Second Graders, Baseball Men
1987 Varsity Tavern, Perry Heights Baseball Association champs
Every year as baseball season begins anew, I think back to my first baseball club, a tee-ball team in Perry Township (Ohio), and to the euphoria of playing the game for the first time. In 1986, 13 boys, just finishing first grade, met at Whipple Elementary for the first practice. The field was a sandpit more than a baseball diamond, but we didn’t care. Our manager, Charlie Fife (top row center in the photo), taught us the basics right away–without us touching a bat, ball, or glove. Instead, we practiced hustling up the first-base line, running through the bag, and turning the correct way back to the base. Then, we learned that a ball travels faster than a baserunner. We finished practice by racing around the bases and stepping on home plate. We were so thrilled to be on a real baseball field that we didn’t notice our brand-new Franklin batting gloves went to waste.
Charlie lived for teaching the game to true baseball rookies like us, a bunch of 6- and 7-year-old boys who weren’t yet troubled by the pressure to win. Oh, he wanted us to win, but he wanted us to win because we played harder and better than the other team, not because we were trying to win. As a boy, I didn’t know what to make of Charlie. I never learned much about Charlie’s life, but he was memorable. He drove a rusty beige Dodge Ram Van. He always wore sunglasses (except for our team photo day). He smelled like cigarettes and baseball. For some of the guys, Charlie was our first major ‘non-dad’ adult male role model. At my grade school, the bus drivers and teachers were women, and at home, mom was in charge. In Charlie, we encountered an adult man who wasn’t our pastor and wasn’t related to us. He was a friendly but never silly guy who commanded our attention. He treated us like men, or at least as much as you can treat second-grade boys like men. I think all of us loved Charlie.
We were lucky to have an experienced coach like Charlie and we responded by playing hard for him. It got to the point where we knew what to do and when to do it. And we didn’t lose, or if we did, it wasn’t often. We won our league’s tee-ball title. A year later, we won the pitching machine title, finishing with a 22-2 record. Many of my teammates went on to play varsity sports in high school and I think Charlie had something to do with it. He instilled in us a love of sports that couldn’t come from television, video games, or a magazine. As boys, we loved to play baseball, but it went deeper than that. We had started from scratch, and after all of the hard work, we appreciated playing baseball well.
After games, usually wins, we liked to visit a favorite ice cream place, Honey’s. Most of us would pile into the back of Charlie’s van and he would take us over there. The interior of his van was a dusty mess, but like everything else about Charlie, we embraced it. Honey’s was the place where I tasted chocolate peanut butter ice cream for the first time. Charlie was my first coach. Baseball was the first sport that I loved.