Being a gentleman invested with proper humility, I rarely talk about it but I was once the centerfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
It was back in 2001.
My professional baseball career lasted about 20 minutes.
I was in Florida doing this story about the demise of the carnival side shows. I encourage you to check it out. It’s a good example of how I write when someone pays me to do so. And it, of course, has me wondering why so few ever seem to ask much anymore.
The story involved spending about a week in Gibsonton, Florida, aka “Freaktown USA,” home to Lobster Boy, The World’s Tallest Man, The World’s Strangest Couple and enough other unusually formed humans to satisfy a year’s worth of Weekly World News front pages.
Gibsonton is on the Gulf Coast, not far from Bradenton, spring training home of the Pirates. It was March so I dashed just up the coast to catch some spring ball, as soul-refreshing an activity for winter-weary baseball lovers like me as there is.
Too bad the day I was there the Bucs weren’t.
They were on the road, which meant just a few guys for the grounds crew where there at McKechnie Field.
If you today have a difficult and stressful job, I’d encourage you to consider quitting it to go mow grass at some southern ball field.
His name was Ben and he couldn’t have been more pleasant. He was sitting on a mower out near the home bullpen.
We talked for half an hour about the Bucs, our favorite players, memorable games we’d been to and how, guaranteed, that was the year the Bucs would finally produce a winning record.
Wrong. Last year marks 20 years and counting that they’ve been pathetic losers. Their record of losing seasons is on the verge of being old enough to walk into a bar and legally buy itself a drink.
It’s a tribute to the game that guys like me and Ben still love Pirate baseball and yearn for the days when the Pirates again contend to the end.
He could sense it in me when I started to say goodbye.
“What’s your rush? Go ahead and take a walk out on the field. It’s a beautiful day. Enjoy yourself.”
What ensued were about 20 of the most compressed minutes of my entire life.
Because in those 20 minutes I hit 40 home runs, stole 40 bases and told about a 100 baseball Annies, sorry, girls, I’m a married man while me and the Pittsburgh Pirates were on our way to winning the World Series.
My favorite Pirate other than Roberto Clemente -- every fan’s favorite Pirate -- has always been centerfielder Andy Van Slyke. I swear I looked up in the stands and saw him cheering some of the catches I made in his old stomping grounds.
Understand, I didn’t do all this just in my mind. I raced all over that field. I ran the bases, mimed throwing pitches from the mound, zipped across the outfield and reveled in the blessing that I was a then 38-year-old man who never gives a shit what he looks like to strangers when he’s determined to have some fun.
Well, beat the drum, and hold the phone
The sun came out today!
We’re born again, there’s new grass on the field
And roundin’ third and headin’ for home
It’s a brown-eyed handsome man!
Anyone can understand the way I feel
So put me in coach! I’m ready to play today
Put me in coach! I’m read to play today
Look at me, I can be Centerfield.
Baseball’s the only game that has and deserves it’s own anthem. This is the time of the year when I can’t get the John Fogerty song out of my head. It’s perfectly euphoric.
Our 12-year-old and I are spending many evenings watching baseball movies (“The Natural,” “Bad News Bears” and looking forward to sunny afternoons at the ballpark.
The older I get the less enamored I am with professional football and the more I am with baseball.
It’s never more acute than this week when the newspapers start once again showing pictures of pitchers and palm trees. Outside my window, it’s 50 shades of grey but with ice, mud and sludge instead of kinky sex, which I’d much prefer.
But inside my mind, everything is turning green. I know spring’s almost here because baseball’s back.
I can only hope that this year, finally, all the Pirates play for one full season as well as I did 12 years ago when I for 20 glorious minutes played centerfield.
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