Call it a ping or a ting, all I know is I heard that distinctive sound the other day and instantly recognized it.
There, in the park across the street from where I was parked, were four or five boys, probably 11, 12 or 13. One pitched, one stood at home plate and the others were in the field. It was Thursday of school vacation week, the first nice day in about a week.
I watched for several minutes. The kid at the plate hit a ball way above the head of the outfielder, who threw his glove high in the air in a vain attempt to knock it down. The ball sailed high over the outfield fence and into the thickly wooded area.
“Go get it,” one kid shouted to the batter.
My mind reeled back 30 years. OK, 40 years. Back when playing baseball wasn’t always organized with coaches, umpires, uniforms and nice equipment. Oh, we had our Little Leagues and the Babe Ruth League, but for the most part, it was just a bunch of kids, out there in the park, playing pickup baseball from morning until it got too dark to see the ball. Buck up for sides. Captains toss the bat upside down and take turns wrapping their hands around it until they get to the top of the bat handle.
Kids line up against the fence and the captains pick their teams. And, of course, there is always one kid who doesn’t get picked. He won’t play the field this time but he gets to hit for both teams. A-O. Automatic out.
Sometimes we didn’t even use a park. The field at the end of Boisvert Street behind the old Greenhalge School sufficed. The Greenhalge, a three-story brick structure on the corner of Ennell and Victor streets in Lowell, has since been torn down. Replaced by a modern facility. The field has been tarred and is now a teachers’ parking lot.
The field was never designed for baseball or any organized sport for that matter, but over the years, basepaths were worn into the ground as if they belonged there. The back of the school sat in left field. It wasn’t hard for us to imagine that it was the Green Monster. Windows presented a small problem, but there were only a few of us who could actually reach the building on a fly. Center field went on forever, down to a driveway along the east side of the building. The short right-field fence separated the school yard from Buster Nugent’s back yard. And the Nugents’ German shepherd. I can’t remember its name.
Home plate was in kind of a hole and the first base line was uphill. Compensating for that was the third-base line, which was downhill.
Home plate was actually drawn into the dirt by someone with a keen eye and a bat handle. The bases were discarded pieces of cardboard or a big rock. Sometimes a baseball cap would do.
“Pinky, we need your hat for second base.”
“Let us use your hat and you can pitch.”
Directly behind home plate was a 6-foot fence and the St. Louis de France School and convent. Frosted, stained-glass windows took the brunt of many a foul ball. You couldn’t really break a window, but every-so-often we’d get a visit from Sister Domitille, the little French nun who lived in the convent.
“You go now. You go,” she’d admonish in broken English.
So we’d take a short break and head down to Houle’s Friendly Corner on West Sixth Street. Pick up a quart bottle of Squirt and a couple of Stoddard Bakery Black Moons or a pint of Gene’s High-Grade Ice Cream (with those little wooden spoons) and slowly make our way back. Or maybe head off to Harry Allen Field or Gage Field.
I was thinking about this the other day as I watched these young kids. Driving around town I was a little crestfallen as I started counting the empty fields on such a beautiful day. Where were all the kids?
On Sunday afternoon, my son and a couple of friends wanted to go hit some baseballs. I piled them all into the car and went to the park. All the fields were full. Little League opening day. Monahan Park, Hovey Field, Carrick Field, the Daoulas School Complex. All full. Organized baseball.
In a couple of hours, they all would be empty. Until then, let’s see what’s happening over at the Greenhalge.
Dennis Shaughnessey’s e-mail is email@example.com.