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Just a Kid at Heart: Sunflower seeds and ballplayers

Since baseball is considered to be America’s pastime and since this year’s major league schedule has been interrupted by the pandemic, I felt it was necessary last month to reminisce about my childhood summers of playing Little League in the mornings and then participating in our neighborhood games in the afternoon.

Baseball really was a major part of our lives. Whenever we had any extra change in our pockets, we bought baseball cards and traded them amongst ourselves in an attempt to get our favorite players. To this day I am not sure which we liked better – the baseball card or the stick of bubble gum that accompanied each card. Every once in awhile I wonder how many valuable cards we attached with clothespins to the spokes of our bikes to make them sound like motor cycles.

During my college years and early adult years, I joined various softball teams so I could still run around outfields chasing fly balls. Then, in my mid-thirties, I was introduced to the ‘35 and Older League.’ It was true that, along with the passage of time, I had lost a step, but did we have to advertise our age with a special title for our softball league?

I believe the true purpose of mirrors is not to show us how good we think we look to ourselves, but rather to reveal how old we actually look to others. When I refrain from consulting the mirror, I still live with the fantasy that I haven’t aged and that my body can still survive the physical activity that a softball game provides. Being a member of the 35 and Older League opened my eyes to two things.

First, I learned that I now must stretch and go through some warm-up exercises before running bases and chasing down fly balls. Of course, as usual, I learned that the hard way. Pulled muscles are an instant reminder of the aging process.

The second very important thing I learned had to deal with sunflower seeds. Even in my youth, during the abbreviated ‘prime of my life,’ I never possessed the ability to throw a handful of sunflower seeds in my mouth and then eat them by using my teeth to crack open the shells, one by one, so I could swallow the seeds while spitting out the unwanted hulls or tucking them in one cheek while the unopened seeds filled the other cheek. Even a bird can perform that task, for Pete’s sake. It may have been the biggest obstacle I faced in my quest to be a professional ballplayer. As a child I envisioned an interview with the Minnesota Twins. It went like this:

“Can you hit?”

“Yes, I can hit.”

“Can you catch?”

“Yes, I can catch.”

“Can you run?”

“I can run like a deer.”

Up until that point everything was going fine and then they said, “We only have one more question for you. Can you chew sunflower seeds and spit out the hulls while playing baseball?”

That was the end of the interview, and the real reason I never made baseball my career. It’s probably also why I continued to live out my fantasy by playing softball.

In July of 1986, after catching the third out of an inning in our 35 and older softball game, I jogged in from the outfield. Teammates were passing around the bag of sunflower seeds, so I helped myself to a handful. Assuming that age and pseudo-maturity had granted me the ability I had lacked as a youth, I popped the entire pile into my mouth. At that moment, Jim informed me that I was up to bat.

With a wad of seeds in my cheek and a bat in my hand, I entered the batter’s box. The first pitch dropped into the catcher’s mitt with no response from my bat. I paused to study the outfield. I am a right-handed hitter and the outfielders had shifted toward left field, leaving the right field line open.

As the second pitch advanced toward home plate, I held off just long enough to place the ball down the right field line. That should be good for extra bases, I thought. As I rounded first base and was accelerating for second, the right fielder still had not retrieved the ball so I continued toward third. Our third base coach was waving me in. As I rounded third and headed for home, I took a deep breath. Remember the mouthful of sunflower seeds? They were no longer in my mouth. They accompanied the air into my lungs where every one of them was planted in the organs that were designed to provide me with a constant supply of fresh air. Now, after 34 years, they’re probably ready to be harvested. It caused me to choke and cough incessantly as I crossed home plate, leaving the bystanders with the impression of how out-of-shape this (once fleet of foot) over the hill softball player really was.

That was the only in-the-park homerun I got that summer and that was the only time I ever tried ‘organ’(ic) farming. Consider that last comment ‘seed for thought.’

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