Summer of '72, written from the perspective of a 12-year-old about a revelation.
Drag the Field
Summer of '72
by Brian Keith Compton
The sun busted through the clouds and grass was drowning in the outfield. The base paths were like quicksand and the batters box was like a small pond, making me think of the black beady eyes of green frogs that pop out from the water and stare quiet. Like the ones I caught in the ditches along the road to our camp.
Jimmy tooled up on his banana bike, water splashing from the back wheel onto his butt. He thought his bike was so cool, but I had one just like it. I had it a whole year before he started showing off his. He took the fenders off and said he 'jazzed it up.’
"What's up, Mike? We gonna play?"
"I don't know. What do you think? Will the field be too wet?" I wasn't going to look at him, because he probably wanted me to say something about his bike, like I cared. He was staring over the chain fence and saying "Holy wah!" like he usually would do.
"Hmm. Looks like someone needs to drag the field," he said like he really knew something. He looked at me. "Do you think you can get your Dad to do it?"
It made me feel kind of queasy inside to hear that. My Dad was usually busy out back doing stuff around the house. He never has time to come to any of my games. Not like it was Little League, you know. Just a summer program that a couple guys put together for kids like me who couldn’t make a Little League team. We don't even wear uniforms, but I made one for myself. I had my Mom sew red sleeves onto an undershirt. I used a marker to put the number five on it. I wanted us to the be Cincinnati Reds, and since I was catcher, I’m Johnny Bench.
Johnny Bench probably never made a fool of himself in front of his friends.
Cassie came whizzing over with some other girls -- her cousins, I guess. She had a crappy old boy's bike that was yellow. We always teased her about riding a boy's bike. She hit Jimmy one time and he cried and so we teased him. I think she liked that, too. She was on our team. We didn't like to say it, but she was pretty good. She played left field. Because her being a girl we figured it was the best place to put her.
The guys who organized our league made me manager, since I was the oldest at 12 years and three months. Jerry was the next oldest, a couple months behind me. Jimmy was third oldest and most of the team was in the same grade, but we never hung together in school. It was like baseball never even existed then. I'd play basketball until it snowed. They played football the whole year. Cassie would play me one-on-one sometimes and Jerry and Jimmy would play with most of the guys from our baseball team but told Cassie to get lost. They used swear words whenever she was around, too.
I was afraid to swear, because my Mom said people get their mouth washed out with soap for stuff like that. I didn't believe her once and swore a good one because I thought it would be cool and she chased me out of the house. I climbed up a tree, but my Dad came over with "the stick" and told me to come down or I would "really get it" when I came home. I knew I would have to come home sometime, too. But until my Dad came over, I was thinking about running away forever, far away, but where? By the time he told me to get out of our neighbor's tree, some of the neighborhood kids were all standing around, shouting at me, asking my Dad what I did and he told them to go home, but they only walked far enough away so he wouldn't notice them anymore. But I could see them. I was in the tree. When I got down, my Dad tried to hit me on the rear with that stick like I knew he would. I tried to stop it with my hand and by tucking in my butt. It made a big whack! and a red mark on my wrist. I ran right after that, too. When I got in the house my Mom was waiting for me with the soap. I didn't see my Dad again until supper time. He was in the back yard doing some work. Boy, that day really stunk. The guys wouldn't let me live it down. I hid inside the house the next day, even though I was grounded to the yard and could still play if the guys came over. I didn't see most of them again until Little League tryouts.
The sun was getting hot and the ball field was sure to dry. The other kids were already lining up by the fence. Some had their gloves hung on bat handles. Others were trying to play catch near the road. The other team wasn't even around. They didn't live in the neighborhood like all us guys. We started to wonder if there would be a game.
"Hey, Mike. Are we playin' or what?" Jerry tossed the ball high in the air and instructed Randy to catch it. It was his pop up. "Gotta call it out," he shouted before turning to me, "Well?"
"I don't know. What does the Little League team do when it's like this?"
"Usually, they don't play. But sometimes they drag the infield so the sun can dry it," he said, "This one's yours, John. Call it out."
"I got it!"
John slipped on the rubbery grass and fell on his keister. We all laughed. He had grass stains all up his back side. John wore a white T-shirt with a number on it like me. He liked the Reds, too. He wasn't a very good player, but we let him play in the outfield, anyway. He shagged 'em in right. We did have him at shortstop, but he couldn't bend over to pick up grounders. He was kinda fat. I put him at first base and that made Jerry mad, because he wanted his younger brother, Steve, at first. He thought he new everything, but I moved John into right. John didn't complain.
"Hey, Mike. Your Dad doin' anything?" Jimmy asked again.
