Friday, July 28, 2006

Field of High School Dreams



My old high school just got a real baseball field. With natural grass and a manicured dirt infield. A landscaped, completely level field -- free of rocks, underbrush and assorted small animals. I hear it even has a fence in the outfield, over which hopefully the home team will hit a plethora of four baggers over many successful seasons.
Yes, my alma mater, St. Michael’s Preparatory High School in Silverado, California, just built itself a baseball field. And although it’s been almost 30 years since I played for the Pioneers, I must say I am proud as can be of the school for stepping up to the plate and installing a genuine baseball facility they can call their own.
When I played baseball at St. Michaels, all of our home games were played at public parks and other high schools’ fields. And we practiced on campus on a field that was, even by minimum standards, atrocious. It was on a hillside, with home plate at the bottom; so that ground balls slowed down as they rolled uphill and fly balls flew over your head as you chugged up an incline. The ground was hard packed dirt that hadn’t been tilled or weeded since the Paleolithic Era. There were small chasms everywhere, and a large crack in the earth that stretched from third base out into left field, which we affectionately named “Nobody’s Fault”. The foliage in both the infield and outfield (there was really no distinction between the two) consisted of thistles, tumbleweeds and poison oak. The backstop looked so old we speculated that it had been donated to the school by none other than Alexander Cartwright himself.
One time during a particularly error-filled practice, I made an errant throw from shortstop to first base, beaning a poor little squirrel in the process. He lived, but limped slightly from then on, which, of course, made me feel terrible. Another time we had to call off practice because someone hit a ground rule double into a hornet’s nest. Roadrunners, hawks, wolf spiders, gophers and lizards all got into the act at one time or another.
Even with all these issues about the field – from our frequent encounters with the local wildlife, all the way to the simple fact that we were playing in conditions similar to those on the Planet Mars – it never seemed to get in the way of us always having a really good time practicing on our makeshift baseball field at St. Michael’s Prep.
Some people might think that a high school getting a baseball field is no big deal. Well, then they don’t know St. Michael’s. St. Michael’s is an all-male Catholic boarding school with a student population of approximately 60-80 kids in grades 8-12. It is known for its academics, not for its sports programs, which, when I attended in 1975-1977, consisted of just basketball and baseball. Now the school has cross country, soccer and 8-man football as well. Since the school was so tiny, we played in the lowest of leagues, in the “small schools” division; (known as Division VII today) the absolute cellar of the CIF as far as athletic talent was concerned. Our league schedule consisted of a menagerie of borderline educational institutions.
First there was Desert Sun -- a progressive, ultra-liberal high school in the mountains above Palm Springs where rich parents took time out from saving manatees, skiing in Aspen and summering in Santa Barbara just long enough to deposit their problem kiddies there. Think of spoiled brats with American Express Cards and mouths that would make longshoremen blush. When we played them in baseball, they smoked cigarettes in the dugout and made out with their girlfriends as if that would impress us. (As a sophomore who had never even held a girl’s hand -- it sure did!)
Then, there was Nimitz Military Academy -- the decaying military school in Lake Elsinore, where the basketball court was in a hangar with rats and sewage problems, and where none of the cadets’ uniforms matched. We were told that the school had once held great prestige. From the look of the campus, I estimated that its legendary days probably came to an end right around the time of the Civil War. The corps of misfits at Nimitz saluted our departing bus after one game once with an assortment of gestures that I’m sure aren’t acceptable within any branch of the military. To say that these kids were trying to be all they could be was more of a threat than anything else.
