Years ago, when I was maybe 14, I ended up in a 16-inch softball game on a big field behind Austin High School on the Far West Side.
It was just a few blocks from my home, but I don’t think I knew any of the other players. I just happened to be standing there and got put on one of the teams.
Tall and lanky, I normally played first base. These guys, though, sent me to left field.
We started the game in the late afternoon, and, as the innings went on, it began to get darker and harder to see the beat-up old, gray softball.
Over my head
So, I’m out in left field when this big bruiser comes to the plate. He takes a huge cut at a pitch and sends the ball soaring straight out in my direction. I can tell immediately that the ball is hit so hard and high that it’s going to go far over my head.
Without thinking, I turn and run as fast as I can with my back to the rest of the field. After several steps, I look up, see the dark gray ball against the darker, almost black sky directly above my head, reach out my hands…
And catch the ball.
Even the klutziest
I remember that I turned and threw the ball into the infield. And that’s where the memory ends. I have no recollection of anyone commenting on the catch. After that game, I never saw any of the other players again. Over the years, there’s been no friend to bring it up in conversation.
Doesn’t matter. It’s a memory I treasure whenever I call it to mind. Like now when the baseball season is getting started.
I suspect that most people who have ever played sports — even the klutziest and most inept — have a memory like this. Maybe especially the klutzy and inept players.
I’m talking about a memory of somehow rising above your limitations and doing something astonishing.
Lumbering and clumsy as I was, there was no way I should have been able to make a Willie Mays, over-the-head catch like that. That’s what makes it so memorable and such a treasure.
It reminds me of that rarest of baseball accomplishments, the perfect game, in which a pitcher keeps every batter off the bases. Some of the game’s greats, such as Cy Young, Sandy Koufax and Roy Halladay, have thrown a perfecto. But so have some very mediocre hurlers, including Don Larsen, Dallas Braden and, when he was with the White Sox, Philip Humber.
I’m sure Koufax has a special place in his heart for his perfect game. But, after a Hall of Fame career, he can look back on a lot of amazing feats on the field. Not so with Humber. At least, so far.
Most of us are a lot more like Philip Humber and Don Larsen than Sandy Koufax.
If you’re the 12th player on a 12-player basketball team and hit a surprise three-pointer, you remember it. Or make a nifty serve in volleyball, or an interception near the goal line, or a 60-foot putt.
Why do we care? It’s only sports.
Yet, here’s where sports is like life.
Sometimes in life, you just luck out. You duck into a restaurant to get out of the rain, and end up eating the best meal of your life. You find a $50 bill on the sidewalk. You just miss a train that then breaks down in a cornfield in central Illinois. Against your will, you let yourself be dragged to a party, and meet the love of your life.
Certainly, there are a lot of bad luck times in anyone’s life. But those good luck times — they’re something to cherish.
That long-ago catch in the growing darkness on the field behind Austin High School is a reminder, for me, that life has moments when everything goes right.
That’s something to treasure, isn’t it?
Patrick T. Reardon