By RAHN ADAMS
Last week Timberley and I celebrated Labor Day right, by attending the Hickory (N.C.) Crawdads’ season-ending game at L.P. Frans Stadium with friends. Thanks to my month-old low-carb, low-sugar diet, I couldn’t enjoy a dog and a beer like many baseball fans, but the salad and water that I had at the Crawdad Café was just what the doctor ordered, literally.
The older I get, the more I love baseball. Now, before you quit reading because you need to go finish painting your “Keep Pounding, Panthers!” banner for our regional NFL team’s first home game, rest assured that I like most sports, played several in my youth on organized squads—football, baseball, basketball—and even coached high school tennis and basketball teams, earning conference tennis coach-of-the-year honors four times.
Admittedly, I myself wasn’t a star athlete—relatively few individuals are—and, in fact, I got cut from more teams than I made in high school. But that’s another essay for another day. As a child who would eventually grow to a towering 5-foot-9, my favorite sport was basketball, and I attended every home game at Salem High School in Morganton, N.C. Back then, my single goal in life was to be a Salem Tiger and play for coach Wilton Daves. As far as I was concerned, he was Dean Smith.
I loved those silky white jerseys with black numbers and gold trim, and the matching mid-thigh length shorts. My heroes were high school cagers Steve Garrison, Dickie Burnette, Al Steiner, Bobby Miller and Kent Poteat, among others. I celebrated when they won—like when Salem beat Oak Hill for the Skyline Conference tournament title—and I cried when they lost. It was a big deal for the nine-year-old me.
If my situation hadn’t changed, I’m sure I could have been a contender to wear one of those uniforms. But by the time I got to high school, Salem had consolidated with Morganton, Oak Hill and Glen Alpine to become Morganton Freedom High School. And my family had moved to rural Caldwell County, where I attended Lenoir Hibriten High School and was relegated to athletic anonymity.
Still, it’s gratifying to see Coach Daves, as well as other great coaches from my youth—Roy Waters, Bill Naylor and Jerry Denton also come to mind—who remain active in the Morganton community, though they “retired” years ago. Everything is right with the world when we run into one of them and catch up on how they’re doing. I’m sure it’s that way everywhere.
Yes, sports are a big deal in modern America, maybe bigger than they should be. And maybe not. Like many things, they can serve as a metaphor for various aspects of life, and they can teach us—young and old alike—how to deal with failure and success; how to lead and how to follow; and how to be a true hero, how to exhibit, in author Ernest Hemingway’s words, grace under pressure.
Before retiring as an English teacher last month, the last major literary work that I studied, ever, with my students was Hemingway’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novella The Old Man and the Sea, which Timberley says should have been entitled Catch the Fish, Already! I read every word of the book to three classes in May, because I knew that if I assigned it to be read outside class, only a handful of students would do so.
Throughout the story, the old Cuban fisherman, Santiago, compares himself to his hero, New York Yankee Joe DiMaggio, the son of a fisherman. Ultimately, Santiago himself behaves heroically in catching the biggest marlin that he has ever seen, setting a valiant yet tragic example for his young friend and protégé, a boy named Manolin. Hemingway said he was just writing a great fishing tale. We all know he was doing much more than that. It’s what good writers do—or try to do, anyway.
I won’t spoil the ending, though, if you haven’t already read the book. But it’s something else that I love more and more as I grow older, because I now understand failure, in particular, better than ever before, mainly because failure and I have such a long-standing and intimate relationship—and I’m not just talking about a short, chubby kid getting cut from basketball teams in high school.
It’s safe to say that we all fail more than we succeed, at least in some areas of our lives, just as the great DiMaggio’s lifetime batting average was .325. In other words, he failed to get a hit more often than not.
When I was staff writer (we had only one) at The Valdese News in the early 1980s, I wrote an article one April about Burke County natives who had played Major League baseball. A name that sticks with me all these years later is that of Rutherford College (N.C.) native Slats Ledbetter, who got that nickname because he was so tall, his widow told me, though I don’t remember exactly how tall he was.
I could refresh my memory by running downtown to the Burke County Historical Museum and finding my old article—I’d have to thumb through two years of the newspaper’s bound volumes stored in the museum basement—but it turns out that Ralph Overton “Slats/Razor” Ledbetter has his own Wikipedia entry. So I can stay in the house and not go outside for a while longer.
Like a real-life Moonlight Graham—that’s a Field of Dreams or, for readers, Shoeless Joe, reference—Slats Ledbetter pitched a single, scoreless inning for the Detroit Tigers against the Cleveland Indians in April 1915. That was his entire Major League career, though he went on to play minor-league baseball until 1926, finishing his professional career with the Durham Bulls, perhaps the most storied of minor-league teams, thanks to the motion picture Bull Durham.
Ledbetter’s Major League earned-run average was 0.00. He allowed no runs in his entire MLB career. In that regard, he was perfect as a Major League pitcher. That day, that inning, he was an ace. But was he a success? Or was he a failure? Sure, it all depends upon one’s perspective.
I must admit that this essay, like Slats Ledbetter’s baseball career, hasn’t ended up the way I had intended. I was going to write about how baseball at any level—from tee-ball to the majors—is a civilized sport that involves an appreciation for the pursuit of a perfection that is rarely attained, and even then by, arguably, the least athletic player on the field—the pitcher. But is any baseball game really perfect, even if no one on the opposing team reaches base?
I had also wanted to mention how much Timberley and I have enjoyed attending the occasional Crawdads game with our friends, Rodney and Joyce Whisenant, over the past few years. Watching the game together is enjoyable enough, but so is trying to solve the world’s problems with a cold drink in one hand, a bag of salty peanuts in the other, and the public address announcer’s booming voice echoing throughout the ballpark. World peace will have to wait until next season, I guess.
And, finally, I’d hoped to mention that what I enjoyed most about the Crawdads’ recent season-ending game was having the good fortune to sit beside a nine-year-old boy who, like me at that age, was still learning about a sport that he was coming to love. I didn’t have to hear his cries of “Take charge!” every time the canned trumpet call blared over the stadium speakers, to know that this little boy was excited about being there that day, even if he wasn’t getting the rally cry just right. After the third instance, his mother corrected him.
I was privileged to explain to him how a baserunner can score from third base, even when the runner’s teammate flies out to deep right field. He and I high-fived when the Crawdads scored each of their runs and groaned together when the Lexington Legends pitcher stuck out one of our boys. And I couldn’t help but notice both hope and vicarious joy in my young friend’s big brown eyes as he quietly watched other children—both younger and older than he—running across the outfield between innings at one point that afternoon. I didn’t look up the row at his parents right then.
I had never met the boy until that day. Before we made friends and started talking, all I knew about him was what I could guess from his appearance. He was a cute kid. He wore a yellow John Deere T-shirt and a green John Deere cap with the motto, “Nothing runs like a Deere,” stitched over the hole in back. He sported gray-camo, cargo shorts. He wore oversized black sneakers with clean white socks pulled up his small calves. And he sat in a wheelchair.
The Crawdads won the game that day by one run and ended the season as winners. Or did they? No? Well, it really didn’t matter. It was no big deal that the ‘Dads didn’t make the playoffs. Or was it? My little friend was kind of disappointed that his first Crawdads game of the season was also his last.
In saying goodbye, I encouraged him to come back next year to root for our team, and I said maybe I’d see him there again. Maybe he’ll remember this game and look for me, maybe not.
Maybe by next season, he’ll be able to run across that outfield with all the other kids between innings. And maybe not, I don’t know.
But until next season starts, everybody’s a winner. I know I am already.