From center field to Middle C in a day

Published 12:07 am Wednesday, April 20, 2011

As the move title says, “It Happens Every Spring.”

We’re talking baseball, here – the all-American pastime. For those who’ve never seen “It Happens Every Spring,” which stars Ray Miland, it’s a must-see. The flick mixes baseball and comedy, providing a precursor to movies such as “Bull Durham” and “Major League,” which stars bad-boy Charlie Sheen.

Alas, the opening of the baseball season each spring reminds me of my baseball-playing days as a boy. I played center field for the Florida National Bank team in Pensacola, Fla., in the mid 1960s. From time to time, I would put on the protective mask and gear and play the catcher’s position.

I preferred playing behind the plate. You can talk a lot of trash while wearing all that protective equipment. You can berate a batter with a fair amount of impunity. You can, by being somewhat diplomatic, question the home-plate umpire’s calls on balls and strikes. Most umpires will put up with verbal abuse, as long as you don’t talk about their mothers, wives and/or girlfriends.

I almost got tossed from a game once when I took off my catcher’s mask, took off my glasses and handed them to the umpire with these words: “You need these more than I need them.”

The umpire told me to put my glasses on, put my catcher’s mask on and get my butt – his words – behind the plate.

There’s another reason I loved to play behind the plate. Where I played baseball, the concession stand was right behind home plate. The only thing separating me from the concession stand was a fence, about 15 feet of dirt and the home-plate umpire.

With the aroma of hot dogs, popcorn and burgers just feet away, sometimes it was difficult to stay focused on the task at hand – catching the ball, throwing it back to the pitcher, fielding bunts and catching pop flies around home plate. The only things that I could buy that could be handed through the chain-link fence was pieces of Bazooka Joe bubblegum.

When behind the plate, it doesn’t pay to daydream about two hot dogs all the way, a Dr Pepper and a Popsicle. A foul tip, baseball thrown in the dirt at the plate or a wild pitch would end any daydream. Many a time a foul tip would strike a knee, elbow, my unprotected right hand or my groin.

A foul tip to the groin always elicited a groan – just ask any catcher. And any home-plate umpire worth his salt would say to any catcher such afflicted: “Walk it off, son.” Said advice would be followed by a minute to “walk it off.”

As for playing center field, doing so removed me from being anywhere near the concession stand during my team’s time in the field. Line drives and grounders that came my way were handled pretty much without error. Pop flies didn’t give me any trouble, unless I was daydreaming about what was in the concession stand.

There was the time that I was thoroughly embarrassed while roaming center field for the Florida National Bank nine. There were two outs in the bottom of the 10th inning of an extra-innings game. There was a 3-2 count on the batter. The score was 3-2. We, the visiting team that day, had the lead because our first baseman scored on an error in the top of the 10th inning. Our pitcher threw a perfect ball toward the plate – a perfect ball for the batter.

Just before the batter swung, my sister Angie yelled, “Mike, it’s time for our piano lesson,” loud enough for everyone at the ballpark to hear.

Talk about being embarrassed, but she was right. It was near the appointed time for our piano lesson.

The batter’s swing launched the baseball in an arc toward center field. I caught it about two feet from the fence. Apparently, I was not daydreaming about popcorn and a Milky Way bar. With redness of embarrassment on my face and the ball in my glove, I ran toward the dugout, passed it, climbed on my bicycle and followed my sister to our piano lesson.

Of course, the other guys – on both teams, mind you – razzed me for two weeks about going to that piano lesson.

I swung many a bat after that day, but I never took another piano lesson.

From then on, I concentrated on Mickey Mantle, not Mozart.

Mike Voss covers the city of Washington for the Washington Daily News. His favorite baseball stadium is the Baltimore Orioles’ Oriole Park at Camden Yards. His favorite part of that complex is just over the right-field fence, where Boog’s BBQ happens to be located.

About Mike Voss

Mike Voss is the contributing editor at the Washington Daily News. He has a daughter and four grandchildren. Except for nearly six years he worked at the Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va., in the early to mid-1990s, he has been at the Daily News since April 1986.
Journalism awards:
• Pulitzer Prize for Meritorious Public Service, 1990.
• Society of Professional Journalists: Sigma Delta Chi Award, Bronze Medallion.
• Associated Press Managing Editors’ Public Service Award.
• Investigative Reporters & Editors’ Award.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Public Service Award, 1989.
• North Carolina Press Association, Second Place, Investigative Reporting, 1990.
All those were for the articles he and Betty Gray wrote about the city’s contaminated water system in 1989-1990.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Investigative Reporting, 1991.
• North Carolina Press Association, Third Place, General News Reporting, 2005.
• North Carolina Press Association, Second Place, Lighter Columns, 2006.
Recently learned he will receive another award.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Lighter Columns, 2010.
4. Lectured at or served on seminar panels at journalism schools at UNC-Chapel Hill, University of Maryland, Columbia University, Mary Washington University and Francis Marion University.

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