Back in my day, every little boy knew exactly what a baseball felt like in a little grubby hand. It was perfect for throwing. Nobody ever gave a second thought to kicking a ball or bouncing one off our head. A baseball in a little boy’s hand felt as right and natural as a mother’s nipple in the mouth of a newborn baby.
Give a boy a ball and he naturally wanted a bat to go with it, and a glove, although those commodities were not so easy to come by. Neither were baseballs, truth be known. We played many a game with cottonseed balls wrapped up with black electrical tape swiped from one of our daddy’s tool boxes. We swung bats discarded by the grown men who played for the Bibb teams. Most were cracked, held together with tacks and some more of that same pilfered electrical tape.
Not everybody had a glove, and those who did knew to just throw them down at their position when they went in to bat so that the next person who came out in the field would have one to use, and I have played in many many games where it was argued that “Don’t nobody but the first baseman and the shortstop and the third baseman really need no glove!”
We played on organized teams in the late spring and early summer. We had the Covington Braves and the Covington Mills Trojans and the Stewart Indians and the Mansfield Red Sox and, of course, the Porterdale Yankees, because that was the farm team B.C. Crowell had played for. We wore scratchy wool uniforms and held our socks up with rubber bands and rode to games in the back of our coach’s pickup trucks and would stop at the Tastee Freeze for ice cream — if we won.
But that was for maybe eight weeks a year. The rest of the year we still played baseball, all day, every day. Each kid batted 30 or 40 times a day. We argued over whether we would allow taking “last strikes” or be allowed to throw at runners, and we would call no hitting to the opposite field if we were short on players. And we all dreamed of playing Major League baseball one day.
Most of us weren’t bold enough to admit it. The others would laugh — just like they laughed when I made the mistake of admitting that I wanted to write books and newspaper columns one day. But we all dreamed of playing ball in the big leagues, and when we were standing in the back alleys of our little village, alone with our thoughts and dreams, throwing tennis balls against the house and fielding them off the crumpling asphalt, or hitting rocks deep into the woods with our scarred bats, we were usually Mickey Mantle in Yankee Stadium — or maybe Willie Mays or Rocky Colavito — but usually we were Mickey Mantle. But we were all somebody and that hope beat eternal — until we grew up and learned just how good those guys really were. Not the Mantles and the Mays’s — but the utility players who barely hung on.
I had the privilege of teaching and coaching for almost 40 years. I taught and coached some great kids and some great athletes — but not a one that I thought was special enough to make a career playing ball. Until I ran across Tyler Austin in the cafeteria before school one day. He was in the ninth grade and wouldn’t tuck in his shirt — at least, not fast enough to suit me. I had no idea who he was and he obviously had no idea who I was. We got acquainted really fast.
But we became close after that initial run-in, and I got to watch Tyler grow and mature and develop throughout high school. He was a really nice young man who had to overcome some adversity — he had testicular cancer when he was only 16 or 17 — and I began to hope and pray that he would be the one in a million shot that would make it in the Major Leagues.
I have followed his career as he paid his dues at every level in the minor leagues. Every time he got going good, it seemed, an injury would cause a setback. I was ecstatic when he was finally called up to the New York Yankees. Even more so when he hit a homerun in his first major league at bat.
My guy didn’t stick. He got sent down. Called back up. Sent down. Called back up. He was a media sensation when he took umbrage at being hit by a pitch against the hated Red Sox in Fenway Park last year and charged the mound, setting off one more bench-clearing brawl in the Yankees — BoSox Rivalry.
Later sent back down, then traded to the Twins. Wound up the season with 17 homers in 67 games. Extrapolated over a season those are like Babe Ruth numbers. I thought Tyler was set this year. But then the Twins fired their manager and the new guy traded for two new people who played Tyler’s position. The handwriting was on the wall.
He still played so well in spring training that they had to keep him on the roster.
And then, this weekend, they traded him to the Giants. His third club in two years. Here is hoping and praying that he’ll get a fair chance on the West Coast to show what he can do.
He got off to a good start. Played first base in his first game and got a hit, scored a run and drove in another with a sacrifice fly. Keep it up Tyler. You got a lot of people on your side. Including me. Especially me.