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Reflecting on the Boys of Summer

July 19, 2010

As a cricket ‘nut’, I have always been aware of baseball, even if it was only through its relations, rounders and softball, at school. Originally, if I thought about it in any depth, it was probably along the lines of ‘cricket without the gravitas’; a slice of typically commercialised Americana, played by gum chewing Yanks, far removed from the sophisticated summer game played by our ‘flannelled fools’.

But, gradually, my opinions changed. First, I began visiting the US in the 70s and resumed that holiday habit around ten years ago. As most folk do, I discovered that, when seen for oneself, the US, and its citizens, were far different to the accepted image in Europe. Friendly, generous, helpful and diverse would be some of the appropriate adjectives.

Secondly, baseball itself kind of stalked me culturally, in books and films. Notably, its use as a metaphor in Kevin Costner’s ‘Field of Dreams’ had a huge effect. Put simply, I got it: the history, the stats, the personalities, the memories, the sheer importance of the game in individuals’ personal histories all seemed familiar to this cricket fanatic.

Then, in researching family history, I discovered Brooklyn. My grandfather emigrated to the burgh from the family farm in Ireland and, before moving on to Edinburgh, spent  5 or 6 years there as a tram conductor: these were the trams that baseball fans had to dodge to get to Ebbet’s Field, the local baseball stadium, and that street crossing manoevre led to the team being known as the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Dodgers could have been invented to capture my support. Underachieving for years, they finally won the World Series in 1955, beating hated rivals the New York Yankees for the first time in 5 meetings over 9 years, and taking their first Series since 1900. The choker was that, two years later, in a huff with the burgh, their owner moved them lock, stock and barrel to Los Angeles: Ebbet’s Field was no more and Brooklyn had lost ‘dem Bums’ as they were affectionately known. It was a sporting tragedy for an entire community and, reading two excellent books:  The Boys of Summer by  Roger Kahn  and Wait till next Year by Doris Kearns Goodwin, not only confirmed my appreciation of what the Dodgers, in particular, and baseball, in general, meant to communities, but also heightened my interest in the game.

The coup de grace in my conversion was performed when I started holidaying on Cape Cod and discovered the Cape’s Summer Baseball League. Again, this was heaven sent for me, unsettled as I was by the obscene amounts of money, the rumours of drugtaking and the whiff of testosterone that seemed to hover over professional baseball today. From the field of dreams, to the long vanished Ebbet’s Field, I had clearly fallen for an idea of baseball that was no longer  accurate, if, indeed, it ever had been. However, here on the Cape, in the lovely surroundings of Veteran’s Field in Chatham, I was able to discover at least an approximation of how it might have been, at least in men’s dreams.

The Cape Summer league gathers all the most promising College Ball players and brings them to Cape Cod. They get summer lodgings and employment from volunteer host families in the various towns and villages on the Cape, and, in return, play for the town team and coach holidaymaking youngsters in coaching camps. Many Summer league players have gone on to become major professional stars and many youngsters from across the States have had their first introduction to baseball on warm, balmy evenings up and down this most beautiful penninsula.

The other night I stood at the fence at Vets’ Field and took in the atmosphere and wondered why it was so captivating. After all, for all my recent conversion to baseball, I would never claim anything like full understanding of its mysteries and I can’t claim to follow the leagues or watch games on cable when I’m at home.

For all that, the attraction remains. Last week we paid a visit, or rather made a pilgrimage, to the Boston Red Sox home at Fenway Park, the oldest and probably quirkiest baseball ground in America. The tour told us of many incidents in Red Sox history: the 80 years without a world series victory (echoes of the Dodgers!), the losing of Babe Ruth, the foundation of the Big Green Monster, the red seat marking the longest home run hit. On the tour were Red Sox fanatics, baseball fans of other teams, and folks like us, even another family from Scotland, who, without being  baseball insiders, could recognise its place at the centre of many communities, its universality, shared with so many sports in so many cultures.

So I stood at Vets’ Field and looked around me and tried to identify what caused the positive vibes.

Families were everywhere – sitting in the bleachers, sprawled on the grassy slope behind right field, around the fence, little ones playing supervised by bigger ones in the children’s playground, old men encouraging the young, fathers sharing experience with children.

On top of that there were the tangible fruits of the local community’s efforts – the host families, the sponsors, the guys who ran the website and radio commentary, the merchandise folk. Everyone sang  ‘Take me out to the Ballgame” after the 8th inning, one of the 50/50 Draw prizes was announced as a ‘2lb Lobster cracked and cooked for you”, local high school girls ran the drinks and fast food stall. It was a focal point of the community and the only possible reward might be a future chance to point to a super league baseball star on your television and say: “He stayed with us that Summer”.

But it was the families, sweatshirts proclaiming allegiance to a hundred high schools, colleges or ball teams across the country, that created the ambience in this pool of light in the seaside gloaming. Of course, any activity that forms part of the family holiday experience can be viewed positively, but it was obvious that these parents were sharing these moments with their kids just as they had been shared by their own parents a generation before.

In some seats were older couples, the husband knowledgeably describing the play, as men will do, the wives partly hearing and partly harking back to when they had youngsters to keep an eye on, and little leaguers of their own to congratulate or support with sympathy.

And on the field, young men hardly out of their teens were living the dream that this was the first step to something big. For some of them, Chatham will indeed be the start of something glorious, the beginning of their climb to fame, and, for others, this summer on the Cape will be the one shining moment to hang on to through a lifetime of what ifs and if onlys, before reality pitches them a different ball.

I think it was the mix of past and future, hope and contentment, that was getting to me. The young had it all to come and were excited, and the old had lived the dream, to whatever extent, and were content. It was all here.

Well into the future, as they have been in the past, warm nights at Veterans’ Field in Chatham will be the starting point for a million happy family memories, stories and recollections.

For this writer too, from a distant shore and from a different culture, the thought of the Boys of Summer under the floodlights of a tiny Cape Cod town will bring thoughts of contentment, appreciation and wellbeing.

Thank you to all associated with the As – you are special!

The Last Best League – Jim Collins (Da Capo Press 2004) tells the story of a Summer with the Chatham As

The Boys of Summer – Roger Kahn (Harper Perennial 1987) tells the story of  supporting the Brooklyn Dodgers, covering their World Series win for the press, and then catching up with the team members twenty years later.

Wait till next year – Doris Kerns Goodwin (Simon & Schuster 1998) in which the author tells of growing up in suburban Long Island, her relationship with her father, and waiting for the Dodgers to bring the World Series back to Brooklyn.

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