Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

The Old Boys of Summer

Warm, sunny afternoons bring back sweet memories of my second childhood, playing men’s adult baseball.

As Ernie Banks would say, good weather meant it was a great day to play two. For 10 years, that’s what I did whenever the weather was even close to good enough to strap on my cleats and not slip on the way to home plate.

Portland A'sAfter my high school baseball career abruptly ended in the Colorado state playoffs, I never imagined playing baseball again. I toyed with going out for my college team because most of the players were pretty much at my skill level, except for the guy who played second base, my position. He was an All-American.

When I moved to Astoria for a newspaper job, I hooked up with a fast-pitch softball team. Their third baseman had been arrested and they needed a fill-in. I was glad to oblige, even though I had never played third base. After learning not to throw the ball into the right field stands, I eventually earned a spot – at third – on Astoria’s traveling fast-pitch team, which played annually in the state tournament in Medford. The coach’s son played second.

In DC, I continued to play softball, with a competitive fast-pitch team and a Capitol Hill co-ed team. But it was never the same as real baseball.

Back in Oregon, I happened to see an ad in the newspaper announcing tryouts for teams in the Portland-area National Adult Baseball Association. I decided to try out, reasoning that no one would recognize me if I was a flop. I was 45 years old and hadn’t thrown a baseball for a quarter century.

As it turned out, I was by no means the rustiest, oldest or worst player at the tryouts. A few days later, I got the call. I was a member of the Portland Pirates.

There are adult baseball teams and then there are really good adult baseball teams. The team I was on could hardly even brag that all the players were adults. Rules prohibited drinking and smoking during games, but the umpires weren’t around when a few of our players, including the coach, “warmed up” before the game. Some game days, he was steaming.

Despite playing second base my entire Little League, Legion and high school career, I found myself playing third. A relative of the coach was securely ensconced at second. No matter, I figured, a second career, a second position. At least until one rainy, cold Sunday when I threw out my arm making a long throw from third to first.

I was always a solid defensive player and, as I got older, I became a decent hitter, thanks to hours of practice at the local batting cage. Apparently my play got noticed by a guy who planned to start his own team. He had penciled me at second if I was willing to ditch the Pirates. I said yes immediately.

The Portland Athletics became my team for eight seasons, including one when we shocked everyone –maybe even ourselves – and won our league championship. I still have our championship team picture displayed near my bed.

As a lifelong Yankee fan, it was awkward owning and wearing all this A’s equipment – jerseys, hats, windbreakers and even batting gloves. But I enjoyed being part of the team.

Our pitching ace was a dentist. Our shortstop was an internist. Our left fielder owned an insurance agency. Our right fielder worked for the Oregon Housing Division. A utility player was pursuing a degree in philosophy. Our coach, who recruited me, was a catcher and infielder who had a son good enough to be drafted out of high school by a Major League Baseball team.

Along the way we picked up a pair of brothers who both played pro ball. The older brother, as they say, had a cup of coffee in the big leagues. I would have paid to watch him play, but luckily I didn’t have to. He played third base.

We had a lot of fun, but when we crossed the lines, we were serious. Team members were quick to offer tips on how to improve. Our left fielder, who played at the University of Oregon before it dropped baseball as an intercollegiate sport, was the best hitting coach I ever had. I went from hitting line drives to hitting a few balls off the fence.

Our games were played during the day and at night at places like Scavone Stadium near Reed College and Walker Stadium in Lents Park. Our coach was enterprising and traded sweat equity by team members for the opportunity to use premier high school fields as our “home field.” One of the best was Lakeridge High School, which had a drainage system that swallowed rain. A few wives came, but mostly the stands were empty. We didn’t play for glory. We played because we loved the game.

Players cycled through the team because of injuries, job changes or annoyed wives, so we began adding younger guys just over the age limit. They were often pitchers, so it wasn’t uncommon to bat against a young guy who hurt his shoulder while playing college or pro ball, but still could throw a 80-mph-heater just for fun.

When the younger players, who were then in the majority on the team, decided to join an all-wood-bat league, with no age limits, I knew it was time to hang up my cleats, this time for good.

I had managed to play 10 years longer than I ever imagined. Despite the errors, muffed hitting assignments and lack of pinstripes on my uniform, I couldn’t have asked for a better second childhood when, on warm Sundays, we played two.

 

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