When it all comes full circle

Published 10:50 am Friday, June 10, 2016

by Mary Ann Clark

There are only a few times in this life, if you’re lucky, you can say that you’ve seen something you love come full circle. It may be when you actually hear words come out of your mouth that only your mother would say. It may be when you watch a kid kill their first buck or when you catch yourself changing the sheets on your bed and redoing the flat sheet three times because when you are a little girl and your grandmother is a nurse there is an art to a “hospital corner.”

See, I love baseball. I mean, I really love baseball probably more than any three fellas combined, I love it. There’s a natural beauty to the game that’s a combination between extraordinary talent, timing, strategy, hustle and pure grit. It hit me like a fastball earlier in the week that I have been blessed to see something I love dearly come full circle: Southampton-Sussex County baseball and softball. The regular season has come to an end and it went by like a flash. We had signups the first weekend in February and now the 2016 season is over. My 8 year old and 11 year old will have had a safe, fun season playing ball with their buddies, scarfing down airhead extremes, spittin’ sunflower seeds.

Funny thing is, I can close my eyes and remember it. I remember the way it looked 30 years ago. It’s the same exact place and ZIP code. You could see the bugs zooming around those lights like they were cheering for one team or the other. It was late May, but somehow it was still chilly. See, back then there weren’t any girls softball teams and when your Dad’s a coach, you somehow end up at the ball field.

I remember the uniforms. They were plain, navy blue T-shirts and in a simple white font said “Capron.” You found a pair of white baseball pants if you could, but if not, playing in a pair of old jeans was just fine. You certainly didn’t need compression sleeves and Under Armor cleats. Any old pair would do and chances are they were a hand-me-down from your older brother. On game nights there were no ring pops, nachos or mozzarella sticks sauce. There were .25 cent Sundrops, bubble gum and a maybe warm hot dog if you were lucky.

I remember the words. They sounded like poetry: “Be a stick. Good cut. Now you’re ready. Drive the ball.” Now, there’s one phrase I remember more than the rest: “Let it hit you.” I still laugh with close friends to this day and even run into complete strangers that know exactly the coach from whom those words came. Honestly, if you said “Let it hit you” in this day and age you’re likely to be brought up on abuse charges.

I caught myself last week coaching our 10U Girls saying: “There’s no crying in softball! Unless you’re hurt, we don’t cry here. If you want to cry, cry when you get home, but you will not cry on this field because on this field we are tough and we are winners!” Full circle. I know where I first heard those words or some combination thereof and what it meant. Same as 30 years ago.

Then there were the signs. In all honestly, they still confuse me a little bit to this day” bunt, steal, take. Skin, hat, belt. Was it the first one you gave or the last one? It’s all still somewhat of a mystery, but I can promise you one thing, there’s one man in his early 50s living in Capron right now that can tell you what the steal sign was to this day when he played Capron little league baseball. I learned at an early age definitions of the words and phrases: balk, interference, put on the shift, go two and pitch out.

I could name grown men right now between the ages of 30 and 55 that would sit and talk with you for hours about what it was like to play baseball in Capron. We spend more time telling stories and comparing old memories than discussing our next home improvement project or who’s kid made honor roll this nine weeks. Whether it was for John Rawls, Pond Bain, William Hart Gillette, or Dana Webb. Everyone has a story. Whether it was Courtland, Capron, Sedley, Boykins, Waverly, Wakefield, Ivor or Newsoms, our Southampton-Sussex league had dedicated, baseball-loving coaches who truly loved the game, and even more than that, loved to see the kids compete, excel and win.

We are blessed enough to have coaches three decades later just as dedicated and committed. As a parent of two players, I thank you for that. Thank you for your time, your effort and commitment. Thank you for helping to instill the value of drills and hard work and showing them what commitment looks like. Thank you for praising my child when they do well. Thank you for busting their chops when they don’t. When you strike out or a ground ball goes between your legs, it’s NOT OK. Do better next time. Turn your glove the right way and when I say hustle, I mean HUSTLE. Learn from your mistakes and celebrate your accomplishments.

We have guys that leave work early on Fridays to get the fields ready to play. They drag the fields with their own equipment, using their own gas, on their own dime, in order to get rid of as much of the May rains as they can so they don’t have to look into the faces of little boys like Grant Applewhite, who live and die by this game, and break their heart by telling them we’re calling the game because of field conditions. These children would walk through fire for you, so don’t underestimate the influence you have on them.