"Why?" Jerry butted in. "This one's on the ground. Call it, Randy."
"You gotta call it louder next time."
"He thinks my Dad would come out here and drag the field with his truck," I said, while I was leaning on the fence, which felt pretty warm against my chest. I was feeling lazy like I do when I lie on the couch in the living room. I wanted to lie down on the dugout bench. It's not an underground dugout like some dugouts. But, I knew if I did lay down, someone would try to push me off it into the mud puddle beneath.
Jerry, Randy and Jimmy were all sizing up a big, rusty thing that looked like a box spring that didn't have a cover on. At least, that's what some of us thought it was, but we never said it in front of Jerry, because he probably would know what it was. The thing to drag the field with was lying up the foul line near our dugout.
"Why not get him?" Jimmy said.
"Yeah, I wanna play," Randy said. "All he has to do is take a couple of swipes around the infield--"
"I don't know," Jerry cut in. "I think it might be a bad idea. You have to know how to do something like this. Your Dad's never dragged a field. What if he ruins it?"
"He won't ruin it," I said. I was getting tired of the bossy kid. "My Dad knows how to do lots of stuff like taking care of lawns. He does it all the time."
"This is different," Jerry said. "You sure?"
"Sure. No problem."
"Well, go get him," Jimmy said, smacking his fist in his crummy glove. He thinks he has such a cool glove, too, just because it said "Brooks Robinson" on it. I told him it wasn't really his signature, because a ball player's handwriting is so messy you can never read his autograph. He didn't believe me. But I told him if it's too easy for people to copy, everybody will be using it to make money. He said something about an 'endorsement,’ but he stopped talking, because I think he knew he didn't know what he was talking about and Jerry was starting to laugh then.
I ran down the block, since I only lived one block down and half a block over. I ran up the alley, because I knew I would find my Dad in the back yard. Yep, he was there. He was sawing something. I stopped and watched his arm bursting back and forth with that long handled saw. Sawdust was flying all over. He kept a piece of canvas on the ground to pick up most of the chips that would go in the ‘burning barrel’. A heavy chunk of wood toppled off the sawhorse, landing with a thud. He turned to look at me. Tiny yellow shards clung to his eyebrows and hair.
"Watcha makin' Dad?"
"I'm cutting up some of this wood for Uncle Ted. What do you want?" He kinda scared me. I was botherin' him.
"Oh, nothin'." Then I was reminded of the kids all hanging out at the ball field, depending on me. "Well, something, I guess. But you look busy."
"What is it?" He seemed interested but not like he would really do something for me.
"Well, the guys asked me if I would ask you if you would help us out."
"With what?" He put down the saw and was taking off his gloves now. I started to think I didn't want him to stop, but it knew it was too late. I had to ask.
"If you're too busy, I mean, we just wanted to play some ball and the field is kinda crappy right now."
"Yeah. So what do you want me to do about it?"
"They thought you could drag it." 'Drag it' seemed to ricochet like a bullet inside my head. I was squeezing my hands and my Dad looked puzzled.
"Drag it? What do you mean?"
"You mean you've never seen them drag a field before?" My Dad played baseball in the army. He was a pitcher. I always thought he must have looked like Babe Ruth back then with his hat on crooked the way he always wears it. Or, maybe he bragged that he pitched like him. Anyway, I thought it was pretty cool and he even threw me a real live curveball once, but said he didn't want me to do it. He said I was too young and I would hurt my arm. I pretended I knew how anyway when I was with the guys, because I saw once in a book how you're supposed to hold the strings.
Dad seemed willing to help me out this time, since it was baseball, and I told him to bring the truck up to the field and ran ahead of him. When I got back, the same kids were there. It was Cassie, Jimmy, Randy, John, Steve and Jerry, who had just ran back from the house across the road. It was Jimmy's Aunt's house where we would use the bathroom, sometimes. They were all talking about going home.
"No one else is showing up, Mike. We might as well leave," Randy said.
"Yeah. I think it might be a bad idea," Cassie said. Her cousins had left.
"You just want to go home to play with your dolls?" Jimmy teased. "Ow!" Cassie punched him in the gut that time. We all started to laugh and Jimmy said it wasn't funny. Cassie hopped on her bike and took off.
"Yeah, I think I'm going to leave, too," John said.
"Hey, guys, hang around. My Dad's coming with the truck."
"You got him to do it, huh?" Jerry said. I thought he was going to say more, but for once he seemed to think I was pretty cool, because my old man was decent enough to come help us out.
"When's he coming," Randy asked.
"Pretty soon I 'spect."
