I have spent a large portion of my life sitting on a tractor, riding mower or John Deere Gator doing nothing more than traveling in circles. Cutting fields or dragging infields for untold hours, always ending up where I started. Miles and miles going absolutely nowhere. Occasionally, I did try to cut in different directions so that I might unwind myself. My last field, a middle school field, in Greenville County, South Carolina, was a palace compared to any of the fields that I played on in high school. It was a different time on a different planet, it would seem. My statement doesn’t mean that I didn’t coach on some pretty poor fields.
Our field was no different from any of the other fields that we played on in that it was terrible. Like many other fields, it was built as an afterthought. It was, however, terrible in different ways than the other terrible fields. Every field has its own…ah…ambience for lack of a better word. Ours was a football field adjusted to accommodate a baseball field. The backstop was constructed from creosoted “re-purposed” telephone poles and chicken wire. A skinned infield was located off of one end meaning the right field fence would have been about two hundred and fifty feet from home plate…if there had been a fence. Instead of a fence we had a steep drop off that was studded with pine trees. The left field line went on forever following the general path of the football sidelines until it ended with a fence. While much deeper, at least there were no light standards to navigate in left although there were goal post to worry about. In right you had to worry about light standards and goal posts. David Jowers, a big, blond-headed lefty, ripped a line drive so hard that when it hit a light standard he was almost a “3 unassisted” at first base from the rebound. After striking the standard it one-hopped back to the first baseman.
I found myself “camped out” in right field my sophomore year as the starter. Proud to start, normally right is where you put your worst fielder if you are playing on a little league team. Thank goodness this wasn’t little league or I might have gotten my feelings hurt. I think I played in right because I was the most expendable. No big loss if I ran into one of the light standards or got tangled up in a goalpost.
My first start was not on our terrible field, however, it was on someone else’s terrible field, Mt. Pisgah I think, and my first start was almost my last. Their field was not a football-baseball combination, it was an afterthought stuck behind the gym which took up a lot of the area of right field along with its high brick staircase that led up to court level. Just behind the infield a hard-packed dirt road ran through right and on into left field. Did I mention the outfield grass had not been cut and mounds of clover pushed up through the dormant Bermuda? To further complicate my field of dreams, the fans brought their lawn chairs and sat in the shade created by the high gymnasium walls and the tall staircase. If there were any ground rules involving fans I was not told them.
Early in the game a ball was hit over my head. I thought I could reach it…back then every ball that was hit I thought I could reach. Doing my best impersonation of Willy Mays at the Polo Grounds, I spun to my right and sprinted to the point I thought the ball was going to land. All I could see in front of me was a sea of fans…well maybe not a sea, more like a small pond of fans. All I could hear when I looked back over my left shoulder for the ball was the SNAP, SNAP, SNAP of lawn chairs being closed as fans vacated the area. No, I did not catch it. I watched the ball pass cleanly between my extended glove and my nose right before I stepped into someone’s green and white lawn chair. At least they didn’t have to cut me out of it.
Late in the game a flare was hit between me and the second baseman. I decided to field it on its first bounce but the ball didn’t bounce. Instead, it died in a clump of clover and my glove passed harmlessly over it. Slamming on brakes I then fell down, got up, overran the ball again before the “third time being the charm” came into play. All I could do was hang my head. When we finally got them out Coach Gunter met me at the bench and asked “Do you need to take a stick with you?” “Sir?” “So you will have something to hit it with!” Yeah, maybe. Later a popup between the second basemen and myself would turn into a double as I waited for it to come down…AFTER IT BOUNCED! The ball hit the hard-packed dirt road. Momma, I want to go home!
Thirty plus years later I would find myself standing at home plate behind Lockhart High School thinking about the fields that I had played on and wondering if I had just stepped through a time portal. In the spring, their outdoor athletic facility was a football field that doubled as a baseball field. In dead centerfield was a press box with bleachers that extended into left and right fields. Both sets of goal posts were in play as were several light posts that ran behind the bleachers. The right field foul line actually split the goal post which made them in play. The infield was placed off of what would have been the actual football playing field but dimensions were strange. Somewhere near four hundred feet down the left field line, nearer to five hundred down the right and a mere two hundred fifty feet to dead center if you hit a ball over the press box. What really bothered me was the water spigot with the bucket turned over it in center field and the hole filled with tires beyond the right field goal post. The coach had used more chalk to lay out the out of play areas than he had used to line the field. During the longest ground rules meeting in the annals of baseball, I was told that if a ball rolled into the hole filled with tires it was a ground rule double. I was more concerned with what happened if my right fielder fell into it. This game was a tort liability waiting to happen. I decided the best thing for me to do was to put the outfielder I could most afford to lose in right field…just like my coach had done thirty-plus years before.