Baseball is the fountain of youth for boys, both the little and not so little kinds – this I believe!
Although I was a baseball fanatic from as far back as my memory will take me, my fanaticism hit its peak at the age of thirteen on a warm spring day in 1967 in Bakersfield, California. I was healing for the umpteenth time from a bout of bronchitis (childhood illness was a constant albatross), which required a full court press on my parents to gain their permission to attend an exhibition game between my beloved San Francisco Giants, led by the incomparable Willie Mays, and the Cleveland Indians. Several of my buddies and I fled school early and found terrific seats behind the third base dugout.
It just so happened the ticket to a most amazing event which took place this particular day, one that would rattle my world, would arrive via a very unlikely source – a girl! You must understand, at that time girls were the most reviled creatures in my world. Fortunately, however, I made an exception for this girl for whom, if the truth were known, I had a major crush. Of course, I kept this secret well hidden for fear my friends would find out and tease me for months, if not years.
Her older sister was married to a journeyman outfielder, Bill Sorrell, who was vying for a spot on those very same Giants! I met Bill at an unlikely place – a golf course. My father was an avid golfer who one day invited Bill along for a round or two. Bill knew ahead of time I would tagging along with my father, and having been informed of my insane passion for the game of baseball, he brought along an authentic autographed Giants baseball, not one of those cheap, copied ones found at the ballpark. He also threw in one of his personal 36-inch bats! I still have both treasures, although the bat, I confess, has assumed a place next to the bed. It stands at the ready should the need to ward off a burglar present itself.
When I mentioned I would be attending the Giants-Indians exhibition game, Bill told me to holler his name and I could visit him in the outfield. The day of the game finally arrived, and sure enough, he motioned me through the gate and out to leftfield. While holding my own in talking baseball for several minutes, I noted my buddies taking it all in with gaping mouths. If was a proud moment.
As the game was about to begin, I said my thanks and began to wander off the field. As I slowly walked away while savoring every moment, a ball suddenly appeared at my feet. I quickly glanced up and beheld the greatest player ever to play the game – Willie Mays! He had missed a ball thrown by another of my heroes, fellow teammate and All-Star Willie McCovey (assuming, of course, it had to have been an errant throw). However, in a split second, my joy quickly turned to horror.
Willie was boring a hole through me, glaring at me impatiently as if to say, “You’d best give that back if you want to live another day!” I was crushed, the moment having moved rapidly from the biggest thrill of my life to the most humiliating. I hastily threw the ball back.
As I approached the gate to re-enter the stands, I heard a voice. “Hey, kid,” the Say Hey Kid yelled. I glanced over as Willie smiled from ear-to-ear, tossing the ball back to the most grateful kid in the world before taking his position in centerfield. My friends stared incredulously as I floated into the stands, and as I approached, I was smacked on the back mercilessly under a crescendo of “Whoas!”
I’m 54 years old now and the father of an equally wide-eyed 13 year old ballplayer. It is difficult to believe “Say Hey” is 77 years old. My mind drifts easily and often to the events of that marvelous March 1967 day, one that preceded the height of the Vietnam War and the deaths of my three political heroes. I’m thirteen again, and I am able to hold tight to the innocence of that day, a day when I crossed paths with the one-and-only Say Hey Kid.
You may ask, what happened that day with my other favorite, but lesser known, Giant, Bill Sorrell? Well, it just so happened he smashed a basehit to centerfield in the bottom of the ninth, easily bringing in the winning run.
Does it get any better?