Growing up in the late ’50s and early ’60s was an exciting time. Kids in the summer pretty much woke up, rushed through breakfast and we’re gone for the day hanging out with other kids in the neighborhood, riding bikes, pretending they were soldiers in a WWII battle or played baseball in some sand lot or open field.
Baseball was a big deal; it was America’s greatest pastime and we played it religiously. Day in and day out we would all gather at Jimmy Lathan’s house on Withers Drive and 26th, pick teams and hit the field, which was just that, a big field full of wild grass, sand spurs, cactus and sour weed which we chewed while we played. We kept records regarding hit’s, at-bats, errors, strikes, foul balls and home runs all documented on a clipboard Jimmy kept in a bag with about six different sized Louisville Slugger bats and an assortment of leather-wrapped balls, bases that were old pillows covered in canvas and a big piece of plywood cut in the shape of home plate and painted white so the pitcher could see it in the tall grass. We took tape measures and laid out the different bases at just the right distance as well as the pitcher’s mound where we dumped dirt in large piles from a wheelbarrow, we pulled from Jimmy’s work shed so that the mound would be higher than the batter.
While doing all of this we dreamed we were in the Big’s and of course, the NY Yankees as they were gods. Mantel, Maris, Ford, Berra, a South Carolina boy named Bobby Richardson, they were all our idols and we would write their names on our gloves and bats.
We’d try to swing for the fence like Mantel, catch a fly ball over our shoulder like Willie Mays from the Giants, steal bases pretending to be Luis Aparicio from Chicago or pitch strikeouts like Sandy Koufax and Whitey Ford. It was all about baseball, about the sweet spot on the bat, the backhanded catch or shagging a stinging line drive before it broke through the infield. Great memories, great times, moments I’ll remember until I draw my last breath. Those were the summers growing up in the south in an era that can never be resurrected again. Those were times when we as children believed we were the Boys of Summer.
Well, time moved on and childhood dreams became a memory, I grew up and began a career as an executive whose travels carried me across the globe and from city to city. During the next 30 years I always held the names of those legends with me in my heart, still remembered listening to games on the radio / TV and watching them grow older then retire or pass into history. I collected autographed baseballs, rookie cards and bats signed by many great ballplayers from my childhood and have even had the pleasure of meeting a few.
It was an early fall day sometime around the mid-’90s, the air was crisp, and I was in NY on business. I had been there for the week and was visiting clients. A convention was just checking out of the Marriott Marquis as I made my way down to the valet to hail a cab. People were everywhere and cabs a comity, the two doormen were running from one end of the drive to the other, whistles screaming and horns blowing while huge busses dropped guests off in the drive. After a few minutes, I finally got the doorman’s attention who signaled for a cab sitting on the far corner. Setting down my briefcase I glanced at the man standing beside me and almost choked. It was Willie Mays; Willie Mays was a step away. Yea he was older, more wrinkles and in a suit but it was, “The Catch” Willy Mays. I looked in his eyes and nodded feeling the whole world stop then move in slow motion, he nodded then smiled back and that’s when my mouth started moving as though taken over by that ten-year-old boy standing in that sand lot 40 years prior. “You’re Willie Mays,” I said. He nodded again then smiled. “You don’t know what you meant to me as a kid”, I said. Then as the doorman opened the car door for me to get in, Willie reached for my hand to shake it with a big smile and said, “what changed” as I slid in the cabs back seat and the doorman closed the door.
Sitting there, driving through Manhattan, I reflected on his words, “what changed” and it hit me like a rock. Nothing I said to myself, nothing had changed except time.