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Inside looking out: Cheers for the Twilight Boys

Published May 25. 2019 06:20AM

Back in the day, boys all over America rode their bikes to play pick up baseball games at neighborhood ball fields.

Some 50 to 60 years have since passed and now some of those former superstars of the sandlots putter their golf carts to join me at a nearby tennis court that’s been modified into our field of dreams. We’ve put away our baseballs for Whiffle balls, and instead of hitting with a wooden Louisville Slugger, we swing an orange fiberglass Moonshot made somewhere in Idaho.

It’s Tuesday morning. Neil has been on the court for an hour already sweeping puddles of rainwater off the blacktop. Bob arrives with the game equipment: our bats and a bucket of plastic balls. He places the strike zone net behind home plate and hangs the wooden peg scoreboard on the fence above the “dugout” area we furnish with a few lawn chairs.

We bring our bodies to the game with histories of cancers, kidney disease, spinal stenosis, arthritis, multiple surgeries, and the everyday aches and pains you get when you’re surviving the ages of senior citizenship.

Nobody complains. We’re here to be athletes. Let the game begin.

Jack stands upon the “mound,” a painted line on the court. He spins the plastic ball between his fingers to find the grip to toss his signature slider. Bill sets his feet in the batter’s box. Jack will throw the same pitch that struck out a hundred or so ballers six decades ago on a dirt field that’s since been paved into a parking lot.

He rocks and fires. The ball spins through the air and makes a hard left turn as it crosses the strike zone. Bill cocks the big barrel bat and swings with the power that he once flashed to blast baseballs into the trees of summers past.

The Moonshot shoots the Whiffle ball into the morning sky, high and deep, toward the home run line at the end of the court.

Vern is in the outfield zone. He’s an ex-Marine. His determination to make this catch comes from having been one of the few and the proud. He steadies his eyes under the ball, but his legs, weakened from military maneuvers and years of hard labor, stumble backward and then forward. We hold our breaths, hoping he will keep his feet under him and not tumble to the blacktop.

Vern gets control of his legs and opens his hands. The ball descends into his palms for an out. We wear his smile upon our faces, too. Jack’s pitch, Bill’s swing, Vern’s catch. We have something left to give to this kid’s game.

Bernie rips a triple over the three-base line and admires his hit from the batter’s box. We run the bases inside our young minds and never with our old legs. Bernie walks back to be greeted with high fives from his teammates.

Richie K bats next, or at least we think so. Our collective brains have difficulty remembering the batting orders. After some debate and confusion, he steps in. He watches the ball sail by him as Bob throws a sidearm riser into the strike net.

“That’s a nice pitch,” Richie says. With the same arm angle that dazzled hardball hitters at the sandlot, Bob fires two more strikes into the net.

“That’s really good pitching,” says Richie after he takes strike three. We laugh at his remark. At the sandlot, the boys never offered compliments. Sometimes the arguing got so bad, we quit and went home, but with a pledge to return next week to play again.

There’s no quit in us now. We’re gamers in the twilight of life expectancy. The final score will send us home believing we still belong to the brotherhood of baseball.

Alex smashes a hard groundball toward Frank who thrusts his leg and kicks the ball away for an out. You see, we avoid bending over to field ground balls as much as we can. Our sore backs and stiff joints prevent us from moving with much finesse or agility. Nonetheless, we compete in the spirit of friendship and fair play.

Jimmy takes his turn on the mound and winds up like Steve Carlton. Neil pitches next and tosses a balloon ball that drops over the hitter’s head and lands in the strike net.

Greg bats with his bad shoulder. The fielders move in. He floats a pop fly over their heads into the empty double zone.

Sometimes the mind wills the body back to a time of a perfect sandlot swing and recreates the magic of that moment when despite the number of birthdays of the batter or the bulge above his waistline, the baseball boy inside the gray haired man rises to the occasion to deliver the big hit.

We’re still riding our bikes to the sandlots of yesterdays.

We are the Twilight Boys.

Rich Strack can be reached at katehep11@gmail.com.

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