These coaches spend their own money on equipment and maintenance, never asking to be reimbursed because they want to see this legacy of County Ball go on for generations to come. We have moms that stock drink boxes during the week, order food and buy hamburger and hotdog buns, because somehow in “Concession Goddess” land they know just how many we had left over the from the last game to get us through the next one.

Recently, I attended my first end of the season coaches meeting. We organized tournament play, the All-Star team and reviewed changes to some rules. There were no scowls, no jockeying for position and not one single argument. There was laughing, joking and true cooperation. These coaches either grew up playing ball together or had been coaching for 30 years and know deep in their hearts what it’s all about: kids and community. Now, they still want to win.

It’s about knowing your kids are on a ballfield on Friday evening even if they run like a turtle or can’t throw a ball worth a nickel versus sitting in front of a video game or out walking the streets. It’s the pure joy you see on the face of the boy or girl that that catches a fly ball in a clutch situation who has barely been able to catch a cold this year. It’s the lump in your throat when the kid that has worked hard all season finally ropes one into right field for their first home run of the season. Maybe the only one they’ll ever have.

It’s about seeing your friends at church and when you walk out of service you smile and say: “See you at the ballfield!” Being totally honest, it’s a couple nights each week that Mama’s off the hook for fixing supper thanks to the dedication of numerous volunteers around this county that spend their Friday evening and Sunday afternoons as a short order cook.

To the parents: Thank you for having your kid to practice on time. Thank you for not reaming the coaches when you don’t like a call he or she has made. Believe me; any given moment you’re ready to step in, know the game and carry the responsibility that goes along with being a coach, raise your hand. Thank you for entrusting the most precious piece of your heart to these coaches for a few hours each week. Believe it or not, they become our kids too. Thank you for running a taxi service when the efficiency coefficient of what we do seems next to absurd. Thank you for loading up a carload of kids, most of which aren’t even yours because the only way to make it through the season is to work together.

Thank you to the umpires. You suit up every Friday night and Sunday afternoon to come out there and do your very best to call a fair, safe game. You go home exhausted but always seem to come back and do it again. Thank you for being patient with the people that call you names from the stands, critique your strike zone and remind you of your blindness. You put up with the fans that know the rules as well as the ones that don’t. Most of all thank you for teaching a 9-year-old pitcher what a balk is by giving him a gentle warning the first time and how not to do it again instead of calling it the first time he does it. I promise you, in that moment, you make or break his confidence for that game. Most of all thank you for your time. You’re doing it because you love the game and your communities. I’ve been the one to pay the umpires at the end of night and you surely don’t do it for the money.

To the generous sponsors that each year donate money: Thank you. These businesses are local, family owned companies that find it in their hearts to donate money that goes toward equipment, power bills and improvements to our ballfields. From the bottom of our hearts we thank you. We couldn’t do it without you.

My favorite thing is the grandparents. The ones that don’t miss a game. Same as 30 years ago. The ones that stroll up with their seat cushions, big floppy hats and fancy chairs. The ones that have $20 worth of one dollar bills tucked in their pocket so that every child’s concession stand dream can be fulfilled.

Now mind you, I’m not a fan of travel ball. That being said, I’m a ‘Never say never’ kind of girl. But, I can promise you this: As long as there’s an option, I’m going to play county ball on Fridays and Sundays, be in Southampton County on the weekends and not have to schedule my vacations around tournaments in New Jersey. I challenge each and every coach in this league to continue to do whatever it takes to keep the county ball legacy going — even if it’s tough conversations, difficult decisions the difference between a winning & losing season. Stick to your guns.

I never set a foot on that field to play a game in Drewryville as a kid. As far as coming full circle I sit in those same old bleachers and cheer as loud as I can for Capron. I cheer whether they’re my kids or not. I see them all as my kids because it is county ball.

I holler things like: “Now you’re ready! Quick bat! Drive the ball!” On nights I’m lucky enough to work in the concession stand with the best gals I know, I watch the kids out the window, fooling around on the adjoining field after their game is over and while I’m cheese fries off in the distance I hear: “Ghost man on first!”

I just smile.

MARY ANN CLARK is a Capron resident, and her email address is mclark@luckstone.com.