"Did he say he knows how to do this?" Jimmy said holding his stomach in and trying to act like he wasn't hurt. By this time I felt like some important guy at a press conference.
"Well, yeah. He's done it before." I looked at Jerry, who still wasn't saying anything, but looked pretty impressed. The guys couldn't wait now for my Dad to show up. I was beginning to think I had a pretty neat Pop. And the guys really thought I was cool now.
It wasn't too long before the big blue Ford rolled up the street toward us, even though the guys were getting impatient. I was waving my arms so my Dad could see me when he drove up.
"Hi, Mr. C!" Jimmy hollered. He was hanging onto the passenger window and I waved at him to get his hands off, because I knew it would make my Dad mad. I was standing by my Dad's window.
My Dad wasn’t wasting no time. "What do you want me to do?" His head was turned toward me but he was looking out the front window at the mucky stuff.
"We need you to drive out onto the ball field and hook up that big wire thing to the back and drag it around the infield."
"What?" He seemed angry again. "That thing?"
"Well, yeah. Just around the infield, you know, so you can level off that stuff." I didn't know what I was talking about and hoped Jerry wouldn't butt in, but he just kept watching, stopping once or twice to throw a grounder to his brother Steve. The other guys were all hanging around by the truck.
"I don't think this is a good idea. I don't want to get in any trouble," my Dad said, but I could tell he wanted to do it, because he was clenching his lip like he usually would do when he sizes up a job.
"Oh, come on, pleeease. The other guy's Dads do it for Little League. I've seen 'em. It's easy. I can show you."
"Sure. Right guys?" They were all nodding and looking in from the other side of the truck. I didn't mind them hanging out so close to the half-ton Ford now. I kinda liked it. I was giving them privileges.
My Dad sighed a little. "Okay, how do I get in?"
"I'll show you," I said. Some of kids ran for the fence, while the others backed away from the truck while my Dad backed up. I unhooked the fence next to the dugout where the wire part lifts up over one of one of the posts and me and the kids pushed on that piece of fence that swung wide open. My Dad's truck backed right in and up to the bed spring thing.
He got out of the cab and surveyed the big thing on the ground. He scratched his head under his ball cap.
"I think these two chains are supposed to hook onto the bumper Dad."
"I know. I just don't know if it will stay on."
He picked up the chains and put the little "S" hooks into the holes in his bumper and the tips of them fit in.
"I guess it will work," he said. He looked at me again. "You sure I won't get in trouble for this."
I kinda got a lump in my throat, because he was real serious now. "Yeah, sure. No problem."
He got into the truck and started it up and everybody started cheering. They were out of control. My Dad started to take off and I forgot I was going to show him how to do it, so I watched while he drove up to the infield. The bags weren't on the bases, because the guys who organized our games hadn't shown up.
As my Dad rounded first base, I wondered if he should have taken a wider turn. I wanted to shout, but all of a sudden, the kids were running onto the field, hootin' and hollerin'. Jimmy and Randy and Jerry all tried to hop on the big box spring. Jerry was the only one who could get on. My Dad hollered at them to get away, but they didn't listen very good. He had to stop the truck and then they scattered. John stood by me the whole time. He was the only one that wasn't acting like a goof. Meanwhile, my Dad wasn't doing such a hot job. We were yelling to him not to get too close to the mound, but he cut across the corner of it and drove down to home plate before he turned up the first base line. He went around the field a couple of times. I was trying to shout instructions. The kids were cracking jokes and Jerry was leading the whole laughing bunch of hyenas. I was getting pretty mad, because I knew my Dad wasn't going to like it. Then, my Mom suddenly showed up.
"Hi, Mom. What you doin' here?"
"I got a call from your baseball league instructors and they said the ball game was called off."
"We kind of figured that out when no one showed up."
"What's your Dad doing out there?
"He's dragging the field for us, so we can play."
She didn't say anything, just looked out at the field one more time. "Well, I've got to go home and get supper ready. Don't stay too long. Supper's going to be in an hour."
The whole day was shot. As my Mom was leaving, a truck pulled up. I didn't even see what happened at first, but the guys inside were yelling something to my Dad. That's when I started to pay more attention, because one of the them got out and jogged up to the fence. I could hear change jingling inside his pocket over the sound of the two trucks. The kids stopped making noises and were watching with their mouths hanging open. My Dad was staring out the cab of his truck, and had a real dumb look on his face, and when I heard them talking it about made me sick. I really wanted to puke.
