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All-Star baseball teams from Shelby County have been playing in tournaments all across the state for these past few weeks. They wear nicely tailored knit uniforms, use the very best equipment – mostly their own – and play on fields so finely manicured that they put most of our gardens to shame.
And every time they play, every time they pass the front road at Clear Creek Park, they should throw a kiss in the direction of the memorial sculpture dedicated to Bobby Stratton.
They owe him.
Stratton is our Abner Doubleday in Shelby County: He may not have invented baseball here, but most people think he did.
He brought the game to kids from city streets and dirt roads back in the 1960s, and those who play the game for serious stakes today in many cases can trace their athletic roots to the game Mr. Stratton allowed us to play.
Kids and parents today take this game with a religious ferocity that drives them to practice almost daily, drives hundreds of miles day after day to play games and sometimes drives them to chase an umpire to a concession stand to point out that official’s unmitigated myopia.
But is it all fun? In this day of winning at all costs, advancing to the next level and year-round commitment to one sport, are the kids really having fun?
In our day, the games were about fun first. We were competitive, but we only had ourselves against whom to compete.
We fell in love with baseball after its impeccable first kiss touched our soul, and we played it with uncommon ardor, uncontained will and unsurpassed pleasure.
It wasn’t how we won or lost but indeed how we played that mattered.
We didn’t care about manicured infields, fancy uniforms or winning our way to Williamsport. We just wanted to throw, hit and catch the best we could, better than the other guy.
We played anytime we could get at least four of us together in someone’s yard, with baseballs sometimes made soft by overuse or held together by tape.
We played in sandlots in the corners of school yards when a neighborhood adult would pitch for both teams, in pastures when a foul ball or overthrow at any moment could turn into the game-ending lost ball in high weeds, in haylofts when the elements could limit our access to those.
And then we turned the right age when we could play Mr. Stratton’s game, a game that will seem an antique, a remote relative to the game today’s players pursue but was a baseball bar mitzvah for most of us.
Shelbyville had one youth league structure, and it wasn’t sanctioned by anyone except the kids who wanted to play in it, the parents whose hustle and sweat made it go and the man whose bottomless heart and soul and tireless back made it happen – Mr. Stratton.
You were grouped by age, and almost everyone changed teams every year.
The 8s, 9s and 10s were the minors, 11s and 12s were majors, the 13s through 16s were the Pony League. The elite played for the American Legion team that still exists today under Jim Wiley’s’ watchful ways.
You drove to Stratton’s Sporting Goods on U.S. 60 and signed up.
There were tryouts in June, after school was out, and the coaches – parents and interested adults – chose their teams.
If you wanted to play third base, you lined up with everyone else and saw what you could do, but you might wind up being the catcher.
One year, you might play for Heddens Standard or Optimist or Bank of Shelbyville.
The next it might be Coca-Cola or Exxon or Kiwanis.
Everyone was chosen for a team. Everyone got a used, flannel uniform with the team’s logo embroidered on the back – though not everyone could get the widely coveted No. 7 of Mickey Mantle – and everyone – no matter how unrefined – played in every game.
Some teams practiced during the season, and some didn’t. Jobs and farm labor sometimes were preordained over passion.
You shared the same catcher’s gear, wooden bats and red plastic helmets and were quick to identify your favorites among them.
You played twice a week in the mornings and afternoons and sometimes at night, June to August. You cried when it rained.
And all the games were played on the same field, the area that is now the eastern end of Daniel Field, with an old concrete grandstand beneath which the equipment was stored and concessions sold.
Stratton and his helpers would unroll a wire fence across the outfield, 180 feet from home plate, for the little league game, and roll it back up for Pony League and Legion.
The would move the bases, and the field had two pitching rubbers. There holes for bases at 60 and 90 feet, pitching rubbers at 46 and 60, though only one mound.
The umpires, we knew and still know. In the first game I ever played, I was the catcher, and now Dr. Kenny Gravett was the umpire. He sure seemed tall.
After that, it might have been Mr. Stratton’s son Wayne, former judge Mike Harrod, former coach Bobby Cook or future bankers and business leaders such as Randy Head and Randy Tennill.
And the memories we made filled our internal scrapbooks to overflowing.
When I was 9 and first tried out, we had a group of boys from around Simpsonville who wanted to play but faced difficulty finding transportation to day games.
So we carpooled, and that meant one coach had to take us all on his team.
Larry Gravett’s dad, Billy, was the coach of my first team. Because Larry and I were friends, Mr. Gravett had seen me throw and catch, but he was kind enough to take the Simpsonville lot, most of whom he knew only by name.
We lost nearly every game that season. I can’t recall the record, but it was something like 2-14, including one I do recall that was 22-0. There were no slaughter rules then.
But then in the tournament for the trophies, we found some momentum and fought our way to a runner-up finish. We got a little trophy engraved with our names and had a team picnic at Keith Coulter’s house.
I still have that trophy.
And I wouldn’t trade it for any other I’ve ever received.
Because this Mr. Stratton’s baseball, and we played for fun.