|1967, it was the Summer of Love, and I played for the Angels in Anaheim, California. Not the professional team, but a Little League team, and the best one in the league. Most kids would say there wasn't much more to ask for, but it was much more than I could ask for.|
There are only two people I remember from that team, Phil Cooney, and myself, of course. Phil was kind of big and gangly, he lacked the coordination to be a baseball player, yet he so desperately wanted to be a part of the team. The others sensed this, and Phil became the team's laughing stock, constantly suffering put downs and ostracism. But this never fazed him, he was always upbeat and friendly, and tried harder than ever to find a place on the team. I always admired him for his ability to take shit from the others, yet I lacked the maturity to overcome the fear of not fitting in, and so stood by silently. The tragic thing was that his mother had died some time earlier, and he had a difficult time making the practices. The coach had a rule, "No Practice, No Play". As a result, Phil spent most games on the bench. But in spite of that, he enthusiastically supported the team.
On the other hand, my parents were quite involved with the team. My dad showed up at practices, where he was a team favorite. He would throw a baseball straight up into the air, where it would hang nearly forever in the heavens before making a lightning descent to earth. The kids clamored to be next to catch one of those, I had long given that exercise up when I misjudged the ball once and took a shot square in the face. My dad would even spend time in extra practice with me, we'd go to the field and he'd pitch to me and I would belt them out to the limits of the field. He was ecstatic at my ability, and would tell me to hit just like that in the games, but little did he know the pressure I suffered at a game.
Phil's dad never showed up at games, he was too busy being a single parent I guess, Phil said he was always working. On the other hand, my dad and stepmother were at every game, cheering on the team. That would have been fine with me if that were all they did, but they had to humiliate me with catcalls and put-downs if I made an error on the field or struck out at bat. Nothing dampens a child's enthusiasm faster than having his parents yelling, "What the hell is wrong with you, can't you play baseball? You can do better than that, get with it." I wished they wouldn't come, but there was no stopping them, or their anger when I didn't play up to their expectations.
One day, Phil's dad made it to a game. Phil was more excited than usual. Every week he would ask if he could play, which was always met with the same answer, "You didn't make practice this week Phil, so I can't put you in.", However, this time he begged, implored to play, his dad was there and he wanted him to see him play. There was nothing at that moment that meant more to him. The coach was in a quandary, his word was his word, but you could tell his heart was being moved. He struggled for most of the game as to what to do, even consulting my dad, who shrugged and wouldn't commit himself to an answer. Towards the end of the game, when it was obvious we were winning, he put Phil in. Phil literally glowed, and was walking on air. Even catcalls from his own teammates when he struck out didn't dampen the happiness of a boy who got to play baseball while his dad watched.
There was one boy whose spirit was dampened by just having his dad watch, and for me baseball was over. I never played again, in fact I took up a game that not only didn't my dad understand a thing about, it was right on par with watching paint dry as a spectator sport. Chess is a game where you can get lost in a world of sixty-four squares, and the rest of the world, with its intolerance and insensitivity is shut out, and so were my parents.
It's been thirty years since I was one of the boys of summer. In that time I've been through a lot, but I finally found the place that Phil Cooney had years ago, enthusiasm that can't be squelched by hecklers, and the ability to be myself without needing to compromise so as to be accepted by others. Phil will never know he was a mentor in my life, the strength I draw from his memory has helped me tremendously. I'm now on the verge of leaving baseball and apple pie behind, I'm soon moving to New Zealand to pursue a different childhood dream, to experience life on a small green island, to seek a new life and a new family. However there is one thing that won't be left behind, the gift I received from the outcast kid on a Little League team during the Summer of Love.
|JAMES SMITH, born in Los Angeles, California, has survived his childhood and chronic depression for 43 years. A landscaper by trade, for the past year and a half he has made his living teaching chess to school children. Recent events have left him free to pursue one of his childhood dreams, to move far away from home to the beautiful islands of New Zealand, where he plans to do some writing projects and tour every road on a Harley Davidson.|