Remembering early-season baseball in its icy glory [Commentary]

If in the last few weeks you've driven past a baseball or softball field, it's a fair bet that you've seen kids out practicing on those fields. I'm guessing that the kids you saw, though probably having fun, were wearing some manner of ear protection underneath their hats and helmets, and that they had their hands jammed underneath their armpits, trying desperately to keep their exposed digits warm as the afternoon sun dropped. You see, living at our particular latitude requires baseball and softball players to start practicing when the temperature is still regularly dipping down below 40 degrees. If you aren't lucky enough to have an indoor facility in which to practice, this sometimes means standing around in the cold for hours on end, waiting for a ball to be hit to you.

As I grew up in Cecil County and played organized baseball there for the better part of 12 years, I know well the feeling of trying to stay warm on an early March afternoon. In fact, just seeing kids out on local ball fields this time of year brings back a flood of childhood and teenage memories. I'm going to run through some of them, and I'm going to steal a narrative device that I saw used in a book that I just read, "I Remember," by visual artist Joe Brainard. Brainard spends 100-some pages going over his memories, starting each paragraph with the book's title. What a genius idea. Here's my attempt:

I remember walking out onto the field at Perryville High School for the first day of pitcher/catcher practice before my sophomore season (I switched from second base to catcher that year) and seeing piles of ice and snow that were left over from the Blizzard of 1996. We spent five minutes on the rock-hard field before the coaches decided to send us inside the gym.

I remember thinking that someone, probably myself, was going to catch an errant throw right in the face when we practiced inside the gym. Most high school gymnasiums are big enough to host regional championship basketball games, but when there's dozens of baseballs being thrown at the same time inside one, it tends to feel very cramped. My premonition almost came true when I was warming up the junior varsity's number-one starter, Joe (I was on JV at this point as well). Joe fired a high fastball at me, but right when he released it, one of the second-string catchers came trotting directly between the mound and the plate. The ball missed this kid's head by an inch, and wound up hitting me directly in the shoulder because I'd lost sight of it. I still get jumpy thinking about that incident.

I remember going back outside for practice the next day, when it was about five degrees warmer, and thinking that my catching hand was going to fall off if I caught another pitch in the palm. That hurts when it's warm outside, but taking a fastball outside the pocket on a cold day is torture.

I remember Opening Day, 1989, when the temperature at Perryville Park dropped down to what seemed like 20 degrees (if you've never been there, the park is right on the water, and the wind coming off the bay is always icy cold in early spring). The chief umpire, eager to wrap the game up and send everyone back to the warmth of their cars and homes, started calling any pitch that was over the plate, from the top of the player's helmet to the bottom of their toes, a strike. He even called strike on a pitch that bounced on home plate. At one point during this game, my team's pitcher was so cold he attempted to start an inning with a batting glove on his pitching hand.

That's it for now. I'll have some more of these next week.

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