So many changes in baseball. Spring training mostly has the charm of a moderate-security prison. Get your autograph through a chain-link fence.
But here, courtesy of Ed Martin, is funky old McKechnie Field in Bradenton, just as I remember it from 1980.
The left-field corner. I touched on this a few weeks ago when I described how I wandered into the Pirates’ clubhouse to visit my friend Bill Robinson while the Royals took practice. When I came back on the field, I spotted a kid playing pepper with the Royals in the left-field corner. Good grief, that was our son, David, then 10.
He had his glove on (the one with Jim Rice’s autograph from a chance meeting in Boston) and was scooping the ball off the ground in the time-honored ritual of baseball, when players enjoyed the fundamentals of their business. This must have gone on for 15 minutes before the Royals left the field, and David hopped back into the stands.
To make sure my memory is correct, the other day I asked David to resurrect the event. This is what he wrote:
“Not much to it ....Some other kid and I were in the stands long before the game, picking up all the foul balls. We were standing by the rail when the Royals pitchers came out and one of them asked us if we wanted to hop the fence. I THINK it was the one that died young, whose name I can't remember.”
Dan Quisenberry? He had been a rookie the year before, was a great guy, gregarious and smart, became a good friend of Roger Angell, and was mentioned in Angell’s beautiful riff recently on the passing of time. Quisenberry died at 45 in 1998, of a brain tumor.
Whether it was Quisenberry or not -- and it sounds like something he would do, give a thrill to a couple of kids in the stands -- the gesture created a legend in our household: a boy with hair down to his shoulders, playing pepper on a spring-training field in a more informal time.
"Think about it,” David concluded the other day. “Not only would that never happen these days, but do ballplayers even play pepper?”
They don’t even take infield practice anymore. But fans still carry their gloves to games and try to get close to the players in retro places like funky old McKechnie Field.
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PS: David still loves the game. In case you missed it, here is his essay in last Sunday’s New York Times:
PPS: The photograph of Andrew McCutchen is by Ed Martin, formerly the president of the great Abilities, Inc., in Albertson, L.I., and previously the assistant secretary of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services in the Carter Administration. We have very classy volunteer photographers.