Tag Archives: memories

You can’t slide home again: A trip to the diamond of my youth

The Denison Park baseball field in Cleveland Heights, or what remains of it.

The Denison Park baseball field in Cleveland Heights, or what remains of it.

Several weeks ago I was back in the neighborhood where I grew up in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and I took a stroll down Memory Lane. More accurately, I walked up and down Bluestone Road, the major thoroughfare of my youth, connecting our home on Erieview Road to my grade school in neighboring South Euclid. In between was Denison Park, where I played hundreds upon hundreds of ball games and practices over the years.

I’ve always joked that if I succumb to Alzheimer’s and disappear, put out a Silver Alert that I’ll turn up on the left side of the infield at the Denison baseball field. Even now, I can conjure up the dirt beneath me and I use the toe of my cleats to smooth out a spot at shortstop where I’d crouch and ready myself for the next pitch. With my dad or my buddies or a coach shouting “charge it,” I raced in for countless dribblers to bare-hand and bounders that I’d try to glove at “the top of the hop.” For every grounder I stopped straight on or backhanded, I booted or bobbled another or watched it sail through my legs toward the thick green grass behind me.

In my head, I’m still brushing the dirt off my uniform after snagging a liner on a dive, or whirling and dashing madly back to run down a pop fly in shallow left field.

I can see my CYO coaches, Mr. Spada and Mr. Byrne, watching me whip the ball sidearm to first, impressed but speculating there might be something wrong because I didn’t throw overhand. (I made the team that year, 7th grade, and came back as captain in 8th grade.)

Yes, that swath of dirt at Denison was sacred ground to me, and I wanted to walk it again on my return to Cleveland over the summer. Except that the ball field is gone.

It’s been replaced by the picnic pavilion shown above, which covers a big chunk of the old infield. The area I used to patrol at short is roughly where a group of barbecue grills stand behind the pavilion. The plaque honoring the park founder has been swiped from the boulder that used to sit behind the backstop.

Disappointing, yes, that that old ball field is gone. Even more disappointing: there is no baseball diamond at the park, although the tennis and basketball courts remain and there’s an immaculate new soccer field with artificial turf dominating the center of the park.

IMG_4282My nostalgic mood didn’t improve when I decided to visit the house my maternal grandparents rented in the 1960s on E. 98th Street at Elwell Avenue in Cleveland. The house, the first one on the left as you turn onto the dead-end block, is gone. A grass lot with no trace of a foundation is all that’s there, and the old landlord’s home beside it facing Elwell is heavily boarded and probably is vacant. And on a telephone pole  between the two houses is a sign saying “No ball playing allowed.”

I’ve been stewing on that day of soured nostalgia for a number of weeks, and it’s pointing me to the inevitable decision to stop writing this blog. From the start, I wanted the blog to be something that would express something fresh and interesting on the sport I love, initially using the caps I’ve collected as a peg for posts. I pushed the blog hard for a couple of years, and I enjoyed getting involved in the Baseball Bloggers Alliance, especially for making a number of friends among my fellow bloggers.

This season, my posts have been sparse, and I’ve neglected my alliance duties almost entirely, and maybe that’s for best. In my last post trying to stay current, I picked the Texas Rangers to win the World Series.

I don’t want this blog to devolve into a series of old-man memories of how much better baseball was “back in the day.” I believe firmly the game is still as vibrant and entertaining and special as ever. Look no further than the terrific World Series between my San Francisco Giants and those upstart Kansas City Royals.

It’s a great game, but it’s time for me to head to the blogging showers. I plan one more, likely final post, once the World Series ends. That’s to fix the date for the next Baseball Solstice, marking the mid-point between the last game of the series and the first exhibition game of spring training. If anything lasts from this blog, I’d like it to be that the solstice — my little brainstorm from a couple of long winters ago — gains broad acceptance among baseball fans. That and the notion that baseball is the thread that ties so many families and friends together through the generations.

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Great Baseball Books: ‘How to Star in Baseball’ by Herman L. Masin

How to Star.jpbAn avid reader and aspiring ballplayer as a kid, I had one book in my hands more than any other: “How to Star in Baseball” by Herman L. Masin. That book was the Bible of Baseball to me. I studied its pages for hours and hours, reading up and memorizing the fine points of how to scoop up a grounder or turn the double play.

I still have my copy, and it’s one of the few things that I’d try to grab before running out of the house should it catch fire. The book is in a box in the attic, so I can’t verify the publication date at the moment. But it’s the late-1960s version with the cover showing Mickey Mantle finishing off what appears to be a home run swing. I bought the book through Scholastic Book Clubs, a mail-order service that sold and delivered books through my school.

Over and over I checked out Masin’s copious notes on hitting, fielding and throwing, poring over the pictures and studying the diagrams to get the mechanics down. Masin espoused the full windup for pitchers: step onto the rubber, rock back with both arms and bring them overhead, leading to a powerful turn and thrust toward the plate. And don’t forget the follow-through into fielding position, undoubtedly the best from-a-book advice I received in my brief stint as a schoolboy hurler. I even taught myself the hook slide from Masin’s book.

I never learned who the players depicted on the inside pages were, but from the few clues in the photos, I’m guessing they were of the St. John’s University team.

