At the Ballparks of America in Branson, Missouri five different MLB fields from across the country are created in turfed replicate. This weekend, 37 teams in 7 divisions are competing in the Ozark Mountain Baseball Championships, including a home run derby at the Chicago Field. Paul, one of the tournament coordinators, reached out to me and invited me to come play catch during the home run derby.
I pulled into the parking lot of the old red roof mall and memory flashes danced in my imagination. I remembered walking up and down the stairs, in and out the stores, sipping on a hot chocolate at Christmastime with Jamie and friends from college while we were still dating. After a day of shopping, the four of us drove back to Lambert’s for dinner where Jamie wrote our names in the registry under a shared last name for the first time. We weren’t yet engaged.
Now, the stores are empty and Jamie and I have shared a last name for more than two decades. The whole mall complex has been re-purposed for youth baseball, complete with indoor batting cages and team suites and showers. Less malls. More baseball. I love it.
I found Chicago Field and took a seat behind home plate to watch the derby. Home runs clanged off the scoreboard and batter’s eye and made a distinctive thud when they landed on the red roof. A few store windows were boarded over, remnants of home runs past. I spent a little time sharpening my ball hawk skills way past the fence in left field. I snagged a few balls and threw them back to the players on the other side of the fence.
Peter*, a 9-year old whose team went win-less today, grabbed a ball and tossed it my way. We played catch while watching coaches attempt to hit home runs on the two-thirds sized field. He told me the story of how he got a bloody nose earlier this morning because his catch partner threw the ball and it hit him in the nose. I promised that I wouldn’t bloody his nose with our game of catch. After about 20 throws, one coach hit a home run that cleared the roof; Peter went to track down the ball.
I walked back toward home plate and started visiting with a man from Oklahoma City who commented on my old Wilson glove. I was carrying it around, looking for opportunities for a game of catch when a boy stopped and asked me, “Is that Shoeless Joe Jackson’s glove?”
I smiled. Immediately, I knew I had found my catch partner.
Kyler’s dad took a trip to the Field of Dreams earlier this summer. Technically, the field was closed; he was the only one there walking on the quiet grounds.
“There was just one bat propped against the backstop. It was so quiet…”
I knew exactly what he meant. I told him my story of playing catch with Dad and Stan and Bob (Day #206) on my first trip to the field in July.
Kyler is 8 and from Overland Park, Kansas. His team won both of their games today, which puts them in prime position to win their division tomorrow. He played outfield and pitched today and is a Royals fan, cheering on Hosmer in the past and Two-Hit Whit in the present. His dad, Brian, is a baseball fan and grew up in Cincinnati playing ball. He mimicked his playing style after the original Charlie Hustle which is appropriate since they share the same sweet-smelling last name.
We found a great spot near St. Louis Field for catch and Kyler used the old Wilson glove. He was a natural, scooping up grounders and using two hands at all times.
“Can I use it in tomorrow’s games?” he asked.
I remembered using a glove just like this one during the filming of First Boys of Spring and how my attempt at backhanding a hot smash down the third base line left my hand bruised for weeks.
“Should probably stick with what helped you get the Ws today.”
“So, when you write a book from this year, I have a title for you. How about A Baseball Year?”
I wrote it down and put it on the list of possible titles.
Good luck tomorrow, Kyler, and if you win, send me a picture of the trophy!