Monday, October 16, 2006

The Boys of Summer

The high school baseball field is directly behind my house, separated by a fence. In the summertime, when they play games or have practice, we can sit on the deck in our backyard and listen to them play. Occasionally a foul ball will tip back and up, over the the high fence that surrounds the field and into our yard, Jackson the Irondog thinking it a gift from the dog-toy gods to reward his stellar behavior.

Yesterday I was upstairs and looked out one of the back windows, and noticed one of the coaches unlocking the fence. He's a man in his 60's at least, and a volunteer. But he's always first to the field before practice, and the last to leave. The kids seem to respect him immensely. During games he's often the third base coach. Before we built the fence he'd always have an ear scratch for Jack and JoJo. He seems like a decent guy.

I thought it was an odd thing, him unlocking the field, in the middle of October (the high school boys' season ending in late spring). He moved slowly, taking his time. He looked around at the field, at the bullpen outside the field, at the curves of the fence as it traveled down to left field. He moved like a man trying to memorize everything around him.

When he finally went inside, he stopped and just looked around. Taking it all in, like one would when he's finally crested a mountaintop. For a solid minute, I don't think he moved more than his head as he surveyed the field. Then he knelt down and smoothed his hand over the plush green grass. He picked a few blades up and inspected them, putting one in his mouth. I watched him as he slowly got up and went to the pitcher's mound, having a look around him at the infield and the far fences of the outfield, then turning to face home plate, which is covered with tarps now in preparation for the winter. He stood for several moments, staring down home plate, and I imagined maybe he was staring down hitters from years ago, when his limbs were more nimble and his body less aching. It was clear that his respect for the field, and for the game it's played on, runs thick through his blood.

Eventually he walked into each dugout, cleaning up a bit of trash as he went (done with tenderness, as one might pick a speck out of his wife's hair), and eventually he made his way back outside the fence, locking the gate again behind him before slowly getting into his car and driving off. He was maybe there for 15 minutes.

I know what he was doing. He was saying goodbye. Or at least, "sleep well". We all do it up here in Minnesota. All of us have something, a proverbial baseball field, that in itself represents just about everything we find right in the world. And except for the die-hard snowmobilers who wait all year for snow, I think probably for most of us that thing lives mostly in the summertime.

This time of year, if you look closely, you can see it all around you. The man and his kids pulling in the dock at the cabin, then standing together on the shore and looking out at the lake, their minds tracing back to when they put it in last May, and the late nights on the beach, or waking up early to go fishing, or the 4th of July on the dock, and the many all gone for another winter.

The high school football season is winding down, and gone will be the insanely hot August two-a-days, the smell of freshly cut grass, the delirious echos of the crowds, the crisp air of twilight as the game gets underway, the familiar shadows cast by so many bright lights.

The shadows are long on the golf courses, the golfers in long sleeves now as they hope this round doesn't prove to be the last of the season. The mosquitos no longer buzz around them, they can't stay out anymore until the very edge of dusk, there is no certainty of next week's 9 holes with friends.

Just last weekend Amy and I put the deck away, packing up all her ornaments and candles, rolling up the rug, storing it and the little tables up in the garage for another winter. This weekend she strolled around her gardens as she always does, but this time spent the time pulling out and tossing all the dead things; the lush, vibrant explosions of life that she so carefully nurtured now dormant again. And like all of us do in whatever way, when done she brushed off her hands, put them on her hips, and gazed around the yard with an exhale, recalling her springtime excitement in planting, the buzz of bees visiting in July, the hopelessly green days of August.

For me, of course, it's the game. Ol' Blue came indoors last night from the garage. Gone are the endless rides through the meadows of Minnesota, listening to the buzz and chirps as the road winds ahead. The corn that I watched grow is now brown and dead again, the quintessential image of fall. The leaves I watched bud and become during my runs are now almost gone from their limbs. When I run now there's that cold-weather burn in the back of my throat, and if I leave the house too late it's dark when I return, and it takes me three times as long to leave the house as I get dressed for cold weather.

Of course, there's work to do, and the winter months will be filled with training. Weights, water, spinning, treadmills when the cold is unbearable (and it will get unbearable). Strategies will continue, preparations and designs for that elusive, far away, hypothetical "next season". These things begin and these other things end.

But still, it feels to me mostly like waiting. In my heart, in my soul. And it makes me quite sad, actually. Waiting for those first brisk spring mornings when I have to shed my sleeves three miles into the run. For those evenings when I'm still on my bike at 8:00. For that first real race of the year, when the sun is not quite up yet for bodymarking, and I have to pick the wet blades of grass off my bike tires as I wheel it into transition. For those workouts when I have to towel off before getting back into my car, when a cold Gatorade is an absurd blessing, when one can't but breathe the words, "Man it's hot out here." Those are the Days of the Game for me. And I await them now again, another season over. Another Season over.

Last night Jackson walked lazily over to the couch where I was sitting, circled around two or three times, and with a deep sigh lay down, sprawled out and long. Soon enough I saw his legs begin twitching, and then his feet were moving too as he whimpered and yelped the sleepy, growly noises of a contented dog having The Best Dream Ever. I know where he was. I know how the air smells, and how the leaves glimmer as the breeze shakes them. I know how the world reflects off of puddles as the sunshine returns after a brief warm shower. I know the sounds of children, free at last from their school schedules, as they screech and play while I run by. I know how the fields around us grow and grow and grow, so that I have to stand on my pedals to see what's coming at country intersections. I know how the lake turns orange, then crimson as it finally swallows the sun after an evening swim to cool down after such a hot run.

I know the stuff of his dreams this time of year, as they are the stuff of mine. I hope his was a good one, and that he ran free and fast and forever. And I hope I was there with him.


Pharmie said...

Great post! I just caught up with your last couple of posts. You're going to have a lot on your plate! I've always wondered how it would be training for a marathon on ice with - 30 degree weather but racing in the heat. Guess I'll find out through you! Good luck staying sane indoors. I am going through some of the same things right now.

Erin said...

I've been reading your blog for a couple months now -- I found it while doing research in preparation for signing up for Ironman Wisconsin 2007 and am now a regular reader -- and just had to say what amazing writing this is (I'm a writer by trade and appreciate when it's good). It gave me chills, and made my eyes smart a bit, and compelled me to post my compliments.

Thanks for all of the great insights and tips your blog has provided thus far on my iron-journey...I look forward to more!

Anonymous said...

It really is neat to read your stories, Chris. I'm glad others have found them, too. That's cool-they need to be shared. The other Erin...cuzin Erin.

triteacher said...

How sweet. I always think my Piper is dreaming of his doggy friend Bailey. Never occurred to me that I could be the woman of his dreams. But I could be!!