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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Struck Strikes Out: The real field of dreams

Monday, August 8, 2005

Usually, perhaps even always, the athletes among us who win championships do so simply because they possess more passion and work harder at it in both practices and games.

Many take that passion and work ethic one step further and also practice their sport individually and privately with family members at home, in the gym, or on the field or court. The really dedicated athletes may practice like that year around with caring dads and moms always there for support and encouragement.

I know such passion and outstanding effort works because it worked for me once upon a time. And, as we now all know, it also worked for the 2005 Cherokee Braves baseball team.

Not to bore you with my "Glory Days" details, but in my late 20s I received a tennis racket for my birthday. I had never played tennis because way back then we thought just sissies played that foo-foo sport.

But, soon came Stan Smith, Arthur Ashe, Rod Laver and John Newcombe. And then Jimmy Connors and Chrissie Evert hit the scene and tennis was suddenly THE sport.

When I first started playing, I couldn't beat anybody and my volleys lasted one, maybe two hits. My weak backhand would bounce off cotton candy. It was embarrassing, frustrating and, many times, I considered quitting the sport.

After all, I played and had a passion for all sports and was considered a pretty darn good athlete. Why not tennis?

Tired of getting my bum handed to me on the tennis courts by young and old alike, one spring I decided to quit playing competitive tennis and simply go out all by myself and refine my game.

In the lower parking lot at the Cherokee Community Center, someone long ago had painted a black line the height of a tennis net on the huge concrete retaining wall. I would go there after work and hit balls against that wall for hours. If I hit one over the high wall, I would sprint up the steep hill and fetch the errant ball. Along with blisters on my hands and feet, I got in shape.

Sometimes, even at night, I would go hit balls against that wall with just enough light from the streetlights and security lights at the Community Center. Sometimes I would hit by my car lights. Man, I punished that wall for months all that spring and summer. I also jogged two miles every day of the week.

Now in top physical condition and brimming with self-made confidence, I was drilling forehands, backhands and serves at top speed. That fall, I returned to the courts with a big grin on my face and started winning most of the time. I even beat the college kid I had played dozens of times and had never won a single game from.

I played competitive tennis for about 20 years until a car wreck screwed up my back and neck and the pounds descended on me. I quickly rose through the local ranks to play at number one singles and doubles for our Cherokee team that many years ago played and excelled in the old Northwest Iowa Team Tennis League.

And all this because I made the decision and stuck to it to bust my bum to get better. I know if I had driven myself in the other sports like I did that time in tennis, that I would have played them much better, too.

I bring this all up because, just as I learned from my tennis, the success of the WHS girls basketball teams of late, and this year's baseball Braves, the harder you work and the more passion you have for your sport will surely pay vast rewards somewhere along the line.

Speaking of passion, long after Cherokee's bitter extra-inning loss at the state baseball tournament in Principal Park in Des Moines last week - with the fans all gone and the grounds crew grooming the field for the next day's games and the lights ready to be dimmed - there were a bunch of Braves out in left field playing catch!

They didn't want to leave! They didn't want this magical season to ever end! I can see and hear Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) saying it now, "Hey, dad, how about a game of catch?"

One other thing about passion. And, believe me, only the really good ones take it to this level.

In a restaurant at noon, the day the Braves were to begin district tournament baseball play in Cherokee, I ran into the father of one of Cherokee's players. We visited about the Braves' spectacular season and talked about the tourney and how cool it would be if they could make state.

Excited for the tournament game, the dad, a former high school baseball all-stater with a passion for the game, told me he had gone to the Cherokee ball field that morning "just to check it out."

As he was walking on the hill surveying the field, his son pulled up in a car. "What are you doing here?," the dad asked the son.

"I was bored at home and just came up here to see the field," replied the son, neither of them realizing some magical ESP was at work here.

Let me get this straight... It's been a long, hot regular season with games or practices six days a week for three solid months, the game was 10 hours away, yet this teen-ager in summertime, with cars, music, buddies, and girls all over the place, chose to come alone to the ballfield he's played on hundreds of times just to SEE it on game day?


And also to FEEL it.

So he and his dad just sat there on the hill, looking at the grass, dirt and geometrical genius of an empty ball diamond and savoring, beyond the belief of all except those who have before walked this path, the very essence of the game of baseball and, for the truly passionate, the anticipation and utter glee of another game just one more time.

And then, please God, one more time after that, and then one more after that, and one more after that...

Does such passion create winners, or do winners create such passion?

As that father and son, those Braves lingering in the Des Moines outfield at the end of their marvelous journey, and my old tennis awakening prove, it doesn't really matter, for one most definitely will lead to the other.

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