When Vincent Van Gogh painted his famous “The Starry Night” I doubt, in his Impressionist style, that he was influenced by youth baseball. But as I sat under a starry night at the Orem City Center, supporting a nephew playing on the same field as I did many years earlier, I marveled at the masterpiece of life, with the delicate brush strokes and just the right amount of paint, in just the right spots, that create our personal portraits.
For the McCanns, the city center was a canvas and being better athletes than me, my brothers put together the kind of High Renaissance careers that Leonardo da Vinci was primed to capture. For me, however, my moments were more suited for Pablo Picasso than anyone else, with experiences that ran the gamut, including some which took years to understand.
Summer, 1980. Night games were the best and the A’s-Twins showdown was the talk of the league. The A’s had been a dynasty for several years. Coach Sundberg had a unique way of building a team that often drew the angst of our competition. We didn’t know how he did it. We didn’t want to know. The only reason I made the cut was because my older brother Darin was already on the roster.
There weren’t many teams in the Orem Pony League, or around the state, capable of beating us. But the Twins were one of them, and a large crowd of our peers surrounded the ballpark to cheer them on.
The battle was tied 2-2 in the late innings and the intensity was growing as we took the field. I jammed as much bubble gum into my mouth as I could — pretending it was tobacco so I could spit like the guys on the Cubs.
Darin was at shortstop, and I was in left field. The Twins put a runner on second base with two outs. All they needed was a hit out of the infield to score the go-ahead run. Or so they thought.
Praying that the ball would go somewhere else, the crack of the bat sent it rocketing on the ground past Darin and straight for me. The crowd erupted. I picked up the ball as the runner turned the corner at third and headed for home.
When it came to size and strength, I didn’t have much, but in this moment, the mergence of momentum, adrenaline and sugar (from the bubble gum) gave me enough to launch the ball to home plate on the fly and in time for our catcher Brad Olsen to lay down the tag.
“He’s out!” screamed the umpire.
If Jack Buck was announcing the game, he would have shouted “I don’t’ believe what I just saw!” Vin Scully would have said, “In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened!” Harry Caray would have belted out a “Holy Cow!”
It was my “Sandlot” moment. I had gunned down the runner from left field and preserved the tie score. Darin was the first to greet me — which meant the world to me.
A few minutes later, after I drew a walk and went to first base, Olsen, a kid who was literally three-times my size, hit a towering home run to right field. The A’s were victorious again in an inspiring season that culminated with a glorious state championship.
Summer, 1981. Like an opened bag of chips that eventually concedes its freshness, the lofty experience from the previous year and dreams of a repeat, lost its flavor with a coaching change and roster overall.
Gone was my brother and all his A-lister buddies who aged out of the league. My expectation of succeeding Darin in the infield was quickly nixed by a set of new coaches who brought in their own boys, and I quickly realized the year of the “raw deal” had arrived.
To make matters worse for a disappointed 14-year-old, not only was I back sharing time in left field, but during one game, I misjudged and dropped a fly ball just 20 feet from Syd Scharrer — a girl from school that I liked but knew was out of my league. After the play, she stayed that way.
Sadly, the lowest moment was still to come.
You learn a lot about yourself when you feel slighted. I kept practicing with the hope that the new coach would “see the light” or at least start to “see it my way.” What I thought was a breakthrough moment became a breaking point.
After delivering a pinch-hit single and standing proudly on first base, I watched the coach walk to the dugout and call for a pinch runner — who was no faster than I was. I couldn’t believe it. My mind raced with unhappy thoughts, “Am I really that bad that he doesn’t even think I can run? Did he ever watch us last year? I was a starter on our state championship team?”
Fighting off tears of discouragement, I entered the dugout where teammates Jim Fowler and John Hill were waiting. Like me, they were both youthful contributors the previous season and while they remained key figures on the team, they knew I was having a different experience and they expressed their empathy.
I couldn’t hold the tears back any longer. If the previous year was like “The Sandlot” this year was “Jaws” — and I was a swimmer. There isn’t supposed to be crying in baseball but there I was, sitting on the bench in a flash flood of emotion and nothing could stop it — not even the coach, who added to the indignity by chewing me out for doing it.
Picasso’s creativity would have had a field day painting my baseball portrait as a young teen. While the dramatic throw to home plate was fantastical, the following year prepared me for life — when reality bites sometimes and things don’t go as planned or hoped for.
We love the good moments and work through the bad, while occasionally shedding a tear or two for both joy and disappointment. Those were the marching orders when I introduced my son Andrew to baseball, and they remain in play at the Orem City Center as I watch my nephew Zach do the same.
Like the artists of old, where most masterpieces were identified not at creation, but over time, boys and girls competing in baseball, lacrosse, soccer, softball, basketball, football, track, cross-country, swimming, gymnastics, golf, tennis, wrestling, volleyball, or cheer are adding the brush strokes to their own portraits — illustrated by highs and lows.
As parents and loved ones, it’s our privilege to watch them paint.
Players cheer from the dugout during a game at the Crown Colony baseball field in Holladay on Tuesday, June 16, 2020.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News
Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “BYU Sports Nation Game Day,” “The Post Game Show,” “After Further Review,” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv. He is also co-host of “Y’s Guys” at ysguys.com.