Saturday, June 12, 2010

Thinking about baseball and Larry Morse

Baseball...long my favorite sport, crept back into my mind this spring. It wasn't from spring training or anticipation of the Mariners playing on TV. My thoughts were spurred by three things: The loss of a good friend, Larry; Truman's renewed interest in the game; and a book I am reading about the life of Joe DiMaggio.

I always thought I knew how to play the game since it is the only organized sport I played as a kid (too busy raising sheep and heifers is what I recently told Truman when he asked how long I played.) But it was not until sometime in the early 1970s that I realized that while I had an appreciation for the game and knew some of the rules, I did not know the game that well even though I had been playing baseball for twenty years. It took me a while to come to grips with that fact, however.

I met Larry when I started teaching in Fennville. He was on the HS staff and I on the MS staff. We shared the same building since we were on split sessions while the present HS was being built. Larry was an English teacher and a coach...I knew that. What revealed itself to me over a brief time was that Larry was one of those extraordinary guys who not only knew how to play the game, but he knew how to love it. He respected it: its history, its traditions, its rules both written and unwritten. He was as comfortable playing ball, as listening to the Cubs on the radio. It didn't matter, or so it seemed, whether or not he was physically engaged or mentally engaged when a game was on.

What struck me was how he understood the traditions. And why not? Larry played at a high level while at Central Michigan, I found out. And he came from a baseball family. His dad, Sonny, I was told, played in the Cardinal farm system for a while. There was baseball in his DNA. But it wasn't until about ten years later when I played slow pitch softball with Larry that I realized how good he was.

There were about four summers between 1982 and 1986 when we all realized that if we didn't hurry up and have some fun with this game, time was going to pass us by. I was very lucky to be playing. I played some fast pitch softball in the Navy, briefly and still had the bug if not the skills. So to play with a few legends was to me a great privilege: Pinky Barnes, Jim Sexton, the three McMahon brothers, Larry, Jeff Thompson, Dean Birkholz, Mike King...who are all I can remember right now I had a great time during those summer Sunday afternoons.

But it was Larry who guided us...lead by example. I often said he held a clinic at third base every Sunday during those summers. He was good. He was in control of his body and the game, inning by inning.

Larry remarried in the mid-seventies and became a regular at church. It was then that I could ask questions and hear his philosophy about the game. That's where Truman and "Dimag" come in. For years, Larry, at no cost to the school, was the grounds keeper of the baseball field. He believed that every kid that wanted to play ball should have the chance to play on a well kept field. And so he made it happen, quietly, and consistently. He also told me that the game was to be played honestly, with energy and respect to the game, your team mates and the other team.

I remember one story about a catcher who was struggling and blaming others, trash talking disrespecting the other team. When he came back to the dugout Larry told him to go sit down and take off his equipment. He was through for the day. That young man "got it" finally, the story goes and so did those around him.

My challenge as personal coach to Truman is how to convey that same message without preaching. So every Tuesday when I walked to school to meet Truman for the four block walk home, I sought to engage him in a different subject about baseball. One day it was about work ethic...if you want to excel, you have to practice...with the team and alone. Another topic was listening to his coach and learning from him (I thought he had a good team coach.) And the topic from last week was getting mentally prepared. The team they were to play on Tuesday evening (weather permitting) was undefeated. "I hope we don't play tonight," he said. "These guys are good and we will never beat them." I thought it was time to tell an old, old story about when I played. We faced the team from Wampum four times in three years and only beat them once. Fast forward 10-15 years and come to find out three (brothers) went into pro-ball with one, Dick Allen, spending 14 years in the majors ending his career with a .292 batting average. When we got to the house we Googled Allen and sure enough, there it all was. His birth year, Wampum, his record and a few comments, including the names of his two brothers, which I remembered only one. My point was, of course, was who knows, maybe this opposing team has a wringer on it and in 2010 you just don't know that.

Joltin' Joe, while he was a lot more negative toward others and a notorious perfectionist, he played the game hard, the way it should be played. He ran out ground outs, he practiced batting (albeit first) every day. He only wanted to show himself at his best. Of course, he did that to a fault, but to fans looking in, he seemed to play the game honestly. For a kid to study his baseball work ethic, he was a good role model.
That was Larry: from the outside looking in he was a role model and from the inside, when I got to know him well, he deserved that label even more.

Guys like Larry will be missed by many folks...certainly his family, we all know what the loss of a father, spouse, or brother means, but he will be missed by all those Fennville kids that will never get to know him. I think so because it will be very hard for anybody to take his place tending the grounds and making sure players respect the game and themselves. I hope someone (like Larry) helps Truman learn that part of the game as well.

Oh yes, Truman's team did not win that game, but came in second in the tournament to that same group of boys. Who knows, perhaps there is a Dick Allen among them.

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