I knew nothing of Masin (in fact, I’d forgotten his name) until today, when a Google search quickly turned up his obituary. Surprisingly, he died recently, in 2010 at age 96. I had known Scholastic had also produced “How to Star in Basketball” and “How to Star in Football,” but I didn’t realize Masin was the man behind those and so many other publications.

“How to Star in Baseball” can be found on eBay and other websites, and you can probably come across a battered copy of the paperback in a flea market or used book store. It won’t be mine. It’s not for sale.

When I see a major-league player cavalierly catch the ball with one hand or half-ass it down the first base line while running out a grounder, I know that goes against the fundamentals Masin drilled into me. Next to my father, no one gave me as much valuable advice on how to play the game.

Great moments in childhood: My 1966 Rocky Colavito baseball card

On this, the 78th birthday of Rocky Colavito, permit me to reminisce on one of the great events of my childhood.

Like most kids in Cleveland in the late 50s and 1960s, I idolized Rocky Colavito, my favorite Indians player.  I was only 3 when Frank Lane traded him to the Tigers for Harvey Kuenn at the beginning of the 1960 season, and I have vague memories of crying at his departure. Those “memories” are more likely an accumulation of hearing my dad and uncles and cousins griping for years about how it was the worst trade in the history of baseball. (To this day, I fervently believe it was the worst trade in the history of the sport, and there’s no dissuading me.)

In any event, Rocky returned to the Tribe a few years later to great joy in Cleveland and in our home on Erieview Road in Cleveland Heights. By this time I was in grade school and a full-fledged baseball fan whose sole goal in life was to play shortstop for the Tribe. I was also an avid baseball card collector.

In those days, Topps — the only maker then — released cards in series. The first series with about 120 cards came out around the time the teams were breaking camp from spring training and heading north. At 9 years old, I couldn’t wait for the new cards to arrive. I remember talking my mom into getting me a box of “wax packs” of cards to mark the start of the year.

In the first pack I opened, there was Sandy Koufax, card No. 100. That was a great start, but I really marked success by the number of Indians I got in each pack.

A few weeks later, we went to visit my maternal grandmother, who lived in a senior citizens’ apartment complex a few suburbs over in Mayfield Heights. (Cleveland, scooped out by a glacier even longer ago than the 1948 World Series championship, is big on “Heights.”) Any trip to a drugstore was a chance to see if I could cadge a few dimes out of Mom to buy a pack or two of cards, and little did I know what wonder awaited.

Turns out that the long-forgotten shop we visited that weekend stocked the Series 2 cards from Topps. And Rocky Colavito – the golden ticket of my fourth-grade dreams — was in Series 2 at No. 150.

I don’t remember the circumstances, but one of the cards I got that day was a Colavito.

This was 1966, so I couldn’t share my joy on Facebook or boast about it on Twitter. The news had to wait until the 10 a.m. recess bell released us from Mrs. Thelma Ward’s class at St. Margaret Mary School in South Euclid. Recess was a time to see who had added what cards, and I had Rocky.

Within a minute or two, while the girls skipped rope or did whatever they did on their half of playground, every boy in the school surrounded me hoping to get a look at the Colavito card.

For a skinny kid with no discernible athletic skills, this was the highlight of my young life. At 4 feet 3 inches tall or thereabouts, I was the big man on campus.

Five decades later, I still remember that cold and overcast spring day clearly, still feeling the crush of the crowd at my shoulders as everyone craned to get a look at “The Rock.”

For all this time, I’ve told the story in the context that getting the Colavito card was extra special because it came the spring that Rocky came back to the Tribe. But I looked it up tonight and that wasn’t the case. Colavito returned to Cleveland the year before, in 1965, when his Topps card had one of those hilarious rubouts of the logo on the cap of his prior team, the Kansas City Athletics. I never got that card. It was No. 380 and probably came out in the summer after school had let out.

That slight adjustment to the story notwithstanding, getting the Colavito card was one of the great moments of my boyhood and remains one of my most cherished memories.

Thanks, Rocky, and happy birthday.

Here’s to the Irish, especially the baseball players, on St. Patrick’s Day

Happy St. Patrick’s day, everyone! I was pleased to find that there is an Irish-American Baseball Hall of Fame, thanks to a Google search and the Eddie Kranepool Society Mets blog. The 2011 inductions are on today at Foley’s Pub in New York City.

The Irish and baseball have been joined like a firm grip on a pint of Guinness since the game got started on America’s eastern seaboard in the 19th century.

I’m of Irish descent myself and proud of it.  I grew up in Cleveland Heights, Ohio,  a suburb populated mainly by Catholics (Irish, Italian and Slavic) and Jews.  The typical lineup for the teams I played on looked something like this:

Day, SS

Steinberg, LF

DiGiacamo, 1B

Kowalski, RF

Kennedy, CF

Rabinowitz, C

Jedinek, 3B

Merriman, 2B

Vincenzo, P

Most of those names are made up – I’m going to have to probe the memory banks to recall some of the real lineups – but the tone is right.

With its ethnic and racial diversity, modern baseball is more than ever a game for everyone. May the sun be always on its face.