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Hope springs eternal: Play ball!

You might not know it from what I share in this column, but I played some pretty serious football and baseball as a boy.

First of all, I was on the same high school football team – the illustrious Bronxville Broncos of Westchester County, N.Y. – as Roger Goodell. Yup, that Roger Goodell.  NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. The only difference between us was that he starred at tight end and it was going to take a bus accident in which two-thirds of the team broke their legs for me ever to play in a game. The one time my name appeared in any newspaper in the context of football was when our field goal kicker and I had to swap jerseys so he could play cornerback that afternoon. He happened to kick a winning field goal that day that was, by high school standards, spectacularly long. I got the credit in a newspaper story and, yes, felt pretty horrible. In any case, I was on Roger’s team.

And one year when I was a Little League baseball pitcher, I made the All Star team. Not kidding. I started the All Star game and gave up, I believe, a thousand runs. Okay, maybe not a thousand. But a lot. It might have been as many as eighteen. My strength as a pitcher was pinpoint control, which is indeed rare in Little League. I didn’t walk a lot of people. Unfortunately, my fastball topped out at about ten miles an hour. Umpires and batters alike would doze off waiting for the ball to travel from the pitcher’s mound to home plate. During that All Star game, my control eluded me. The game might still be going on if the coach hadn’t finally given me the hook.

I mention this because Little League baseball is back. I live no more than 150 yards from the baseball field here in Lincoln, Vermont, and while I don’t watch a lot of games, every season I will watch a few. Eight years ago, when my daughter was still in the Lincoln Elementary School, I knew who most of the ballplayers were. Now I haven’t a clue.

Of course, when I would watch an occasional game two decades ago, before my daughter was born, I didn’t know the names of most of the ballplayers either. Neither did Ken Lougee. Who was Ken Lougee? Ken was a neighbor here in Lincoln, a much older fellow who passed away years and years ago. But when Ken was an old man and I was a young man, sometimes we would watch the games together and talk about baseball and, yes, the meaning of life. Neither of us had an answer, but it didn’t matter because part of the meaning of life is simple human connection. He would carry his aluminum lawn chair with the nylon webbing to the grass on the small hill on the third base side of the diamond, and there we would discuss how we had come to Lincoln and the state of the world. Ken was smart and funny and kind. Our conversations would be interrupted – as are all conversations at a Little League game – by the metallic ping of baseball and bat, and we would stop in mid-sentence to watch what was transpiring on the field.

Which brings me back to my own career as a pitcher. Perhaps my favorite memory of my years on the mound is this. It is late on a Saturday morning and the game is perhaps half over. Between batters, I gaze into the small bleachers along the third base side and I’m surprised because there is my father. He had been on a business trip and wasn’t due home until much later that day. But he has, I realize, caught an earlier flight. And there he is, watching.

“Baseball is continuous,” poet Donald Hall has reminded us, “like nothing else among American things, an endless game of repeated summers, joining the long generations of all the fathers and all the sons.”

Maybe that’s why I watch. Maybe that’s why Ken and I used to watch together.

It’s that time of the year. Suddenly it’s spring, even here in Vermont.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press.  Chris’s new novel, “The Light in the Ruins,” arrives in two months.)