Batting Practice – The Start of a Love Affair
Starting when I was seven, once a year my Dad would take me to a major league baseball game. Getting there early was a big deal. The ball players arrive three hours before the start of the game. After parking and paying the neighborhood kids “insurance” to watch our car, I skip to the players’ gate hoping for an autograph. The turn-styles open two hours before the playing of the National Anthem. We zip past the display cases and concession stands in the bowels of the park and race up the stairs to see . . . there’s nothing quite like the sudden sighting of the huge open green expanse of the playing field, bathed in sunlight, in the middle of a city . . . to see batting practice!
“Is that Looie over there playing pepper, Dad?” Because we’re among the first patrons we can walk down by the Sox dugout and watch Luis Aparicio play a game of “pepper.” Looie has the bat; three or four teammates line up five or six feet away, alternating who tosses the ball at Looie, who takes short swings to knock the ball back at them. I hear from the kids these days that there’s no more pre-game pepper – that’s like going to the movies and never seeing Bo Derek.
Another group of White Sox is in the outfield catching fungos. A fungo bat is longer and skinnier than a game bat, allowing for more accurate directing of the ball. The best fungo hitter of all time, Jimmy Reese, one of Babe Ruth’s roommates, use to claim he could knock over a coke bottle from 50 paces. When challenged, he’d say “First bounce or second bounce?”
For years my Dad hit me fungos on Saturday afternoons. I’d go stand in the outfield; he’d stay at home plate, toss the ball three feet in the air, and whack a high one for me to run and catch. If I had to dive, or turn my back to home plate to catch up with the ball, it was a great fungo hit!
So it was that I was playing ball with my friends one wet spring day just before the school bell rang. Trying for a triple, I slid into a mud puddle and walked into class all muddy and dirty. “Andy Dawkins, you’re just too muddy and dirty – you have to go home and change,” my third grade teacher said. Ever since I’ve been known as “Dirt” Dawkins.