Making Spring Fever

REAL baseballs, taken in San Diego, 2009.

REAL baseballs, photographed in San Diego, 2009.

The little patch of field above the school, between the library, a lonely restaurant and the tram stop, doesn’t look much like a baseball field. A heavily graffitied concrete slab stands behind what we’ve made home plate and the slope just past rightfield melts into several blocks of winding streets and grey apartment buildings that stand like lifeless honeycombs. Laundry hangs on lines out the windows, providing the only other color to the neighborhood, save the cheery schoolyard and the dandelions and forsythia which grow in golden bursts along every sidewalk.

Arguably, the best thing about our little baseball field is our team of players.

On Thursday afternoons I help at our church’s kid’s club. About ten little munchkins show up to sing songs, play games, make crafts and hear a Bible story or message. Mostly I just co-pilot chaos control. After a full day at school, the kids are like unpinned grenades ready to go off. Keeping the tussling to a minimum and preventing any activity that might include throwing or sliding across desks – that’s basically my job description. We have a good time.

But with the arrival spring came the return of our wiffle ball season. Jerry is a big baseball guy and he painstakingly trains our club kids every year during our few precious weeks of sunshine and good weather.

What exactly does a wiffle ball game look like in our corner of the Czech Republic? Well, for starters, we only have one team and an inning is a complete cycle of all the players. Our games go for about two or three innings. Those not on a base or behind the plate mill around the infield watching, pretending to watch, or creating diversions.

Defense is weak. Only two boys on the team have fully grasped the concept of proactively “outing” someone – “výoutovat.” Their efforts to make a decent play is hindered by the fact that no one is every guarding the bases (though, occasionally helped by the fact that other infielders like to block the runners to keep them from rounding the mats). Wiffle ball is no gentleman’s game.

Very seldomly will Jerry, who plays pitcher, umpire and coach in one, throw someone out on strikes. We have to whittle down the clock for several minutes before Marilyn (our catcher and co-coach) switches from the thin yellow bat to the big blue one. If no hits emerge from the new “wood” then we say, “Great job! Your swing is getting so much better!” and shuffle them to the outfield.

“It’s just like tennis,” Jerry will encourage the kids before lobbing a ball at them.

“I don’t play tennis!” is always the reply.

Hitting the ball has been a work-in-progress from the start, though we’ve had marked improvement. Learning the difference between a hit and a foul has taken more time. It’s such a small difference, if you think about it, especially considering that our diamond doesn’t have white chalk and grass borders. Anytime the bat and ball make contact, everyone on every base and every corner of the field start moving rapidly (or not so rapidly, depending on who’s paying attention) in a counterclockwise direction. Jerry will loudly call, “FOUL!” and the news will trickle slowly backwards as Jerry and I try shuffling everyone back to their original spots. Sometime’s it’s as simple as Jerry saying, “FOUL. Zpátky!” (“Back!”). And sometimes we have to let them round all the bases before the excitement dies down and they realize the ball is missing or the runner never left home and resign themselves to dawdling back to their posts.

Some of our players are more competitive than others. The older boy (about ten years old?) has to breathe deeply and quickly wipe away tears everytime he gets tagged out. He’ll plaster the largest, fakest smile on his face and laugh at himself while his whole body shakes in the sob he’s trying to hide. I know exactly how he feels. I’ve worn that fake smile, I’ve laughed at myself until I feel like I’ve sufficiently disguised how painful it feels to lose. I just want to wrap him up and hug him, but I know that he needs to keep pretending it’s okay for now. Failing is part of life and learning how not to fall apart when it happens is a big step in human development. It’s never long before he’s back in the game, ready to try again.

We do have interruptions now and then, like the neighborhood boy’s little sister letting their puppy loose on the field. The game came to a complete stop as a dozen children scampered after the pup who was gayly chewing on its leash and dashing between legs.

Someone always needs to go to the bathroom, in which case I leave my position as the team’s only outfielder and escort them to the library bathrooms across the way. We get respectfully quiet inside and then tiptoe our way back out into the afternoon, but by the time we’ve made it to the field again they start running and shouting. And the game continues.

Our newest player, a brown-eyed boy from the second grade, kept me company in the outfield this week. He just joined the club and wiffle ball is a new experience for him. When someone took too long at the plate, he’d start walking in a circle around me like I was a Maypole. Not especially talkative, but very happy to be out in the sun with everyone else. His turn at bat finally came and after several misses, he hit a grounder. The field erupted in the usual pandemonium as runners took off and infielders scrambled after the ball. It would have been a perfect play if our little hitter hadn’t started running towards third base instead of first.

Baseball isn’t hugely popular in the Czech Republic yet, but those who do like the game love the game. There are no fair-weather fans in this country. And our wiffle ball games are no different. I wish we lived life a little bit more like we play wiffle ball – everyone on the same team, everyone pushing each other to be better, everyone cheering and shouting over wins and loses. Everyone enjoying the chance to play with their friends beneath a beautiful blue sky, no matter how the game turns out.

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