Late in May, I drove to the outdoor handball court at Fassnight Park. My intentions were to “play catch” against the wall for about 20 minutes, trying to stretch out my arm and back and hamstrings.
For the months of March, April, and most of May, my only catch partner had been my oldest daughter, Kaylea, a student at Missouri State now back at home because of Covid-19. During our backyard sessions, she learned how to throw a knuckleball that dances. She truly is a knuckleball queen. Not that I throw the ball very hard in the first place, but I intentionally don’t throw the ball hard when playing catch with Kaylea. She needs full functioning of both of her hands to play the violin.
Side note: Support any and every musician you know. This world desperately needs the healing power of music.
So, I drove to the handball courts only to spot someone on the old softball field at Fassnight Park. He was by himself, taking swings off a tee, walking to collect the balls and then do it again. I grabbed my glove and ran to the field and shouted, “Wanna play catch?”
Dr. Colin Barker is a math professor at Drury University. In the awkwardness of life after the shutdown, we introduced ourselves and made conversation while dancing around the social norms of handshakes and keeping at least six feet apart. And we played catch. We met again a week later for another game of catch, followed by a round of soft toss and chasing down some fly balls.
* * * * *
In 2004, a sports editor tried out for the Ozark Mountain Ducks. He documented his effort in a story that includes the name of then-Ducks-General-Manager-now-owner-of-Hurts-Donuts, Tim Clegg. In 2004, the Ozark Mountain Ducks played as part of the Frontier League and finished with a record above .500. In the off-season, their rights were sold to a group in Florida and the Ducks were disbanded. Price Cutter Park, the home of the Ducks, was dormant for more than a decade.
On Friday night, the Ozark Mountain Ducks will play once again.
The Grip’N’Rip Baseball League (GRBL) launches Season V with Friday Night Baseball. The first two teams to play will be the Ozark Mountain Ducks and the Nixa Suckers. First pitch is at 6:15 at US Baseball Park in Ozark, the old stomping ground of the original Ducks.
Through all the chaos and twists of 2020, GRBL commissioner Tony Lewis has found a way for the league to play and adhere to the safety standards recommended by the health department. Players will be masked entering the stadium and in the dugouts. Fans will be masked entering the stadium and everywhere but their seats, from the concourse to the restroom. It’s a small concession to pay for the joy of live baseball in the Ozarks.
* * * * *
In June, once restrictions had been lifted significantly, Friday mornings were for baseball practice. Mark Blehm, friend and owner of Blehm Tools, and I practiced together for months before GRBL tryouts in 2019. He had played in the league in 2018 and agreed to help me get in shape. We both made the cut in 2019, and decided the weekly workout was good to help prepare us for game action. In 2020, Mark and I were joined by several others:
— Colin, a lefty who pitches and plays pretty much anywhere.
— Nick, a friend of Colin and another lefty who pitches and plays pretty much anywhere.
— Gerry, Mark’s brother-in-law, a middle infielder.
— Grady, a friend of mine from church, a pitcher and infielder who played collegiately at SBU.
— Isaiah, Grady’s son, who isn’t old enough to play in the league, and owner of the Catch 365 glove.
The Friday mornings of June and July and August were filled with the stretching of muscles and their accompanying groans. For two hours every week, we set aside the stresses of the world to focus on grounders and fly balls and trying to figure out how to hit Grady’s knuckleball. It was either a knuckleball or a curveball that I fouled off of my shin leaving a permanent dent on my left leg. At least my bat didn’t break.
Strangers at the beginning of summer became friends on the ballfield. We commiserated with Nick’s struggles at work and appreciated the drive Gerry and Mark made to be part of the group. We laughed and shared stories, all the while working on short hops and improving swings — The Fellowship of the Field. It may not make for a good Peter Jackson movie, but after the cumulative weight of the daily news, it was a joy-filled silver lining every week.
Sunday, August 30, was tryout day. A drizzle-filled day where throwing wet baseballs was a gamble — a lottery between a water-logged dead weight or a slick-as-slime ball. Tryouts were conducted in two pods, with pitchers reporting at 7:30 AM and position players at 10:30. Because of a recent job change, Nick decided not to tryout.
A few weeks ago, I turned 46. I’m 11 years older than Robert Redford’s character in The Natural, which is the story of an “old” ballplayer. In 2018, when I played catch every single day, I was fortunate to stay healthy all year long. No injuries, period.
This year has not been as kind.
The elbow on my throwing arm has ached for months. I’ve had nightly issues with lower back pain and tight hamstrings. The wrist and shoulder on my left arm have also been sore, but I’m blaming those on daily walks with a dog who is still distracted by every single squirrel in Greene County. So, I walk and stretch and do pull-ups and push-ups to try and keep my body “in shape.”
At tryouts, I carried a towel in my back pocket to wipe the condensation off my glasses every 10 minutes. It was annoying, yes, but I am a big fan of clear vision, and especially so when taking swings. I need all the reaction-time help I can get.
Just like last year, I was amazed at the talent level on the field during tryouts. Outfielders making rocket throws from right field to third base on the fly. Infielders turning sharp ground balls into marshmallows, to borrow a phrase from Royals’ announcer Rex Hudler. Hitters lacing deep drives off the 16-foot tall fence. Not that any of those actually describe me.
I spent my time trying to make new friends, hearing their baseball stories, encouraging their good throws and mighty swings. When it was my turn to field or step up to the plate, I spent my time taking deep breaths and trying to smile.
“Just remember to go out there and have fun,” said Rance Burger, voice of the GRBL and wisdom-filled friend.
More than 100 people tried out for the six-team league. There would be cuts. Of course, I didn’t want to be cut, but I did play last year. I really didn’t want any of my Friday morning friends to be cut. I wanted them to have the joy of getting back on the field again. After a lengthy drafting session, the league posted the team rosters on Sunday afternoon.
The entire Friday morning crew made the cut.
Colin and Grady are teammates playing for the Branson Showmen. Their first game is Sunday at 3, against the Republic Locos coached by Chris Meza, the baseball coach at Hillcrest High School.
Gerry’s playing for the Moon City Mavericks, whose head coach is Daniel England. England’s been on the championship team each of the first four seasons. They are playing in the noon game on Sunday against Brock Chaffin’s Springfield Mets.
And Mark and I are teammates for the new Ozark Mountain Ducks. Our head coach is Austin Kendrick, the basketball coach at Reeds Spring, whose baseball story is featured in one of the chapters of A Year of Playing Catch.
We met our teammates on Sunday evening, where we signed contracts and picked up jerseys and hats. I connected with fellow Ducks Brandon and Skyler, who were my teammates last year, and then started to put names and faces together. Dayne, the youngest at heart. Tyler, the league’s best centerfielder. And a new catcher, Jacob. Bless his knees and ankles.
The GRBL is dedicated to giving back to the community. Proceeds from the Opening Day weekend, which includes both games on Sunday, will benefit Care to Learn. Founded by Doug Pitt, Care to Learn “provides immediate funding to meet emergent needs in the areas of health, hunger, and hygiene so every student can be successful in school.” I cannot think of a more timely organization to support.
This Friday, I am incredibly excited to suit up in blue and step on the field. Old glove and new tall socks and all.
See you at the ballpark.
Don’t forget to bring your glove.
(And if you can’t make it to the game, you can live stream and listen to Rance here.)