This time of year I can’t help but reflect on my youth when the game of baseball consumed so many days of my life. It is almost impossible not to think back with spring-training in full swing, the aroma of fresh cut grass in the air, and the “boys of summer” occupying every baseball diamond in the Valley. While growing up in Iowa, I don’t remember my parents suggesting I partake in any specific activities, but whenever I would find something of interest such as boy scouts, bowling, or flag football to participate in they were very supportive, and they did not hesitate to sign me up. It wasn’t any different the first year I was finally old enough to play organized baseball. My father hesitantly got roped into assisting the coach, that initial season, although I don’t think we had even yet played the traditional game of “father and son catch” up to that point. I guess my father didn’t mind helping out too much since he continued assisting, whenever asked, at different times throughout my career. However, I do think he preferred sitting on the aluminum bleachers, behind home plate, and watching the game not only as a parent but as a fan of the game as well.
When considering the many activities and sports I participated in as a child I knew something was a little different about playing baseball. I suppose I took a special liking to the summertime game because it came a little easier to me than most anything else I attempted, and once I discovered the incredible sport it was always at the forefront of my mind. Almost every day during my summer vacation was spent recruiting anyone in the neighborhood who was willing to play baseball or at least something similar. Whenever enough players weren’t found, for a full fledged game, then either a game of trap, 500, or sometimes an arousing game of whiffle ball would have to suffice. Those events could last all day long with the occasional timeout only being taken for either a short potty break or the dreaded dinner-time interruption. Most games would end in the evening but usually only after the batter could no longer see the ball. My parents were well aware of how much I loved the game of baseball, and they also knew how to make it work to their advantage. I was more apt to complete my household chores, do better in school, and behave better altogether with the looming threat of having it all taken away from me.
Entering my first year of high school that threat remained, not only from my parents, but also from the school itself since every student had to maintain a certain minimum grade point average in order to participate in any extra-curricular activities. I didn’t care much about excelling academically in school, but I always made sure I did well enough to stay eligible to play ball. A few months before I was to begin my initial year of Newton High School baseball the city’s loveable and longtime head coach passed away. I remember attending Mr. Eversman’s funeral, which was held at our town’s only Catholic church, along with what seemed like the entire community. I did not go to the service just so I could get out of a couple of classes for the day, as some students improperly did (although I won’t deny that was an added bonus), but I did go simply because I felt like I needed to be there. I didn’t know the beloved coach all that well at the time of his passing, but I had been anticipating the upcoming season, and I was excited by the prospect of playing ball for him.
A “new sheriff” came strutting into our small town shortly after the death of Coach Eversman. Mr. Stoffers seemed pretty cool to us kids, when he first arrived on the scene, but everyone knew Coach Eversman’s replacement had some pretty big shoes to fill (not only figuratively but literally as well). The former coach possessed an intimidating build whereas his replacement was small in stature and assuredly had to look up to the majority of his players. Coach Stoffers had very different ideas on how to run a baseball program which included forcing mandatory short hair and no facial hair on all of his players. This was not a problem for me since long hair was forbidden under my father’s roof anyway, and I still had a baby face that only needed shaved maybe once a week. Before the season began Coach invited everyone over to his house, a few at a time, so we could get to know him and meet his wife and his dog. He had us talk about baseball, life in general, and we filled out a questionnaire he had waiting for us. Come to find out baseball was Coach Stoffer’s life, and he sometimes used our answers on the questionnaire as ammunition against us once the season began. I now regrettably had answered “pro baseball player” to the question, “what are your hopes and dreams for the future,” because after making an error (and honestly there weren’t that many) he’d gibe with the response, “and you wanna play pro ball someday.”
That first season under the new sheriff’s regime was a trying one for me. I can recall an early spring-training practice, held inside due to weather, when I had finally had enough of his criticism. During a pitchers’ drill, on the proper way of fielding bunts, I drifted away from the imaginary indoor mound, and with Coach Stoffers still yapping away I continued on through the gymnasium doors, out to my car, and headed home for the day. The next day the coach’s wife, who taught Physical Education at the high school, found me and suggested I should, “just show up to practice,” because her husband wasn’t going to beg me to come back. I would not have even considered rejoining the team that day if not for the advice my father had given me the prior evening. He told me I should not let one man stand in the way of doing something I love, so I did “just show up,” and eventually things got better: not because he changed but because I learned to deal with his antics. That’s probably why I wasn’t too fazed the very next year (my senior season) when after hitting a grand slam, and jubilantly trotting around third base, there was Coach complaining that my four-run dinger was not a line-drive.
Any dream I had of playing professional baseball was actually over before it began. Realistically, I knew deep down that I was good but probably not that good. I did earn all-conference honors both my Junior and Senior seasons of Varsity ball, and a couple of small Iowa colleges (Grandview and Simpson) did show some interest in me. Oklahoma State University also sent me an informational packet about the school and their baseball program. To this day I’m still not quite sure why. Shortly after my high school graduation I was informed about some tryouts, for the Cincinnati Reds, being held at a facility around forty-five minutes from my home. Someone must have believed in me enough to suggest trying out, but at the end of the day I wasn’t one of the handful of players chosen to stay. This time of year these days are now filled with numerous other things, and my body is not what it used to be, but the days of playing baseball still holds a special place in my heart.