They had five on the team, more if you count the ghost runners and the dog that kept bounding through the game.
The game erupted around our blanket, crept up on me as I napped in the park. A repeated and increasingly near rustle of a tennis ball through grass kept waking me, followed each time by calls of “BALL!” or “STRIKE!” and a stern-looking young boy running back to retrieve the pitch he whiffed.
“There’s a ghost runner!” a second kid yelled as he ran to play catcher, pointing back at the flip-flop that marked first base.
The stern-looking boy was the dead spit of the ripped teen pitcher with the cut-off sleeves, just four or five years younger. The two and a teen girl playing right field all had jet-black hair and olive skin.
The pitcher joked and laughed, bent his body into clownish contortions for a lark, but grimaced with disappointment at every pitch that wasn’t perfect.
The little boy was quiet and grim, determined to knock out of the park whatever his big brother offered.
When he connected and the tennis ball went sailing toward a necking couple, the pitcher cheered louder than anyone.
“It almost hit that couple making out,” said the left fielder.
She was left fielder in title only. She and the olive-skinned right fielder kept laughing and joking, about five feet from each other at any point.
Earlier, the skinny, sandy-haired kid who called ghost runner got a pop up that bopped the left fielder on the head as she wandered somewhere between shortstop and pitcher. She made a comical stage fall as the tennis ball rolled in the grass and the ghost runners rounded the flip-flops.
This is baseball. Ghost runners, arguments over whether the shoe or the Frisbee will make a better home plate, the pitcher cheering when his little brother nails one and the right fielder demonstrating the perfect swing for her friend’s edification.
The good game has its place, of course. Dedication, matching uniforms and that youthful esprit de corps where you make fun of the fat kid all teach lessons of teamwork, grit, conformity and only deserving to feel joy if you win. Valuable stuff in the end.
But the baseball I feel, the baseball I love is the one of stage falls, laughter, fun and arguments over whether that was a ball or a strike. No score, no teams, no victory or loss. Just an endless stream of runs and the plink of tennis balls on an endless summer day.