As I stood there watching the parade of baseball and softball players march down the first base line to home plate on Saturday during the Moncks Corner Park and Recreation Opening Day ceremony, I felt a strong pull tugging at the pit of my stomach.
No, that wasn’t the yearning for hot dogs, nor was it the anticipation of the eight pints of catfish stew I’d wolf down later in the day judging the Catfish Stew Cook Off at St. Stephen’s Catfish Festival.
It was nostalgia.
It happens to me this time every year.
Growing up, Opening Day was my second Christmas because for the next four months I’d get to play as much baseball as I wanted.
Nobody loved baseball like I did growing up. I lived for this game and other than being able to throw a baseball harder than anyone else, I wasn’t outstanding.
I was a good hitter, but not great.
My speed was deceiving — I was slower than I looked.
I just loved to play baseball, and I would play from when the first sliver of sunlight peaked above the horizon to the east until the last wedge winked good-bye as it set to the west.
Maybe we’d break for lunch, or maybe we wouldn’t. It was the only time I didn’t fret over missing a meal.
I was a Boy of Summer.
When I die, heaven for me will be a freshly manicured baseball field on Opening Day.
To quote Warren Beatty in the football film Rudy, “There is no greater sight these eyes have beheld.”
Only in my case it’s catching that first glimpse of a baseball field.
A carpet of Kelly green grass stretching to the outfield fence; the wedge of smooth orange dirt curling from first to third; the virgin white foul lines pointing at right angles, directing runners to first and finally guiding them home as they round third.
And my favorite, the pearl of a brand new baseball resting atop the pitcher’s mound, waiting for me to pick it up and make it sing.
There is no sweeter sight than the white flash of an 0-2 fastball painting the black, no sound as pleasant as the crack of cowhide striking a horse leather catcher’s mitt, and no song playing like a favorite melody on the ears as when the umpire sings, “Strike three!”
The ritual of putting on a baseball uniform for the first time coursed a Christmas morning chill up my spine.
My cap-bill straight, waiting to be creased at the precise angle to block out the sun and the logo centered directly above the nose; the pair of baseball cards tucked into the hat band, a Hal Lanier and Jack Hiatt, to keep the crown from collapsing.
Crisp white baseball pants bloused at the calf and measuring four inches of baseball sock visible above the stirrups.
The uniform top tucked in, a belt worn at all times.
The shining black of freshly polished spikes — and you didn’t dare hit the field wearing scuffed and dirty baseball spikes.
We were taught to respect the uniform and look of a baseball player. We came dressed to play, and we came dressed correctly.
I was told early on in life, you dress like a baseball player, you played like a baseball player.
It is the Gospel of Baseball that I preach daily from the pulpit of the mound in the cathedral of the baseball field; my slice of Heaven on Earth.