Then to top it off, we also played special “schools” with names like Twin Pines and Los Pinos. These institutions can best be described as juvenile work camps. Prisons for kids, essentially, although most of these guys couldn’t be considered children by any stretch of the imagination. Traveling to play them at their facility was always an adventure. We’d have to drive for hours to the middle of nowhere, and when we finally reached our destination, we were escorted through this series of gates and fences to the basketball court or baseball field. The baseball field was hard clay, without a single blade of grass in sight, and there was a big sign in the dugout that said, “Do Not Leave the Dugout: Rattlesnake Danger.” The entire field was on a huge plateau, so any foul balls that were hit went down into a deep canyon -- souvenirs for the snakes and rodents and who knows what else. The outfield had towers along both foul lines, manned with “youth counselors”, prison guards basically, there just in case someone got a bright idea and tried to make a run for it.
In basketball, these youth camps would always have one great player who would dominate the entire league for the first half of the season. They would have four average white players and one 6 foot 9 black guy with a beard. We would try to defend against this man among boys, and we must have looked like a bunch of Chihuahuas yipping at the heels of a Great Dane in doing so. As the basketball season progressed, their phenom would behave himself just enough to get released, and without their big star the work camp team was just another group of semi-coordinated, ridiculously slow white boys with bad haircuts. Just like us, actually, but not as smart or well coached. The end result was that we would usually win the second half of the season and invariably capture the league title. Don’t knock it. Winning is winning no matter how you look at it, and to us at that time it was everything.
But, winning in the classroom was more important than anything you could accomplish on the court or diamond. Because at St. Michaels in the late 70’s, studying wasn’t just something…it was the ONLY thing. At most schools, the jocks are always more popular than the eggheads. Not at St. Michael’s. The guys we all looked up to in my class were the ones with 4.0 GPA’s and near-perfect SAT scores. We weren’t interested in things like batting averages and shooting percentages. We were more concerned about getting good grades and performing well in the Orange County Academic Decathlon, a scholastic statewide competition in which we consistently trounced schools 50 and 60 times our size.
Since we didn’t have much of a sports program, there was no room for big heads or jock attitudes at St. Michael’s. Plus, it was an all-boys school, so there weren’t any women to try and impress. The two nuns who cooked in the school’s kitchen were Hungarian, and could have cared less about sports, unless you were talking European Water Polo.
And if your performance in the classroom faltered, you found yourself off the team. Every week, we would lose a player or two due to bad grades. It could be really frustrating at times, because we were already short of good personnel, especially in baseball, where we had to field nine players. You’d go to a game, and half your infield wouldn’t be there. “Where’s our second baseman?” “He flunked his Geometry quiz.” “Our shortstop?’ “Latin Exam.” “Third base?” “English Paper.” “Oh.”
At the time I was mad, because I am so competitive and I didn’t want to lose any games. But, I realize now that St. Michael’s was the primary reason a lot of my fellow students ended up going to college and building great careers, instead of living at home and working at Arby’s or Jiffy Lube. I was also well aware of the fact that none of these guys I played for with the Pioneers had any future in baseball whatsoever, unless they became an agent or ended up making enough money to buy a team. So, if missing a few meaningless games back then in high school got my fellow ballplayers where they are today because they studied a little harder -- well, I figured that’s pretty cool.
St. Michael’s was a wonderful experience in many ways for me, but practicing on that sorry baseball field was surely not one of them. To be honest with you, I still have occasional nightmares about that poor little squirrel. And a few scars where wildly thrown baseballs hit dirt clods or rocks and nailed me in the shins and ankles. That’s why I’m so pleased that the school now has its very own baseball field.
I’m sorry I won’t be able to attend their alumni game this year, but my chiropractor won’t. 47 years is the time in life when old ballplayers step aside and let the youngsters play the game. And hopefully this is the year that baseball dreams start coming true for St. Michael’s Prep and its brand new “Field of Dreams.” Congratulations, Pioneers. And good luck!
(I am very proud to announce that the 2006 St. Michael’s varsity baseball team (pictured above) got into the quarterfinals of the Division VII CIF playoffs this year. St, Michael’s Prep is a great school, so if you’re Catholic and want to put your kid in an incredible learning environment, check out the school on their web site: www.stmichaelsprep.org.)

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