Tuesday, March 2, 2010

State Line Baseball

I'll admit it; I'm a sucker for Field of Dreams. Unlike The Natural, with its moral ambiguity (and spine chilling theme!) and the hilarious, but believable Bull Durham, Field of Dreams is a kid's
show. It is sweet, and nostalgic, and evocative for those of us living where baseball is routinely played amongst the corn. When the parting shots of the movie pan out to the ball diamond lit up for a night game, I am pulled back to the summertime evenings we spent watching Ben play ball in the State Line league.

The State Line league was already an anachronism when Ben got old enough to play baseball. By then, summer leagues in basketball and even soccer had cannibalized many of the small town baseball teams for boys and softball teams for girls. In those years, Tarkio didn't have baseball or softball teams for kids past six grade. But if you lived near Westboro, you could play baseball from age five (we were always short players) all the way to age 16.

Secondly, the State Line league played in the little towns clustering our corner of Missouri and Iowa, towns like Westboro, Clearmont, Coin, Braddyville. These communities could still field 9 boys with a couple extras on the bench. They even had folks to sponsor t shirts. But they were towns with half a heart because they were towns without a school anymore.
We'd pack our lawn chairs, a water jug, and hats to beat the sun on a couple of the fields. Westboro had a lovely slope with big pines and the sun to our back. No so great for the right fielder. When Ben started as a half pint the school was still used as the concession area and we could borrow the downstairs bathrooms. As the building sank into disrepair, the local Lions and concerned citizens and baseball fans raised funds for a nice concession/bathroom building, a brand new upgrade to a town on a long slow slope. To be honest, Westboro's ball field has always been snazzy. The grass was mown regularly; the infield received grading when a serious wet spot developed between first and second; the kids got "dugouts" where peeling unshaded benches had been. We had lights for the evening games where moth clustered thickly. The games weren't short; we're not talking Randy Johnson here, so there were lots of walks. But we were never far from home on the two lane lettered and numbered state roads roiling up and down the loess hills and creek bottoms.

Like old major league parks, the ballfields of the State Line league had their own idiosyncrasies. Westboro had some serious speed bumps in the outfield. The field at Coin was down below the old school so spectators could watch from bleachers, or, as we did one stormy June night, stay in one's car and watch the lightening strikes during a "rain delay". Clearmont's field faced right into the sun; the designer was obviously an outfielder who didn't care if the audience burned to a crisp. The field in Braddyville was outside of town, next to a creek. The woods were hard by left field: another brand of "Green Monster". Foul balls were headed across the road and really out of play. Unlike the majors, each team did not have an unlimited budget for baseballs, so fouls were limited and out on the third strike. A particularly muffed ball could conceivably wind up in the river.

The little towns of State Line country are not what they used to be. Not only are the schools hollow shells, but the business districts are pretty well derelict too. But a community of any size in our country still has a skyline; many a ball field has a view of fertilizer wagons, grain bins and tanks of varying diameters.
Ben's coach was Dr. Ed Nims, the veterinarian in Westboro. Through uncounted years of multi-walk, multi-run innings and lopsided games, I never heard him vary from good natured encouragement and equanimity. He was just as pleasant when the boys got older and played .500 ball.

 Ben played catcher from the time he was five til his last summer. He never even owned a regular ball mitt. The last game of every year was the All Star game; in Ben's last season, the game was in Hopkins, I think. Someone sang the National Anthem and the kids all received medals at the end of the game. I have Ben's All Star medal from the State Line; it rode around in the car for a long time after the season ended.

Unlike Field of Dreams, I don't think there is some golden age to be regained. No heroes of baseball past are going to walk out of the woods in northwest Missouri. But like that movie, there is a sweetness that surrounds the memories, a universal good humor made up of summer, rustling corn, sunsets, lawn chairs, and baseball.

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