Spring only officially arrives in Eastover when traffic stops on NC 301 Business for about 20 minutes on a Saturday morning, during which time all the community sandlot baseball teams parade ¾ of a mile on homemade floats from Armstrong Elementary to Ballpark Road. For 10 years, I towed or rode one of those floats. I started at the front of the procession with the tee-ballers and the coach-pitch teams. By the time my coaching career was over, I was at the back with smelly post-pubescent teenage boys who really wanted to ride the floats like children but who realized that cute was no longer cool, so they acted bored and miserable.
When I grew up, Little League baseball was awash with big-moneyed corporate sponsorship. It was most likely the predecessor to Major League money-ball, which led to the steroid era, and therefore the poisoning of every statistic ever formally held by Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron. Ask any native Fayetteville boy now in his 50’s that grew up proximal to Fayetteville Tech to name those giant corporate sponsors. I guarantee he will be able to name at least a couple: M&O Chevrolet, Hutson Typewriter, Markham Drugs, Player Construction, NCNB, Pepsi Bottling.
When Eastover parents entrusted their beloved boys’ baseball education to me, they certainly had no clue as to my credentials. I am the only coach that I know of who was cut from his Little League team. Markham Drugs coach Al Kulig drafted me. Coach’s son Steve became a swell pal. I only remember garnering one base hit that year. It was a banana slice to right field that somehow got into the corner, probably because Little League right fielders then and now are often not the most adroit athletes on the team. I played right field.
Steve was a year older than me and so he and Coach Kulig graduated to Pony League. I was averse to my new coach, and he was none too happy about my constantly being unhappy that he was not Al Kulig. So he cut me.
Jim Maxon was the man in charge of Honeycutt Park. He called our house wanting to know why I was not playing baseball for Markham Drugs anymore. He placed me on M&O Chevrolet with my friend Willie Smith. The team party after the season was at Willie’s farm. He showed all us boys the calf that he was raising for 4-H Club. He told me how sorry he would be when the calf grew big enough to sell because it meant the cow would end up in the grocery store.
I only remember getting one hit that second season also. The bases were loaded and I screamed a worm-burner toward the second baseman. Thankfully, scorebooks in those days were discarded after the season, so no one can prove if it was really an error, and not the base hit I call it today. Nonetheless, when the umpire called “Time!” I was standing at second base and we had three more runs. I peeked into the opposing dugout and saw their first-year coach of my old team looking out at me, possibly wondering where he had seen me before.
When I became the coach, my Jamie-boy was admittedly always my favorite kid on the team. The difference in us was that Jamie was really athletic early on. Like most dads, I figured him a shoe-in for Yankee pinstripes. That will not be the case. Still, he was way better than I ever was.
Every team in every league has three or four boys like him who stand out. None of those boys ever have to play right field. I remember very clearly being the right fielder. I remember vividly my two base hits because their rarity makes them memorable.
When coaching, I always figured that the other team’s first four were about like mine. I adopted a plan of pretty much letting their dads keep right on coaching them the way they always had. I decided to coach the ones that most reminded me of me. I figured that it we could get our bottom six on base more than the other team could, if I could get my right fielder to somehow stop, drop and roll the ball back into the infield better than the other team’s right fielder, then we could probably get a couple of wins each season that we otherwise would not have gotten. Usually, we did.
When we receive the blessing of years passed by, we are to be grateful for all the memories we have. Still, it is impossible for backsliders like me to not ponder the things irretrievably gone. Bringing in spring by towing a poorly decorated yard trailer with a dozen antsy boys along a grandparent-lined, usually-busy road is one of them.
This past Valentine’s Day, I turned 55. I ordered that it be a nondescript day with no presents and no fanfare. Ignoring that order, my daughter made several trips to CityView Magazine, where, with the help of the General Manager, she compiled a notebook of all my articles on heavy stock paper prefaced with a hand-written note that said the articles were special and so was I.
There was also a letter on the table addressed to Coach Bill.
Jamie-boy recounted in that birthday letter having been asked recently to choose a favorite childhood memory. He struggled for one from among the multitude. Eventually, he chose this:
“My favorite childhood memory is not one specific time, but a collection of a ritual celebrated after every game I ever had. I would crawl into the gray truck and struggle with the faulty seat belt. We would roll the windows down in an attempt to cool the aluminum can in which we were trapped. Once the desired temperature was reached, though, we would talk about every inning, every hit and every botched call. We would talk about it all. There isn’t a conversation I have ever had that I would trade for any conversation had in that old, beat up truck.”
The spring rains in my eyes fell gently to the ground.
If you have reason to be driving through east Fayetteville on a certain Saturday, you may very well drive up on flashing blue lights in downtown Eastover, forcing your delay in a line of traffic. Don’t cuss, because it won’t last long. Find comfort in knowing that somewhere just ahead of you a daddy in a beat up old truck and a child in a new baseball uniform are deepening a love and making memories that will last.
For two lifetimes. The man’s lifetime and the child’s.
It will officially be the first day of spring.