The memory still haunts me.
I swung late on a pitch and hit a sharp grounder just inside the first-base bag in Crater Park in the shadow of the old Chatham bridge that no longer exists in Elkin. Out of reach of the first baseman, the spinning baseball scooted and twisted deep into foul territory.
I had a sure double, probably a triple. No, I had my best chance for my first Little League home run, inside the park.
But there was a gate in the right-field corner, and doggoneit someone had left the gate open. Between first and second base, I checked on the ball as it rolled past the open gate and out of the ballpark. I had an easy trot home.
As I rounded second I saw my Yankee teammates out of the third-base dugout yelling and jumping up and down, cheering me on. Another quick glance and I could not even see the ball as the right fielder ran in hot pursuit.
But then horror. As I rounded third the T-shirt clad, teenaged umpire behind the pitcher’s mound waved his thumb as if he were trying to hitch a ride on the highway. He signaled a ground-rule double.
Surely the ump would not short-circuit this moment of pure joy, of grand ecstasy. This was my first season of organized ball. Never again would I ever get so close to the moment, to the ultimate triumph, of circling the bags on a home run trot.
I ignored the umpire. It was just my imagination, I hoped in vain. I kept running to home — I was too excited to slow to a trot — where my teammates surrounded and slapped me on the back, patted me on the head and shoulders. What a moment.
But it was no dream. It was a nightmare. The umpire did send me back to second. There I was left stranded and didn’t even score.
I never did hit a home run, either as a kid in Little League or as a teen in four seasons of slow-pitch softball in the old Austin and State Road adult leagues. These skinny arms of mine never had the strength to jack one out.
But I treasure the memory of that one brief moment, when as an 11-year-old I finally hit the jackpot and ran and heard the cheers and celebrated and felt on top of the world.
There was an innocent exuberance in it all. The light-headed feeling of experiencing something new, something unique and exciting. The memory is a snapshot of the joy of youth, in all of its freshness and innocence.
They’re about to start the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, an 11-day event that has grown to include masses of fans watching in a stadium and millions more watching on network TV.
Every year observers are amazed at the attention the little ballplayers draw. The Little League broadcasts easily top the ratings for the Major League games at the time.
So why are people so captivated while watching a bunch of kids play?
I’m not puzzled. Watching the Series takes me back to my memories at Crater Park.
I came to play. I came to learn the game. I came for a youngster’s love of the game.
Baseball then was new and exciting and unspoiled by future errors, disappointments or exclusions.
I think the joy of youth on display at the Series captivates those of all ages. Folks love seeing the kids laughing in the dugout. They’re tickled with the thrill displayed on the faces of those who score an important run and on the faces of their teammates.
There are floods of tears after a loss, but they say 20 minutes later the kids from both teams are in a game room playing and cutting up.
On display is baseball before money and competition and critiques and press clippings begin to seep in and spoil. This is before baseball shifts from being a game to being a vocation, before baseball turns so serious.
It’s baseball in its purest form. The way it’s supposed to be.
And I’ll let you in on a little secret. It’s the best baseball.
Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.