Opening Day Issue
Published: April 6, 2011
Baseball home openers, with all the hot dogs, hot chocolate and hot corner clamor, stay with you for years. Like when I saw the Yankees edging the Tigers 2-1, April 6, 1987, despite Larry Herndon's colossal 500-foot blast soaring over my silent scream into the Tiger Stadium upper deck bleachers. The game on Opening Day can foreshadow truly unforgettable seasons, even when ending in a loss.
Speaking of lasting opening game memories: No one in Michigan should have played baseball on April 4, 2007. At least not outdoors, not when April so cruelly mimicked December. Thin batting gloves left my fingers freezing, so, as coach of the Oak Park Knights, I tossed mine to one of our most broke ("ghetto") players, one who kept batting barehanded, too shy to ever ask for a momentary loan. We grimly waited for the other team, the Avondale Yellow Jackets, to show. I kept turning to one of my volunteer assistants, Art Mellos, "This your coldest wind-chill ever for a game?" Art's long playing career culminated at Eastern Michigan University, but the chilly wind drowned out his glory days nasty weather boasting.
Like most high schools, baseball and softball are typically the least supported of any of the major sports programs offered. The American cliché of "football first, basketball second and everything else after" prevails. Due to the poverty and limited resources plaguing most urban settings, this means most city kids just don't play much baseball anymore. Somehow, for several years, I managed to recruit a small group of players willing to raise money and start spring training each February in Delray Beach, Fla., at the Bucky Dent Baseball School. Five weeks earlier, four of these players had been throwing beach sand after a week of throwing baseballs in the warm Atlantic sun, including two seniors who had never been on a plane before (I used to drive the guys down before marriage made me smarter). One player endured special teammate ridicule for believing socks were the preferred beach footwear. On this Opening Day, the guys were about to experience another lesson in a unique version of snow ball.
We had a brief head start, already fielding half a team, but at Oak Park High School, with no Little League, Babe Ruth or middle school feeder programs, and a Junior Varsity about to be terminated, we had to play harder preparing for a long-shot playoff run (every school qualifies for at least one initial playoff game). We had never won more than a half-dozen games per season in more than 20 years, which translated into at least a dozen defeats per season, some as 5-inning losses under the humane 10-run mercy rule. This included 19 years without a playoff win. This losing season streak should also have an asterisk, since, for much of the 1990s, baseball or softball did not even exist in Oak Park schools. The sport had been cut by an earlier school board and superintendent, along with various art, drama and music programs. A decade later, some of these programs had yet to return to the district.
The team survived on a barely playable dirt field with two boxes of baseballs, generic red and white pinstripe uniforms and vague reassurances that two umpires would be present for home games (with an available, if perennially late, school bus for the road). How we were able to compete at all was up to the head coach and my two volunteer assistants, Art and Ken "Mad Dog" Stechuk, a ball-playing friend since Little League.
Fan attendance had always been sparse enough to note who came to cheer the Knights. We usually drew only one or two noisy moms and one quiet dad per game, but in seven years, three different athletic directors had witnessed a combined total of only two innings of Oak Park baseball. No principal or assistant principal ever observed even one inning. Disgruntled coaches privately spit such trivia from dugouts furnished with the extra equipment they purchased beyond their meager allotted budget.
Less than a half-hour before game time, the metal stands and the adjacent running track were completely barren. The athletic director could have strolled outside and quickly postponed the contest with a couple of short phone calls. He instead drove home, leaving only the umpires with the power to delay or call the game.
Eleven courageous Oak Park players tried to stretch, throw and shiver through a feeble pre-game regimen, which proved to be a major tactical error. We should have warmed up inside the gym or, better yet, in an athletic field house and then on a hot bus like the belated visitors from Avondale, a considerably more affluent school district much farther north of Detroit. We also should have worn at least three undershirts beneath the long sleeve shirts under our jerseys. Avondale hailed from an upper division superior to Oak Park, so this typical Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) non-league game did not have to be made up if it was (understandably) canceled. "If the underpaid umpires arrive," we thought, "surely they'll call the game."
Two strangers resembling a darkly-clad ski patrol marched up five minutes before game time. Pleading, I stuttered how these conditions were unplayable.
They shrugged me off, muttering how the disadvantage affected both teams equally. The opposing manager, probably sensing a mercy-rule onslaught, simply clapped his gloved hands and buttoned his coat up to his chin. Shaking my head, I yelled at the team to take the icy field.
As a mini-snow squall began to swirl over the diamond, we quickly discovered the profound difficulty in catching and throwing a ball to first base. Everyone moved in close, as if somehow we might be a little warmer if we didn't stand so far apart. Their lead-off cracked a ground ball past our paralyzed shortstop. The ball rolled over the rock-hard tundra all the way to the fence as an improbable triple.
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