I remember my days as a little-leaguer more as an explorer than a player. There are only two things I remember from actual games I’d played: The first was during tee-ball, when I’d hit a line drive into the face of the poor girl standing on the pitcher’s mound, giving her a bloody nose and mouth. The second happened some other time, when I was playing for the Rockies, and I trip-dove my way to an accidentally miraculous outfield catch. I honestly can’t say which memory makes me happier.
What I remember more is the time spent wandering in between my own games or during my brother’s. The baseball fields – there are three of them in the park – are arranged so that they make their own kind of triangle, and the paths along the outer edges were untamed and well hidden.
Behind the visitors’ dugout of the varsity field was a stream that had been dyed orange from rusting pipes. It was clogged with plastic nacho trays and tins of shredded beef jerky, but still, life persisted. Pea-sized tadpoles were abundant, swam in packs like inkblots until the grubby little hands of my friends and me busted them up, trying desperately to come away with a few of the black things in our cupped palms. We barely caught a few, and when we did I can’t remember where they ended up. I want to say we made someone eat them – and that’s probably true – but I don’t want to remember it that way, so I won’t.
If you followed the stream until it dried up, down the gravel road and toward the little kids’ field, you’d find a poorly beaten path up the side of a steep hill. We would climb up there and use the guardrail as a bench, spitting sunflower shells down onto the littler kids who couldn’t climb quite so well. We never stayed there for long, or talked about anything like cute girls or even the Pirates or Indians. We only sat long enough to catch our breath, and then moved on to the next stop, hoping our parents could not find us, even though they weren’t looking.
The last spot we bothered with was a kind of alcove to the west of the kids’ field. It was used as a parking spot for the guys who came and set up the fields before every game, and was big enough to fit their trucks and their chalk drawers, lawn mowers, and metal rakes. It was just a little inlet into the thick woods there, and beyond the tire tracks sat sharp stones of dull colors, their sheen having been rusted away by the harsh rains caused by the steel mills down on the river. Behind the mounds of rock lay a sharp drop off to a thin rush of water, hidden by the thick tops of short trees. Further, still, beyond the grounds of the baseball fields, was the city’s garage and its mountains of road salt.
We rested there on the precipice, our feet tapping the branches beneath us, listening to the talk of men who moved things for a living. We sat quietly, tossing clouds of gravel into the stream far below, as exotic four-and-five-letter words came floating up to us with lessons we could never learn on baseball fields. An endless torrent of wives and cars and sports and real people problems came to us from those ashy mouths through the trees, and kept us in such rapture that, more than once, we nearly missed the start of our game.
It’s strange to think of the ways those days colored who I am now, or what I thought I should be, or what I think men should be: Steel-toed boots worn ‘til you could see the silver; grime-caked hands and white t-shirts stained with black fingerprints; beards, long or short, knotted in spots; jeans from K-Mart; twice-a-year haircuts; glasses kept in the glove box but never used. These ideas were informed by those men I barely saw through the trees rather than my own father, whose AEP work uniform escapes me—except for the knee-high galoshes he sometimes wore out to dinner.
It’s stranger still to think of the way those days shaped my teammates, my fellow Rockies who sat with me in purple shirts and dull cleats as we listened to things we didn’t understand. Some of them, younger than me, have kids now. Some of them show up as felons in police reports my father sends me, and I struggle to think of them as anything but four-foot high, their cleats clinking on the hard gray floors of prison. Still other Rockies have vanished, as childhood friends often do, and maybe they manage drive to work in heavy boots.
And here I am, with three pairs of bright sneakers and no boots to my name, wondering where to go, wandering around places from a life ten years removed. During the day I revisit the ball fields, and at night I sneak through the playground at Hills Elementary. I’ve peered through the glass doors of my old school and seen the hanging flags of red and gold, and remembered the smell of nontoxic paints and the way construction paper tears into feathers.
Sometimes I brave my way through the construction zone of the soon-to-be high school, or middle school, or whatever it is, but it’s boring without memories, just metal and plaster. In front of the construction is a new baseball field, one I’d never known as a kid player but have run circles around as an adult who does that kind of thing to be productive. The only thing mystical about that place had been the surrounding woods, and I’d watch deer slink through the thin trees, betrayed by their glowing eyes. But now the deer are gone, driven away when the trees were ripped up, and all that’s left is a big patch of dirt. When I bother to go there anymore I make sure to drag and stomp my feet and watch the dust scatter, just because I like the way it looks under the lights. It’s not really a great memory, and I’ve got nobody to share it with, but that’s fine. Soon the school will be built, and the dirt will have been covered by concrete, and a whole bunch of other people will do things they think are meaningful and remember them ten years later, over and over, and even if they didn’t really know the kids they’d called friends, it doesn’t matter, because it meant something then.