The luring nights before Friday nights

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You may think the skies draw us to football games. For my Granddaddy and me, it was all about baseball and softball.

By Steve Doyle

There used to be a time, before Daylight Savings Time pushed our summer sunsets until almost bedtime, before schools started with the dog days of August and before lights from the mixing center contaminated our horizons, when I was lured all over the county by a phenomenon in the heavens.

These were isolated reflections, glares against the darkening summer skies that were visible from across the hilltops. Long before Friday Night Lights tried to paint this as a “football thing” and a “Texas thing,” these were my summer beacons, halos cast into the country darkness and beckoning us as if they created a Bat Signal of sorts, telling us the games were on and that we should be on our way to see them.

Maybe you recall these auras of activity that could draw us and give us a centrifugal around which to rally, celebrating our summers and our people.

There was no Clear Creek Park, but there were specs of dirt and grass that for most nights drew young old, men and women, boys and girls to play a game that each of use took up in cow pastures and on the sandlots of our youth.

This was summer softball or baseball or some combination. And during the days before I reached my teens – and for some after – hardly a summer night came that I wasn’t at a ballpark somewhere.

Many times I was squatting in the dirt or sitting on the old concrete bleachers at the field Bobby Stratton kept neat next to Daniel Field.

But if not there, I was likely at a softball game somewhere, playing or watching, in tandem with my Granddaddy, whose love for a ball game long ago seeped into my DNA and defined my springs.

For several years he and I would get into his old Ford and go to fast-pitch games at Eastwood and slow-pitch games where friends played, maybe at Waddy, Bagdad and old Bluegrass Park, when it was a flame of activity on the spot along Mount Eden Road now occupied by a veterinarian and a kennel.

But usually we would be at Simpsonville, just a mile away, where the lights at the field could be seen above the trees that lined the fence row a few hundred yards to the south of our farm.

We had this ritual, my Granddaddy and I, in the late afternoons, before those lights emerged, sort of a mental pregame show between a man in his 60s and a boy 11 or so.

He would be finishing with the milking in the way it was handled before machines or even parlors did most of the work, and I would stand nearby wishing he would ask the question to which I always had a ready if coyly delivered response>

“Anybody playing ball tonight out at Simp?” Granddaddy would ask.

I would pause as if to go through some mental schedule: “I think the boys are playing tonight.”

Him: “I thought the girls played tonight.”

Me: “No, it’s Tuesday. That’s when the boys play.”

Him: “Well, maybe after supper we ought to drive out there and see.

Me, careful not to include obvious elation: “Sounds good to me.”

But we didn’t care about the gender of the players, and truthfully the visits to the old school field at Simpsonville were as much about a boy developing a social life as it was watching peers play a game he knew well. This was where friendships were maintained, where a lifelong friendship was formed when my pal Howard Roberts mixed “suicides” in the Lions Club’s concession stand. It was where an elementary romance might commence on one Monday and be forgotten by the next (at least by her). It was where the Duvall sisters, Kathy Ruble and Masha Casey, among others, taught you long before Title IX that girls could play the game as well as boys.

It’s where you saw Masha’s brother, Mike, hit ball after ball onto the roof of the old gym and Danny Joe Cottrell and Gary Bailey run down fly balls through the poorly lit gloom. It’s where the batters’ boxes were at least 4 inches lower than home plate because of steal cleats and summer rains and the absence of a grounds crew. It’s where a center fielder might not be identifiable because he stood next to the light poles and was below the level of the infield. It’s where a ball could be lost because it was hit, literally, out of sight. And it’s where church leagues sometimes could get as, uh, competitive as those that didn’t have faith as its foundation. It was pure softball, and it was precious.

Softball still is played at Simp. The seductive target of “Red Monster” gym still stands tall in left field, and there is joy for those who flock there for fun and friendship, sometimes still from churches, sometimes now playing coed.

But today that concession stand is two stories tall. The outfield is level, and there is a fence all around.

A young shortstop no longer will speed all the way to the cistern in left-center to help make a play, and the stands are not nearly as full of the hopeful and the traditional.

But there, I would bet, on a warm Tuesday night, my Granddaddy’s spirit probably still sits, watching a game he has loved, celebrating another  summer of its return.

I only wish he could have asked me if someone were playing that night.