Today is one of those hot, sultry, late July days. The temperatures are in the 80s, and there is a slight chance of the thunderstorms that are such a classic trademark of summer in the mountains of western North Carolina. The trees are as full as they get. The grass has a tinge of brown here and there from the summer heat. Bees, gnats, and mosquitoes are everywhere. Ants are working themselves in double shifts.
School has been out since the middle of May, which means that the boys have gotten quite used to sitting up past midnight and sleeping in late. The summer trips have all be taken. Most of the calendar dates have been met and scratched off. The next major event on the horizon is the return to school. It was on just such a day, almost thirty-five years ago now, that the last second of my “innocent little boy” era was snatched away and I lost one of the dearest things in the world to me: the wonder, safety, and insulation of my backyard sanctuary.
When I was a kid my backyard served as the epicenter of the sports universe. It was a football field, a basketball court, and a baseball stadium all rolled into one. How it was used depended upon which sport was in season. Far and away, though, my favorite season was baseball and my favorite time of the year was summer. Virtually every day my schedule was the same: sleep till noon, get up and eat some cereal, and then head out to play the big game. For me, stepping out the door onto our carport and then out into the backyard was akin to running out of the tunnel and onto the field at a Major League ballpark. I’d even do pregame shows in my head, complete with announcers, before hitting the door.
The layout of my field was simple. Home plate was in front of the side of my swing set. The third base line was the pole of my basketball goal. The first base line was the middle support of our carport. And the canopy of huge trees that encircled our house was the outfield fence. Any ball hit high enough into any of those trees was a home run. All other balls were either fielded for outs by the imaginary players that manned each position or went for singles, doubles, or triples.
I used a plastic bat and ball and batted for each player in each team’s lineup. I batted right-handed for the righties and left-handed for the lefties. I swung somewhat weakly for the weak hitters and came out of my shoes swinging for the big studs. Over the years, I must have gone through fifty balls and a dozen bats hitting for the lineups of Major League teams. I wrote the batting lineups out on sheets of notebook paper, played regular innings, and kept precise score. Of course, my beloved Philadelphia Phillies rarely lost.
I wish I was a good enough writer to adequately convey just how important my backyard stadium was to me. It was my refuge from a world that didn’t always go to suit me. It was my empire where I ruled as undisputed king. It was my personal fantasy land where all my athletic dreams came true. Even today if a psychiatrist asked me to go to a “happy place” in my mind, I’d find myself standing at home plate of that stadium, at the height of summertime, plastic bat in one hand, plastic ball in the other, just about to toss up the ball and cut loose with a mighty swing. No site from my warehouse of memories is safer or more magical.
Ah, but then came that one summer’s day, that one game, and that one swing. I remember it like it was yesterday. I was batting for the order of the Oakland As, and the specific guy at the plate was a player named Mitchell Page. That name has long since been lost to baseball history, but in 1977 Page finished second in the American League’s Rookie of the Year voting to future hall of famer Eddie Murray. I knew all about Page because I had his baseball card from that year, complete with all the information that I would ever need about the man.
Since Page was a left-handed power hitter, I switched over to the left side of the plate and mustered my strength to do his swing justice. I tossed the ball up into the air, paused for just a moment to get the timing right, and then cut loose with all I had in a left-handed swing. To my surprise the ball jumped off the bat in a way I’d never seen one do. I remember that it started off on a much higher plane than usual, a fact that caused me to first assume that I had hit the backyard equivalent of a mile-high Major League popup that would land somewhere between the infield and the outfield for an easy out.
The strange thing was, though, rather than the ball reaching an apex and coming down, the ball kept climbing higher and higher as it soared toward the canopy of trees. I stood there and watched it, thinking to myself, “Man, Mitchell Page shouldn’t have this kind of power.” I was having real trouble getting my logical mind wrapped around the illogical reality that was playing out before me. Higher and higher, farther and farther the ball sailed until suddenly, in a flash, just as surely as it had been headed toward the highest point of those trees, it disappeared completely from my sight!
I stood there for a while looking confused and puzzled, like one of those guys who thinks he just caught a second’s glimpse of Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster. I was thinking, “Did what I think just happened really happen? Could it be possible? Would the laws of the universe allow for such a thing? Did I just step out of time and space and enter into some parallel dimension like those I’ve seen on those t.v. shows The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits? Did Mitchell Page just hit a baseball over the trees and, thus, completely out of the stadium?”
With my mind still racing I threw down my bat, forsook all pretense of the game, and headed off to find exactly where that ball had landed. I went through our back yard, down the bank, and into the woods. My eyes scanned every known place where any previous ball had ever landed, but there was nothing white to be seen anywhere.
So, then I made my way further out into the trees, out toward our neighbor’s gravel driveway. That driveway ran along the edge of the backside of that big canopy of trees, with the trees basically separating our property from her’s. And that’s when I saw it, that white plastic baseball lying there in the middle of that driveway. I remember how the white of the ball stood out so vividly against the backdrop of the dark gray of the gravel. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the unimaginable had happened: Mitchell Page had hit a ball completely out of the greatest backyard stadium of all time.
How did I feel at that moment? Well, would you believe that I literally had to hold back the tears? Rather than being ecstatic over such an awesome feat, I was devastated. I felt like a baby bird that had just been pushed out the nest where it had been nurtured and protected for so long. I was now living in a brand new world and there was no going back to how things had been.
I didn’t even finish that game. As a matter of fact, I only tried playing a couple of times after that day, but my heart wasn’t even in those. I had grown too old and too strong for my own good. Now I needed a bigger stadium, and deep down I knew that such a place didn’t exist. Life would come hard and fast from here on out, and my safe place was no more. The yard, landmarks, and trees were still there, but they’d never hold the same fairy dust they’d once held.
Needless to say, after all these years my mind still makes occasional trips back to my backyard baseball stadium. Of course, I can never stay there for long. The past is the past and the demands of the present must constantly be met. But those fleeting memories serve as the lenses through which I personally view those words from Ecclesiastes 11:9:
Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. (N.K.J.V.)
My youth is long gone now, and there’s a certain brand of cheer, let’s call it “little boy” cheer, that I’ll never know again. It’s not that my life is bad now. To the contrary, I’d say that in God’s eyes it’s better than it’s ever been. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t sometimes miss those imaginary big-league games in my backyard.
This post got me to thinking about Mitchell Page, and so I did a little internet research on him. I learned that he died in his sleep on March 11, 2011 at the age of 59. Something in me was saddened by that news. All I’ll say is that I hope he was a Christian. If he was then one day we’ll have an awesome conversation in heaven, and I’ll tell him what a profound influence he unknowingly had on my life.