Editor’s note: Baseball’s regular season is done (though the White Sox are in the playoffs), so summer is officially over. As a fond farewell, here’s a column I wrote in 2001 about the real boys of summer to mark the seasonal turn:
Last Friday was a beaut — low humidity, low 80s, not a cloud in the sky, unless you count a few feathery cirrus set like fish fossils in the ocean of blue above. In other words, a beautiful day for a ballgame. The Cubs were playing the Cards at Wrigley, but that’s organized ball. Organized ball barely has a pulse anymore.
The real thing was taking place at Euclid Park on Oak Park’s south side. It’s one of my favorite parks, surrounded by side streets and single-family homes, tightly woven into the neighborhood, utterly unpretentious. It has a playground, a few neglected tennis courts, tree-topped berms and a ballfield.
I stopped by to eat lunch on a bench and discovered a lob ball game in progress. Norman Rockwellian poetry in motion. There’s nothing like the easy grace of preteens playing lob ball. I didn’t think kids did this anymore, the way we used to before repairing to the penny candy store to trade baseball cards and guzzle soda.
Four-on-four, pitcher’s hands and right field out. With the exception of the aluminum bat glinting in the sun, little has changed. An old mitt served as third base, a ruck sack for second. First base looked like a shoe. After every third out, players tossed their mitts to the other team as they jogged in to bat.
One player was shirtless. Another played in an open Hawaiian shirt. A third wore a long, untucked Bulls jersey with Michael Jordan’s 23 draped across his butt.
Rules were constantly being clarified. “No leadoffs,” barked the left-fielder to the runner on second. “You have to go back,” advised the defense when a runner tried to take an extra base. Sometimes the rulings were humbly accepted, sometimes contested. It took a while before an “I quit” was finally uttered — an empty threat and time-honored negotiating ploy. Indeed, the players displayed remarkable equanimity in the face of frustrations that might put a more serious athlete over the edge.
“E-7!” taunted a batter as he rounded the bases. “I didn’t touch it,” the left-fielder insisted as he headed over the berm toward the tennis courts.
“18-15, our lead,” the runner gloated crossing the plate, which appeared more theoretical than real.
The pitcher Carl Hubbell-ed the ball lazily in the direction of the batter, who either whiffed or belted it. When he whiffed, the outfielders feigned wind resistance and testified they could “feel it all the way out here.”
Long drives led to desperate measures. “I had to pull it out of the fence,” claimed the left-fielder, “ground-rule double.” Sometimes it worked; sometimes the plea was ignored.
“Who made last out?” they asked, jogging in for their next at-bats. Doesn’t matter, the other team can’t remember either. This is casual, nonchalant, the way baseball was meant to be played — not the overtaught, overwrought, overgrown neurotics who spit compulsively in their overdone dugouts.
Here, no one seemed overly invested, except the pudgy kid in the purple cap in center. He thinks the line drive over second base landed on the right field side and argued the point as he searched in vain for the ball on the wrong side of a berm.
“Hey, dumbass, the ball’s right there,” called one of his teammates. Peer review in the heat of a game can be brutal.
Baseball can’t compete with girls, of course, and the game quickly dissolved when they showed up. Second base reverted to a (very dusty) backpack. The group split off in two directions. At 2 p.m., there was still plenty of afternoon left.
Suddenly the park was empty — except for the dragonflies, and a sunbather, and the kids on the playground swings, and sunshine on the scorched grass and crabapple trees, and the bread scent wafting past from nearby Turano Bakery.
In other words, nothing but the rest of summer.
Those boys of summer are now 20 years older, putting them in their early 30s. Some may have kids of their own. I wonder if they ever play lob ball — with or without their kids. Good luck to the White Sox. They’ll do fine if they stay kids at heart.