We drove down to Carpinteria High School for a statewide Odyssey of the Mind competition in 1992. My son Will was a sixth grader and his team was in the competition for the second year in a row. Held at the high school, it drew teams from all over the southern part of the state. If you’ve never been there, Carpinteria is one of the hidden gems of California. With rugged mountains to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west, it is situated in a way that it can’t grow and so has remained a small town. Tucked in this pocket, the town built it’s school on a large grassy plain at the foot of the Santa Ynez Mountains.
Like all high schools, a large open space on campus is dedicated to athletics. East of the main campus is a large grassy space containing practice football fields and two baseball fields. One being the official field on which league games are played and closer to the school buildings, a practice field. It had a battered backstop, old green painted wood and sagging chickenwire above that. As with most HS fields it had a pitchers mound, and base paths worn in the dry crinkling grass but no actual bases, just round dusty areas where they might be on a practice day.
There was a Junior Varsity game on the real diamond but the old field was about to demonstrate where the real heart of baseball is.
At around one o’clock on that Saturday men began to arrive, walking in from the parking lot they carried an odd assortment of baseball gear. There was an old cotton catchers chest protector, torn here and there, the stuffing poking out in tufts. It had only one old leather strap to hold it on, the other being a piece of cotton rope. Maybe a piece of old clothsline. There were a few old and beaten gloves in evidence but no batting helmets. Two old wooden bats, one obviously held together by nails and duct tape and that was it.
By their looks, the players had just come from the strawberry fields in the surrounding area. Half a day Saturday and a little baseball after. They were universally dirty, scuffed workboots, every variety of trousers, worn at the knees, occasional holes. Everyone wore long sleeves, there are no short sleeves in the fields, sun and prickly leaves are hard on the skin. These were men not boys. Men who labor. You could see the states of Mexico reflected in there stature. Chapparitos from Oaxaca, the occasional Chilango from DF, swarthy skinned round men from the mountains of the Sonora and Chihuahua. Happy men, days work done. Time to do a little ribbing, a tease or two and play ball.
Just as little boys do, the bat was tossed, grabbed by a horny palm and hand over hand to the knob to decide home team and first pick. One by one names were called and stepped to this side or that until all were chosen. Each team had 8 players. They decided that the ninth player on each team would be the last to bat on the opposite team.
Ready to go, the defensive players took their positions. The umpire, one of the players wives stood behind the catcher. She didn’t crouch for she had no gear, so she stood, the better to jump out of the way of a wild pitch or foul tip, her only protection a rather battered old Boogie board. The lanky kid who was to pitch toed the imaginary rubber on that dusty little mound, the catcher wearing the old chest protector, one shin guard, a pair of work boots partially unlaced and a tin hard had with a well used catchers mask got ready.
Now I just naturally assumed that this would be the kind of friendly game in which nobody worked too hard or took to seriously but I was completely wrong. The Lanky pitcher wound up and presented the batter with a sidearm throw that came across the plate at better than eighty miles an hour. If you’ve never seen what a good sidearmer can do with a baseball you’ve missing something. They can make the ball hop or dip, wriggling like a worm on a hook. Lest you think the batter was surprised, think again. These guys had obviously played before. The hitter tapped the second pitch over the shortstops head and beat it on down the line, his greatest fan, the umpire, screaming at the top of her lungs, “Apurate, apurate mijo,” as the batter hustled down to first. These guys played for reals.
The game went on for a good two hours. Changing sides, the gloves were exchanged and the catchers gear shared. The other hurler was a stocky dark skinned middle aged man who was a junk ball pitcher. He had a whole bag of tricks. Knucklers, sliders, drops, a rudimentary fastball that he never threw over the plate, not even once. On purpose of course.
The game was an absolute pleasure to watch. There were a couple home runs, one that rolled under the bleachers on the soccer field where the center fielder had to crawl underneath in order to fetch it. There was much laughter and good natured back and forth, the fans, including me had a wonderful time.
Given a good field, proper gear and uniforms, these guys could have beaten a decent high school team. After nine innings of play they packed it up, pulled some cervezas from their coolers and arm in arm walked off the field. They left me knowing that I had just seen real baseball, played just for fun and nothing else. It is still a cherished and serendipitous memory because it was such a surprise and I had it almost to myself. The kind of thing where you sit, hug your knees and smile. Like a fool.
This may seem like a “story” but its not. It really happened. I played and coached baseball for over 20 years and its the only time i’ve seen anything like it. I wish I could see it again. So if you’re traveling somewhere on a Saturday afternoon keep your eyes open, it might happen to you. If you’re lucky.