Column: Line Drives — Stroll recalls fond memories

[This is my column in the July 25 issue of The Commercial Review.]

I had the opportunity to go to a few places I had never been to before while on vacation last week.

I went to Milwaukee, Madison, Wis., and Chicago.

But it was one familiar place that I enjoyed the most.

Friday evening, while returning home from seeing a friend at his new house, I stopped by the Little League fields where I spent my summers as a young boy.

For nearly a half hour, I strolled the grounds of North Saginaw Township Little League, a complex just a stone’s throw away from the house where I grew up.

I parked between the Major and Senior fields, and walked the 80 yards or so over to the T-Ball field — the place where it all began.

The diamond — much smaller now than what it seemed like when I last played on it more than two decades ago — brought back fond memories of my first years playing ball.

I was one of the smallest players during a season in which my Sharks lost only three games, all to the Yellow Jackets. One of those was the championship.

After two years on the field, I moved up a league to Bantam, a league that used a pitching machine.

I don’t remember those years very well.

As a 10-year-old, I was drafted onto a team in Major, allowing me to completely skip Minor. I remember getting the call from the late Mike Hare one spring evening. I was ecstatic.

Little did I know what I would be going up against.

Boy was it a shock.

There I was, a 4-foot, 10-inch, soon-to-be fifth grader, facing off against 12-year-olds who were more than a foot taller than me.

Greg Witkowski, for example, was easily 6 feet tall.

I remember stepping into the batter’s box against him and standing as far away from him and the plate as I could.

It was the first time I legitimately feared for my life.

Those three years in Major though, were some of the best years of my Little League career.

That first season, my team made it to the championship game, but lost.

Later in the summer, I was on the 10-and-younger all-star team that won a district title. We were on our way to a berth in the state tournament too, but a team from the Detroit area rallied to score seven runs in the sixth inning to beat us 7-6 in the regional final.

The next year my team didn’t do so well in the regular season, but we bounced back to win the title my final year in the league.

It was in that league I fell in love with playing catcher and learned how to chew sunflower seeds.

In Senior B (13-14-year-olds), my teams weren’t very good.

Senior A (15-and-older) however, was one of the most memorable years of my time in Little League.

I was playing for Jim Green, a coach I had known almost my entire life. And our team was stacked.

We had two pitchers who wear nearly untouchable. One of them threw heat and the other relied on junk, including an above-average curveball for someone that age.

It made my job behind the plate easy.

When opposing players managed to reach base, however, they rarely ran on me. It took me throwing out one particular player twice in the same game for the other coach to realize not to try to swipe any bases on me.

That season, too, included a walk-off two-run single by yours truly to win the championship.

It also had one of the most head-scratching situations I have ever, and will ever, encounter.

While both teams were warming up, the umpire called over the starting catchers for both teams and asked if we were wearing athletic supporters.

I never wore one.

The catcher for the other team wasn’t wearing one either.

The umpire didn’t let us play the game.

“You boys are not wearing the right protective equipment,” he said.

They were suggested, not required, so it was odd to us he called the game. I now understand his viewpoint, but at the time we were astonished.

I don’t get to spend much time in my hometown these days, but when I do, I try to go to places that were key parts of my childhood.

I’ll drive through my old neighborhood or past the schools I attended. I’ll cruise around places my friends and I used to go when our parents thought we were somewhere else.

Doing so helps me reminisce about the “good old days.”

It reminds me of the time of my life I wish to never forget.

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