From 7 years of age until I graduated from high school, I thought being at the baseball field every night during the Spring was the closest place to heaven we could experience this side of actual heaven. The sights. The sounds. Coaches arguing with umpires. Mommas arguing with umpires between telling other mommas something they thought they heard at the beauty shop or the bank or some place that they couldn’t recall at the moment. Where they might have heard something was usually not critical to the story. Kids sitting on the metal bleachers, shuffling through packs of baseball cards they purchased from the concession stand for 25-cents a pack. Ten cards and one stick of gum for 25-cents. I’ve still got every card in a suitcase upstairs, and a mouth full of fillings that may or may not have been a result of the gum. I soaked it all in.
Most of all, it was the people. It was Wayne Self being able to squeeze a cup ball tighter than anyone in the park. He’d park his truck down the third base line to watch the game, and his son and I would play cup ball behind the left field fence.
It was Mrs. Freeman telling me, before I was to bat with the bases loaded, “183, 184, or 183. Doesn’t matter. Just hit it over one of those.” The dimensions of Bo Nelson Field were 183′ to left and right, and 184′ to straight away center, although the centerfield sign was about 10 feet off of center. I hit a ball that hit the top rail of the fence and bounced over. I still have the grand slam certificate from PONY Baseball somewhere. The rest of the season, I didn’t go to the plate without Mrs. Freeman saying, “183 or 184. Doesn’t matter.”
I remember seeing Bo Nelson himself at the park. For a kid, seeing the person for whom the park was named actually walking around the park that carried his name kind of helped you understand Adam and Eve walking with God through the Garden of Eden. Plus, most people have to pass on before they get something named for them, so seeing a living, breathing honoree was quite the time.
Then there were the coaches. The same ones every year, for the most part. My dad was my coach most years. When he coached my brother’s team for a couple of seasons, I played for Coach Dunlap and Coach Daniels and Coach Graves. Max Coker and Mr. Self were coaching mainstays, as was Carl Hope. Mike Green (go ahead and click that link) helped my dad, as did Lee McLendon. Coach McLendon actually coached my dad when he played little league baseball and was, to say the least, old school. He seemed old at the time, but, thinking back, he was probably in his late 50s or 60s. He had a glove in his car that didn’t have a pocket to catch the ball. It was just some stuffing packed inside two round pieces of leather that were sewn together, like a round throw pillow. It looked like a catcher’s mitt that didn’t hinge. It was probably 60 years old when he showed it to me. A piece of baseball history, really. Academy Sports sells something similar today made of plastic and foam that is supposed to help with your hand coordination. Our rocky practice fields were probably better for that than anything you can buy at a store, but that’s not today’s topic. When our second baseman would throw the ball to first, Coach McLendon would yell “ANNIE OVER!” I don’t even know what that means, but it made an impression.
My first little league coach was Dennis Bryant. We were team Burger King in the 7 and 8 year olds league. He also coached my 75# football team. Some thought he was a mean coach, and maybe I did too. Fact of business, maybe he was, but I’ve come to understand that he was just trying to push us to do our best. He wanted us to get better at every practice, with every play. If you took a play off, you were going backward, and that’s not what he wanted for us. Coach Bryant passed away this week. Another passing in a great line to men and women who made our small town a great place to live, play, and grow.
Thank you, Coach.