Monday, June 10, 2013

No. 360 – Southern Man

Performer: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Songwriter: Neil Young
Original Release: After the Gold Rush (Neil Young)
Year: 1970
Definitive Version: 4 Way Street, 1971

Although I had been exposed to ELP at a young age, there’s no question that my love of really long songs stemmed most specifically from Four Way Street—Carry On and this song, in which each tops 13 minutes.

Speaking of 13, when I was that age and listening to Four Way Street all the time after successfully stealing it from Dad (who successfully stole it from Aunt Nan, as I mentioned), I had a pretty rough season on the diamonds. I played on the Buckeyes in my first year of Big 10 baseball. I was put at first base, so I played the whole year.

I had been encouraged by my previous year, which included my first two home runs, and I was great at the start the season, hitting two triples my first two times at bats of the season. But soon after I fell into a slump, and the next month was an unbroken collection of o-fers. It reached the point where I started wondering whether I’d ever get another hit.

We had a pretty good team, but the only thing I had to contribute was my glove. Fortunately, I was having a solid year in the field, scooping up everything out of the dirt, making plays, so I kept playing even though I couldn’t hit water if I fell out of a boat.

I got my bat going again at the end of the year, enough so when it came time to vote for the league all-star game, I finished third in the balloting of the coaches among first basemen in my team’s division.

Unfortunately, only the top two guys from each division made the team. My season over, I headed with Dad to Torch Lake for the Fourth of July and a long weekend of sailing.

Except … my season wasn’t over. The evening we arrived, after dinner, I got a call from Mom. A first baseman on the all-star team—some guy by the name of Shank, coincidentally enough—had a broken hand and couldn’t play. Because I was next on the list, the honor fell to me as an injury replacement. Awesome! There was a practice tomorrow. Could I make it? Ummm … uh oh.

Well, because this was before airline deregulation and certainly way before 9/11, it was no trouble to get on a flight the next day for not an arm and a leg. Dad would drive me to Traverse City, and I’d take a puddle jumper to Detroit where I’d get on a big jet to Columbus. I couldn’t have been more excited—I’d never traveled alone before.

Dad got me up at 5, before the crack of dawn, and drove me to Traverse City. I remember boarding the plane and seeing him looking out from the second-story observation porch as the sun just was starting to come up. What an adventure.

The flights themselves were nondescript—I was too excited to be bored—except I got a brutal headache on the first leg. I didn’t have any aspirin with me, so I just had to endure it, which is probably why I don’t remember much about the flights, other than the flight attendants were nice to me, likely because I was traveling alone.

Mom picked me up at the airport, and that was the end of her responsibilities. I would have to get myself to the practice at Northam Park, which meant I had to ride my bike the six miles to get there. Riding my bike was my main means of transportation anyway, so it was no big deal.

The practice consisted mostly of drills and then a scrimmage. The team had already gone through one practice that I missed. I was put in the leadoff spot, so I’d be batting first—thrown right into the fire.

I particularly remember as I strolled to the plate, the pitcher and third baseman—both from my team, the Buckeyes—were joking about me along the lines of being the weak sister on the team and an easy out. It was good-natured, but I definitely was aware that eyes were on me as the new guy. First pitch: ping! I ripped a triple—my fourth in competition that season—over the left fielder’s head. The laughing and joking stopped. I belong here.

The game was the next day, on the Fourth. Being named to the all-star team in Upper Arlington’s program meant you got to ride in the morning on a flatbed truck in the annual Fourth of July parade. This was a huge deal. I had participated in the parade before, but riding as part of the all-star team felt prestigious. Mom came to the parade, but she wasn’t going to stay. She wasn’t feeling well, she explained, but she would try and make it back for the game itself.

Well, I knew I wouldn’t have time to go home and ride my bike back before the game, so I just hung out around the park, getting a massive strawberry shake from the Chef-o-Nette as my lunch.

Finally it was game time, and I was glad to see we were playing on Diamond 4. I always played well on Diamond 4, and my confidence was high. The guys who got the most votes among the coaches started, so I’d play the second half of the game. We had a pretty good lead when I went in at first.

The game was a microcosm of my season. In my one at bat, I faced the hardest thrower of anyone in the league. I wasn’t intimidated this time up, though, but I still fanned in three feeble swings. However, I made a big play in the field late in the game.

The other team had the bases loaded with two out, when our pitcher picked off the runner on first. The runner took off to second, so I had no tag play on him. But I also didn’t want to throw the ball down there, because he would have been safe and, well, who knows what happens on the play? So I held the ball and ran toward the runner at third faking throwing to second. Everyone was hung up and finally the runner on third made a break for it. I made a perfect throw to the catcher and nailed the runner—end of threat, end of game for all intents and purposes.

So our team won, and everyone lined up to get our all-star game plaques. I was at the end of the line along the basepaths. The league commissioner came out to address everyone, but doing the honors as far as handing out the plaques was Miss Upper Arlington and her court. Each guy got a plaque … and a kiss … from a high-school babe. Holy crap! Can it get better than this?

Well, it kind of can. I watched everyone go up one by one until I was the last one standing … and I got the queen, who was the uberhot Cheryl Simon. So my first real kiss was courtesy of Miss Upper Arlington. Playing in the all-star game and getting to kiss the queen—that’s a pretty good way to end what had been a crummy baseball season, don’t you think?

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