"In this game of baseball,
you live by the sword and die by it.
You hit and get hit. Remember that."
(Alvin Dark, Player and Manager)
The third row was just behind the rusty chain link backstop, uncomfortable. The seat was a wavy, weathered gray, knot-filled board that was supposed to be a good one at Veteran’s Field. You’d get a whiff of the rosin, see the chalk dust as batters tried to erase the batter’s box, hear the umpire grunt as he bent over to sweep the plate clean. The best seats seemed to be on the hill just behind the fence, but most of us were sitting in the first five rows of the stands, worrying about splinters more than getting beaned by fouled off pitches.
They played baseball at this location since World War Two, I’d heard. Baseball was the constant. These college-age players, not much younger than me, were all here with student deferments. It was a time for sport, not dissent: no demonstrators here, just generations of people watching the game.
There was a pretty good crowd for this late afternoon game, especially on a good beach day when folks were likely to be elsewhere. The place, Veteran’s field, was just a dug-out hollow, smack dab in the middle of the little village of Chatham, a town that is mostly water, has four post offices, and sits at the elbow of Cape Cod.
A couple years ago they’d raised enough money by selling souvenirs and programs to build a plywood press box and to put in a public address system. Couple days before the only barber in town whispered to me that an anonymous benefactor wanted to pay to put field lights in, to allow the place to have night games, but that seemed a sacrilege. Or so he said. I guess I was half listening.
A small gaggle of laughing gulls rested comfortably in the outfield, getting up and waddling away from outfielders when they shagged fly balls, or they bent down to tie their laces. In the dusty infield coaches went through their semaphore routines, as if any of the players were looking.
The manager of the Orleans team, the dreaded enemy of Chatham and a fellow about 30, was on the top step of the dugout, waving frantically for his outfielders to back up, get closer to the warning track. The gulls may have noticed but the outfielders seemed indifferent, carrying on a conversation with each other and some of the little kids who lined the foul lines.
In a thick New England accent the announcer said that foul balls must be returned to the field of play. To sweeten the deal, he remarked that there was a free ice cream cone waiting at the refreshment stand for anyone who brought an errant ball back. During batting practice hordes of small and larger kids with gloves raced left, then right to snag one of the foul tips. Racing at top speed, many falling over each other, they tired to be the first to reach the ball, to return it and get the prize. Sometime the balls hit windshields, a sound that was greeted with moans and cheers, depending on where you’d parked.
A player stepped to the plate. I’d seen him cutting grass at another city owned field earlier in the week. All the players had city-sponsored jobs to earn spending money--NCAA rules.
The public address announcer coughed into the mike and said in monotone, “Now batting for the Chat-ham Athletics, the catcher, from Kent State University, Thurman Munson.”
He strode to home plate, full of himself. He was short and squat, all muscle. He pounded his bat on his spikes; just the big-leaguers do, and then rested that large piece of ash on his shoulder.
The first pitch was destined to result in a free ice cream cone, fouled deep to right field. Kids ran at top speed, making a cloud of dust. Munson pounded his bat on the dusty plate. The umpire swept it clean and murmured something to the batter. Even this close we couldn’t hear.
He took another pitch, low. Then one was fouled back right at us. We ducked. It was that involuntary thing when you know something bad is going to happen to you. Your eyes close, but you stay still. The ball careened off the chain link fence. We were saved.
Now Munson’s bat wiggled as he studied the pitcher’s eyes. With a mighty stroke he drove the fast ball out of the park, way out. The Chatham Fire Department needed a new windshield on their ladder truck, about 430 feet away, when the fly ball, on one hop, smashed into it. We cheered for a couple minutes as he rounded the bases.
Thurman Munson went on to play for the Yankees, won three World Series for them. I went into the Army Infantry. Closest I got to being wounded was a paper cut. Thurman died about 10 years later when his private jet crashed in Ohio. The entire Yankee team came to the funeral. They retired his number at Yankee Stadium. They also retired his number at Veteran’s field.
Somebody paid for the lights to be put in. They play mostly night games. Little kids still chase foul balls. The prize is still an ice cream cone. The Fire Department keeps that door closed, just in case