Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Real Fields of Dreams

Attending a spring training baseball game over the weekend brings back adolescent memories of getting back on the diamond, fielding ground balls and hitting the ball on the screws.

I Love BaseballMy adolescent memories never really dimmed as I aged. When I saw a newspaper advertisement for adult baseball league tryouts, I dug out my glove and cleats and gave it a whirl. I was 45 years old and was drafted on a team called the Portland Pirates.

Growing up in Colorado, spring and baseball weren’t always a good mix. In high school, we started two of my three years practicing in the gym because there was snow on the baseball field. There is something unreal about fielding a grounder off the hardwoods of a basketball court.

Indoor batting practice consisted of hitting wiffle balls. Thinking back, it was a good training to hit curve balls.

Apr. 2, 2012; Scottsdale, AZ, USA; General view of Salt River Fields during the game between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Chicago Cubs. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-US PRESSWIRE

Salt River Fields in Scottsdale, Arizona Credit: Matt Kartozian-US PRESSWIRE

The fields I played on as a youth and later as an adult were good, but nothing like the showcases that professional players play on. Salt River Fields, where the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies play spring ball, is like a real field of dreams with manicured fields, protected bullpens and luxurious clubhouses.

Fans have all the luxuries, too. There isn’t a bad seat in the stadium, even on the grass “bleacher blankets” in the outfield.

On warm, sunny day, watching a baseball game is hard to beat. The only thing better is actually playing the game.

Despite my fantasies, I realized early I wasn’t going to be wearing Yankee pinstripes and waiting for the fat lady to sing in the World Series. That didn’t stop me from practicing year-round on fielding and hitting. It’s common now, but in those days, neighbors and my fields thought I was nuts taking grounders off the garage door in Denver snowstorms.

Martin_Billy_01When it was too cold outside, I retreated to my room to perfect my double-play move. When I was 10 or so, my dad took me to a kid’s camp hosted by the Denver Bears, which happened to be one of two AAA farm clubs for the Yankees. Billy Martin was the infielder instructor. His lessons were unforgettable.

After showing the intricacies of how a second baseman pivots to make the throw to first base, Martin shared a few professional tips.

“If the runner doesn’t slide, just throw the ball anyway. He’ll duck or learn to slide.”

“If a runner comes in high with his slide, you just leap over him. But if that runner does it again, just leap and land on his chest.”

For a kid, this was startling advice, which I followed a couple of times in my career. It also was good ammunition to use when someone scoffed that baseball wasn’t a contact sport.

Batting CageHitting was the weak link of my game. It wasn’t until my senior year in high school that a coach convinced me to adopt a more conventional batting stance, keep my bat still and throw my hands at a pitch. My hitting improved, and it kept improving because I kept playing – and frequenting batting cages. By the time I officially retired, at age 55, I was a decent hitter. The advent of the metal bat in my adult baseball career was a godsend.

Spring training games don’t count in the standings. For veterans, they are relaxing ways to prepare for a long season. For rookies, they are opportunities to catch a coach’s eye and maybe grab the last spot on the big league club’s roster.

For me, spring training games are a fragrant reminder of my lifelong love affair with baseball. It began as a kid sleeping with my glove under my pillow and it has continued with that same, weathered, but faithful mitt resting on the night stand next to my bed.

 

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