“Kennedy! Look alive out there!”
The shouting from the dugout was a constant during my baseball playing days. If the coach wanted me to “look alive,” he should have put me where something actually happened once in a while.
Instead, he, and every coach I had until seventh grade, stuck me out in right field.
Being all of 7 or 8 years old, I didn’t know right-handed hitters rarely hit the ball to right field.
That being said, it was an excellent spot for me and my ADD. I had a little patch of dirt to stand on. It was the perfect place to look for four-leaf clovers and think about what flavor slushy I’d get from the concession stand after the game.
Upon hearing my name called, I would dutifully put my hands on my knees and stare intensely at the guy with the bat for a few seconds before mentally wandering off again.
I was okay with right field. It suited me. In seventh grade, a coach moved me to second base, where a lot happens. I stopped playing baseball after that season.
Late winter brings to mind baseball. It has nothing to do with the Braves working off the rust of the offseason down in Florida. We’ll see soon enough whether Freddie Freeman, Ronald Acuña Jr. and the newly acquired Cole Hamels can get Atlanta back to the postseason Promised Land.
Rather my attention is right here in Buckhead, and with all of those little kids in shorts and puffer coats already fielding grounders and chasing down fly balls despite the less-than-ideal temperatures.
You see, baseball in Buckhead starts way before there is even an iota of pollen in the air.
Tryouts were in January. February is the month to figure out who can field a ground ball and who can hit. March? That’s time to play ball for organizations like the Northside Youth Organization, Buckhead Baseball and Sandy Springs Youth Baseball.
I grew up playing at Frankie Allen Park, then known as Bagley Park, home to Buckhead Baseball. I was fortunate to play on some good teams over the years. I got a few hits and an occasional out. Not to brag, but I was a good teammate — never the star, rarely a liability.
As my mother would say, I was fair to middling.
The reason baseball started in the depths of winter when I was a kid was because it had to end in time for summer vacation. Youth baseball lasted through July back when Buckhead Baseball began in 1952. Now, it coincides with the school year.
But, if you were good and made a select team, the season extended through the summer. This happened to one of my brothers, who was a coveted left-handed pitcher. My mother and father left him in Atlanta and we went to the beach without him. He declined the honor the next summer.
That’s not the kind of character Atlanta Parks and Recreation Department employee Cal Thomas had in mind when he founded Buckhead Baseball 68 years ago. He wanted to provide physical and mental growth for boys. The other early coaches were Tom McGee, Jim Mock and Bob Blackwell.
Comprised of just four teams that first year, the boys were between 10 and 12, with five from each age making up a team, so 15 boys per team. A league that regularly draws more than 1,000 families annually started with just 60 players.
Local businesses or civic groups sponsored each team back then. Players attended church services the day before opening day, and on opening day, a parade started in the heart of Buckhead, winding its way to the park. The captains sat in a convertible car with a young lady representing the sponsor. The team followed in open-sided army trucks.
We didn’t have that level of pageantry when I was playing in the late ’70s and early ’80s. We marched around Frankie Allen Park in our uniforms. After a short program, most of us left as only a few teams could play on opening day.
Thomas’ ideal, however, was realized. Many young Northsiders grew up physically and mentally on those ball fields.
Coaches taught us how to block the ball with our body, to keep our eye on the ball and to shake hands with the other team, win or lose.
They also taught us to be ready for whatever life throws at us, with some occasional prodding.
“Look alive out there!” Words to live by.