"Hey, you're not supposed to be doing that," the guy said and real mad, too. My Dad just told him he was doing what we asked him to do. The guy kept saying stuff about why he's not supposed to drag the field, and my Dad kept saying that he was just doing it for us. I wanted to go home right then, but I couldn't leave my Dad, and the kids would probably laugh.
"Well, get it off the field," the man said. He was real P.O’d. I was glad the man didn't know it was me who told my Dad to do it. My Dad was over by third base and drove over half the mound to get the thing back to where it was.
"Hey!" The guy jostled his coins running back to the fence after getting half way back to his own truck. He looked like he wanted to jump over the chain links, but just shook his fist. My Dad only looked back for a minute and kept driving off the field. I was getting pretty scared by this time, because this guy might try to hit my Dad. He came walking around the backstop and walked right by me. I got so scared, I thought of something funny like peeing my pants.
The guy just walked over to where my Dad was unhooking the bed spring thing. My Dad was ignoring him. The man kept talking into his ear, telling him he was crazy. My Dad stood up and looked down at him. The little guy barely came up to his chin. My Dad was real big, that's why I'm always scared of him. He was wearing blue overalls over a cotton T-shirt. He had that look in his eye that I've seen only a couple of times, like the time I ran my bike into the side of the car when it was parked in the drive.
Dad wiped off his hand with the red hanky he kept in his back pocket. I thought I heard him growl, but I figured that was what my Mom calls a 'figment of my imagination.’ This guy was wearing polka-dotted railroad cap that I liked to call a popcorn hat because it was so dumb looking. But even if it was goofy, the guy still looked serious. I didn't like my Dad getting chewed out by a little guy, when I was the person who was at fault. But I didn't want to get yelled at, so I just watched. Besides, my Dad was big.
"I don't want to see your face around here anymore," the guy said as mean as ever. I thought I could see a little spit fly and dribble over his bottom chin. I wondered if he was chewing tobacco.
"I've had enough," my Dad said and then looked at me. "Come on, Mike. Let's go home."
"That your kid," the guy said, looking at me with the same look he gave my Dad. Pointing a real stiff finger, he said, "I don't want to see you around here any more, either."
I was walking by the kids to the truck while my Dad was telling the guy he couldn't tell us what to do, that the city pays for the ball field and that we can come back any time we want. He said he would drag the field again if he wanted, and that got the guy mad again, but my Dad was walking away from the scolding.
The kids just kept saying to me, "I told you so," especially Jerry, who was leaning against a fence. I felt like I was walking down the halls of some prison.
"Jerry, Steve, let's go," the man said. I turned and saw Jerry get off the fence and walked with the guy, his father! to the truck where the other man was waiting.
"Jerry, you told!" I yelled. I saw him and Steve pile into the back of the pickup. I was real mad. I wanted to sock him a good one. My Dad had already backed the truck out. The other kids were getting on their bikes, because there wasn't no more to see, but they kept chattering like birds. John was the only one still by me. He seemed to understand. I knew I liked him for a reason.
"See ya, John," I said. He nodded and muttered ‘see ya’ after he looked to the ground before walking over to his bike. My Dad told me to get in the truck. I wanted to tell him we left the fence open, but I was too scared what would happen if I said anything. But all my Dad did was gripe about that guy, saying he had "some nerve." I could tell my Dad was P.O.'d about someone else and I wanted to jump in and agree with him that the guy was a jerk, but I was afraid to open my mouth still.
We got home and Dad told Mom all about it. It was a pretty neat story. He got on the phone and told one of his friends. I was thinking my Dad was cool again. He was right. The guy couldn't order us around. My Dad just wanted to help us kids. After all, he loves baseball almost as much as me.
Two days later, I was climbing down from the tree in our front yard when I lost my grip and fell on my feet. I broke my right foot. The doctor said I cracked three metatarsal bones. I had to be on crutches for six weeks! There went my whole summer and baseball. I was real mad, but I still wanted to show up for the games anyway. The guys were depending on me.
The first game back, the guys were all there before me. Jerry had the book and was writing in the names, batting orders and positions. They all knew my foot was broke and knew I wasn't going to be able to play. They got a new guy to play catcher.
I was looking at the new guy who was sitting next to Jerry. "Hey, Jerry, what gives? Why do you got the book?" He didn't say anything, so I asked again and he still didn't answer, just turned his back to me.
"Jimmy, what's happening?"
"Since you can't play, Jerry thought you weren't going to be here."
"But, I'm manager."
Jerry stood up, without looking at me, and yelled out to our team to come into the dugout for a "team meeting." Only I call team meetings, I thought.
"We're going to have a vote," Jerry said. He looked around at everyone, then at me last. "Whoever wants me for manager, raise your hand."
