over towards right field, because Joey’s a lefty, and the ball skips safely out in the grass, heading with great speed towards the outfield fence.
I watch the ball for a split second as it lands in the outfield grass, and then my attention is pulled back to my grandson. He is already halfway to first base, and he is FLYING. The first base coach is windmilling his arm and yelling “Go two! Go two!” But he didn’t have to bother. I know my grandson, and he was thinking double as soon as he hit the ball. Joey runs hard towards first, but he knows enough about base running that he has to arc his run a little so he can hit the bag at full speed and keep running hard to second. Most kids his age run through the bag at first and then take a hard left turn to go to second, but Joey’s daddy has taught him well. He hits the bag at full speed and sprints towards second base.
His run arcs towards the second baseman, because he wants to hit second base at full speed also. It hasn’t rained much lately, and little clouds of dust fly up from his shoes as he runs. As he approaches second base his coach shouts out to him,”Round it! Round it.” Good coaching. If Joey hits the bag at full speed and looks like he is going to third, it puts pressure on the defense to make a play, to make a throw. If you just jog into second, the left fielder can just lob the ball back into the infield.
As Joey approaches second, he is looking straight at the left fielder as he tries to pick up the ball at the fence. Joey notices him struggle a little picking up the ball, and that’s enough for him. He hits second base, hits another gear, and tears towards third. He is now thinking triple.
The left fielders coach’s and teammates all see Joey heading for third, and they start yelling,”Three! Three!” Before the left fielder has even turned around, he knows where to throw the ball. He turns and uncorks a high arcing throw towards third base. This is little league. It not that far from the outfield fence to third base. And this throw is coming in true. I can see the ball coming in as Joey is approaching third. This is going to be close.
The ball and the runner arrive at the base at the same time, but as Joey starts his slide, the throw is a little up the line, and the third baseman has to reach up and over to the left for the ball. In the time it takes to catch the ball and bring it down to make the tag, Joey’s foot is on the bag, a split second before the tag is made. I look up at the umpire, who was chasing down the play from across the infield. He is a gangly 16 year old kid, with pimples and braces, and he runs over and stares at the meeting of mitt, ball, bag, and foot, and makes the call. He extends his arms out wide, with his palms down, and yells,”Safe!”
The crowd cheers as Joey bounces up from his slide, and claps his hands a lets out a loud,”Yeah!” And then, he takes his right hand, makes a fist, and thumps it on his heart. He takes his left hand and points skyward, pointing right at…
Yep, that’s right. When my grandson thumped his chest and pointed towards the heavens, he was doing it to honor his grandfather. You see, I wasn’t really there in person to watch my grandson play baseball on that warm, slightly muggy evening in late June. I wasn’t sitting in that bag chair. The chair was there, set up by my son as a tribute to me, because that was the spot where I watched him play years ago. I wasn’t there in person because I had passed from this world a few years before, after a long ordeal with cancer. I once held baby Joey in my arms after he was born. He was all squirming and crying, and I think I cried harder than he did. But I’ve never seen him play ball in person.
But here’s the thing. I’ve never missed one of his games. I just have a slightly higher seat than that old bag camp chair. As a matter of fact, I have the best seat in the house. As I look over the scene, I can see him brushing the dirt off his pants. I can see my son, my daughter in law and my wife exchanging high fives with each other and the rest of the crowd. And I can see other things, too.
I look over a little bit from the ballfield, towards the playground behind the school, and I can see a beautiful little girl running and playing with her friends, her dark brown curls bouncing in the sunlight as she runs laughing and giggling between the swings. She is completely oblivious to the fact that her brother just led off his baseball game with a triple. She is my granddaughter Ashley, and we’ve never met. But I know her. And I get just as much pleasure watching her play with her friends as I do watching Joey play baseball.
As I watch all of this unfold before me, I feel a hand on my shoulder. I look over next to me, and there is my Savior, Jesus Christ. He is looking over the scene with me, delighting in seeing the little girl play on the swings and the little boy play baseball. Because not only did I give my family my legacy of a love for baseball, more importantly, I also gave them a legacy of a deep, abiding love for the Lord. He is in their lives, everyday. And He is the reason I can see all of this.
I turn my head just a little, and I look farther south, towards the Atlanta area, and I can see my youngest son Thomas and his wife Amanda, setting up in a new house in the suburbs. They are expecting their first child. A boy. And I am pretty sure he’s going to be a baseball player. And I am certain that he will also have a love for the Lord.
And that’s way more important than baseball.
Thanks for reading.