Baseball kids—it runs in the family
I watched some of my granddaughter’s Heights Youth Baseball League (7- and 8-year-olds) games this summer. This was the first baseball team experience for these kids. There were more girls than boys on the team, the Purple People Eaters, with their uniforms of purple jerseys, caps and socks, and white pants. My daughter-in-law was the coach and my son was one of the assistant coaches. All of the coaches were volunteers.
At this level, the teams’ coaches pitch to their own teams. They play with a regular baseball, a hardball. Three or four of the coaches go onto the field when their team is playing defense, to guide the kids, but the coaches don’t do any fielding; for that matter, neither do the kids, much; though that did improve by the end of the season. Games were played in early evening, and parents, and others, came to watch and cheer the teams on.
All of this was quite different from my baseball experience when I was growing up in Cleveland Heights and playing for the Cumberland Park team. It was only for boys, for one thing. And it was softball. Hardball was for Little League, but you had to be pretty good to play Little League back then. Our team was not very good. I don’t remember ever winning a game.
Cumberland and Cain parks and most of the elementary schools in Cleveland Heights had teams, with a paid coach—usually a college guy—assigned to each place.
Cumberland’s coach, every year I played on the team, was a nice guy named Mike. Even though I started out big for my age, my eyesight was bad, which hurt my hitting and fielding. But I was fairly strong, so if I accidentally hit the ball, it went far. And I was fast, which helped if I ever got on base, which I mostly didn’t. Teams had 10 players, rather than nine, on the field, with an added position called short-center. That was my position, because there would be three guys behind me to go after the balls I misjudged.
I started in the summer between sixth and seventh grades. Since Cumberland was in the neighborhood of the junior high I was about to start, Roosevelt, I met a bunch of kids I’d be going to school with in the fall. I didn’t really care about most of them, but I did a couple, and became good friends with those guys, one to this day.
We practiced every day, on a baseball diamond that no longer exists in Cumberland Park. We had games against other teams almost every day. Parents never came to watch; this was just a kid thing. We didn’t have uniforms; we just wore our street clothes.
We played on each team’s field, which, in the case of some schools, like Coventry, was completely asphalt. I don’t remember that anyone of us minded that. Cumberland’s home games were played at Forest Hill Park, probably because our own field wasn’t regulation size, outfield-wise. Many of my granddaughter’s team’s games were played at Forest Hill, too, but on newer and greatly improved baseball fields.
My second summer playing on the Cumberland team found me bigger, but with no better vision, thus not improved. Except I was still a fast runner, and a man who started coming around to Cumberland noticed that and pulled me aside after one of our practices. He told me that his name was Mr. Tupta, and that he was in charge of the Cleveland Heights part of the Junior Olympics, and he asked me to try out for it.
Try-outs consisted of running a 50-yard dash on a section of the asphalt walkway that ran—and still runs—through Cumberland Park, from Cumberland Road west to the stairs that take you up to Hampshire Road. I did that, on the asphalt, in my street shoes (I didn’t own tennis shoes, other than the ones I had to save for gym class in the fall) and made the team.
I raced—still in street shoes and clothes—in Junior Olympics preliminaries, held on Heights High’s track. I really liked doing that, though I lost my race.
Afterward, Mr. Tupta, who was the boys’ guidance counselor at Roosevelt, strongly suggested that I try out for the school’s football team in the fall. He kept saying, “With your size and speed . . . .” I made the team, but, again, despite my potential, I couldn’t see without my glasses, so I was relegated to the line, which meant crashing into bigger guys on every play. I also made the track team later.
By high school, I had quit all sports to concentrate on music. But that whole experience gave me a little direction, and a lot of self-esteem. Plus, it was fun. And it changed my life.
David Budin is a freelance writer for national and local publications, the former editor of Cleveland Magazine and Northern Ohio Live, an author, and a professional musician and comedian. His writing focuses on the arts and, especially, pop-music history.