By Peter Simon
Certainly, if grudgingly, spring is on its way. It’s that magical time of year when birds sing, barren trees come alive with color and the sun reappears. But for the guys I grew up with more than 50 years ago in North Buffalo, spring marked the renewal of our mutual obsession: baseball.
We were blessed with extraordinarily good fortune by the baseball gods. Winston Road, our pleasant middle-class street, had an empty lot, which was quite unusual in that part of town. With a little imagination, some unique ground rules and a bold sense of manifest destiny, we took possession and made it our very own field of dreams.
We played wiffle ball there, using pie plates for chest protectors and mats for batter’s boxes.
We were our own grounds crew, covering the pitcher’s mound and the bases with plastic to keep them dry during rain delays. My mother called my brothers and I home for lunch by ringing a cowbell from our porch down the street, drawing puzzlement and disdain that meals would take preference over a baseball game.
The roof and wall of the ranch house that jutted into right field was in fair territory, much to the dismay of the extraordinarily kind couple who had the misfortune of living on a baseball diamond.
Times were different. Summer camp, programmed activities and music or martial arts lessons were not part of our lives. We went out to play in the morning and – except when the cowbell rang for meals – didn’t go home until the street lights went on.
The first block of Winston Road seemed to have more boys per capita than any nation state in the history of humankind.
The few girls on the block were not invited to play, but certainly didn’t want anything to do with us anyway.
We – “us guys” – were family.
Participation in the ball games was mandatory, and violations were never taken lightly.
John H. occasionally stayed inside on a beautiful baseball day to work on his school’s summer reading list, depriving us of a key player. Such inexplicable behavior sent Paul, John’s brother, into a rage. “He’s reading again!” Paul would scream, leading inevitably to a physical scuffle between the brothers. When the dust settled, John went back to his books. He later became a physician.
John S. often wore a “phys ed” T-shirt from St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute, which his older brother attended. None of us knew what phys ed meant, but it earned John the nickname of “Fizz” or “Fizzy.”
Bob was convinced that Brooks Robinson, the Hall of Fame third baseman for the Baltimore Orioles, was the world’s greatest human being. Unlike Brooksie, Bob had flat feet, so he had to play wearing shoes.
Sunday mornings presented a real dilemma. The prospect of burning in hell made certain that the Catholic kids didn’t dare skip Mass to play ball. And their Jewish buddies had to go to Hebrew school for a less frightening but equally effective reason: their mothers insisted.
Despite cowbells, street lights and religious obligations, we were the core of the team that won three consecutive championships as the Cincinnati Reds of the Hertel-North Park Little League.
I have since run six marathons and hiked a 14,000-foot peak, but our success at Shoshone Park remains my proudest athletic achievement.
Thank you, guys, for the friendship and the memories. May the baseball gods continue to treat you kindly.