"Hey, you can't do that!" I cut in, leaning forward on my crutches to get my hand into the fence to the dugout. It was too late. As if they had already known, the kids raised their hands all at once, even Cassie. John looked at me and then at Jerry. Jerry was talking to him, but I couldn't make it out. He raised his hand slowly and didn't look at me.
"You too?" I said. But I wasn't really talking to him. It was like they were all dead. I didn't know any of them. I turned around on my crutches to see if I could find the instructors. They were getting the equipment out of the car. No one had said anything all week about us dragging the field and so I figured they wouldn't be mad. I hobbled up.
"Hey, you guys," and they looked up at me.
"Hi, Mike. How's your foot?
“Hurt it bad?"
I shook my head like I was shaking off the question. "Them guys, Jerry, just voted me out as manager. Can they do that?"
Both of them straightened up. They were getting the stuff out of the trunk of their car. It was Phil and Larry. They umped the games for us, too. "Well," Larry said. "I guess they can," he said thoughtfully and polite. He looked over at the dugout.
"I guess it's their decision," Phil said. "Sorry, dude."
"But you guys picked me to be manager," I said.
"Well, did they all want Jerry to be manager?"
"Yeah, but he made them, I mean, when he's around he tries to take over everything."
"Sorry, not much we can do," Larry said. His face started to look like a droopy old hound dog. They both looked at me with fake frowns on their faces. I began to wonder how much this might have to do with what happened to the field. I didn’t say a word and turned away from them. I could feel the sun on my back before I set out on my crutches. My body would sink hard into the arms, as I made my way around the fence. I got to the street thinking they should feel sorry for me. I wanted to look back when I remembered my Dad. Who needs them. Who needs this stupid game.
John came up behind me from inside the fence from his right field position. "Hey, no hard feelings, Mike. It wouldn't do me no good to vote against Jerry, you know?"
"Yeah. I know, John," I said with my voice heavy. I looked down at my feet, wishing I could play. "Come over to my house after the game. Maybe my Mom will let us have some ice cream."
His eyes smiled, "Okay. See ya," before running back to take his position. It was then that I noticed that Jerry was staring at him and at me. I looked at Jerry, but just for a moment and decided to hobble off. Maybe, to let him know what it was to be me right then. But I don’t think her cared. He finally got what he wanted.
It was almost dark and time for bed when Dad came into my room. Mom had already told me to put away my toys and to get in my P.J.'s. I hadn't seen him all day.
"Mike, we should talk." He sounded pretty stern. My throat got a little tight. "Did you lie to me when you said it was O.K. to drag that field?"
I started to say "no," and I'm sure he could see my face start to say it, but I stopped. I felt bad. I remembered my Dad out on that ball field, not knowing what he was doing. The kids all acting like crazy nuts made fun of him, and that man hollered. I know knew my Dad went through a lot, because he knew how much I wanted to play baseball.
"I'm sorry Dad," and like a girl I started to cry. Really, I was being a baby like Jimmy, and when I thought of that I wanted to laugh and my Dad saw me smile. He looked kinda funny himself. "You mad at me?"
"Yes and no. You lied to me and it made a pretty big mess of things. It's my own fault, because I should have known better." He stopped and looked real sad. "I trusted you."
"I know," I jumped in, "I love you, Dad. Don't be mad at me," I grabbed his arm from where I was sitting on the floor and he stood up from his crouch and pulled me up like a little toy. I was hugging him like I did when I was a lot smaller.
He laughed a bit. "I sure got that guy mad. A few people called today, but some of them told me just to ignore him. There was no harm done. The field was easily fixed." He put me down and grunted when he did it. I leaned up against my bed post on my one good foot. "You're getting heavy,” he said with a grin. “What do you weigh now?"
"I weighed 105 pounds when I got on the scale the other day." I was wiping my eye like a big sissy now.
"You're getting pretty husky. Someday you'll be bigger than me --" I couldn’t imagine that.
"And we can wrestle and I can win!"
"You think so?" He smiled. "By then, I'll be an old man. You'll have to pick on someone else. Hey, come on. Mom said you have to get ready for bed."
"I know," I said.
I was glad my Dad didn't ground me or anything, and it was the first time I really felt sorry for something I did.
I still like Johnny Bench. I saved a big article from Boy's Life that I keep in my top dresser drawer. I get to watch him on T.V. whenever the Reds play the Cubs. I'll bet he never had rotten friends like me. Because if he did, he probably would have never played baseball. And then, maybe I would have never played either. I figure, I'll try out for the Babe Ruth league next year, because I still want to be a Cincinnati Red someday. And I think my Dad would like that, too.