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Austin Chronicle Hardball

By Jay Hardwig

AUGUST 4, 1997:  At 26, I am a grown man, with mature sinterests in many respects, but to this day I cannot pass a stray baseball without picking it up. I count myself a lucky fellow indeed when I spy an abandoned hardball, however torn or soiled, in an out-of-the-way patch of weeds. I pick it up, toss it a bit in my right hand -- checking for remembered heft -- before shoving it deep in my pocket and shuffling away to escape further notice. I have not played hardball in 10 years -- not since my swansong season at age 17 in the Rocky Hill Sandy Koufax league. (The Rocky Hill Athletics were a respectable club that year, I recall, not pennant contenders by any stretch, but always within a game or two of .500.) To be sure, I've played my share of softball since then -- college intramurals, pickup games, city league -- but while I still feel satisfaction in a ball well hit, something is lost in the translation. Any former kid will tell you the same.

Perhaps I am a fool to hold out a flame for the game of hardball; perhaps I am out of tune with life's basic realities. I am a softball player now, identifiable as such at a distance: a rounded belly, a slow move to the hole, dress socks running into my cleats. If I refuse to accept this, it is the worst kind of stubbornness, as if I were not subject to time and the compromises it requires of all of us. I like to think that, if pressed, I could make this acknowledgement. That is, if a sweaty-faced child of nine, having witnessed my discovery of the lost ball, were to approach me and ask in earnest tones might she have the ball, as it was needed for a game of hotbox, or 500, or even a pickup game if those can still be found -- I like to think that I would give it up. Willingly. But there is a part of me, too, that would hesitate. A part of me that would curl an upper lip and speak in cold tones, "Find your own ball."

For if I kept it, if I held on to my sudden treasure, I could bring it home with me. I could place it carefully on a favorite bookshelf, nestled comfortably among clay frogs, wooden fishes, and other nonesuch the sort of which populate open shelfspace. I can well imagine its curative properties: Whenever I was a bit upset, whenever events in life had conspired to leave me at a loss, I could go to the bookcase and pick it up, rotate it in my hand and find the seams, and imagine myself throwing out an impetuous runner at the plate (although I can't remember ever having done so) or, perhaps, fielding the ball cleanly on two hops and turning to start the vaunted double-play combination -- Hardwig to Haun to Novinger -- of my youth. A few more turns around fading basepaths -- who could forget the ground-rule double off archrival David Mann in the Little League allstar game? -- and my worries would be chased, beaten back by the stronger force of childhood reminiscence.

illustration by Jason Stout
But I am a kind man -- not cruel enough at any rate to deny an eager child a recovered baseball -- and I well know that shelving a wild baseball would kill its spirit. (Imagine: to snatch a ball from its home in the tall grass -- a ball raised on a steady diet of lazy flies, mittpopping liners, and isolated sojourns in the weedpatch -- and retire it to my bookshelf to gather dust among sagging soap carvings and gawdy mantlefront timepieces. The crack of the bat replaced by the ticking of the clock? I could not, in good conscience, ask this of either the ball or the solicitant girl. It is my fate to bear alone. Youth belongs to the young; younger, even, than I am. To everything there is a season. Even as a kid I knew this, and summertime was baseball season.)

I imagine myself eyeing the anxious child, smiling, and, in a moment of metaphysical splendor, flipping the baseball towards her outstretched glove.

"Sure, kid," I say. "Here's the ball."

Then I grab it back. My look is meaner now, spiteful even; my tone deadly serious. "But only if I get to play third."

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