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The Zak Zone

March 21, 2012

If there is one thing this fantastically appropriate spring weather gets me in the mood for, it's baseball season.

Since I was a little boy, I have started to feel the itch in mid-February.

Wishing for warmer days, I'd begin to fantasize of home runs and no-hitters, looking forward to the first day of the season, when I could tuck myself under my blankets at night and listen to the Pirates games on lower-than-usual volume so as to not bother my parents while I was supposed to be sleeping.

The Pirates' broadcasters were among my favorite people, as they brought the good, and sometimes bad, news of the Pirates' day-to-day operations my way and did so both charmingly and entertainingly.

Those were the good old days. These days, many in the area would say there's not a whole lot to look forward to when it comes to the Pirates.

And statistically, they're probably right.

Coming off 18 consecutive losing seasons, I must admit that as a true Pirates fan, I'm praying for .500 just to get the other cellar-dwellers' (read: Cleveland Browns') fans off my back.

Despite a lot of promise out of some young talent last season, the Bucs came crashing back down to earth, dashing our hopes of breaking our losing seasons streak. This season, it seems as if the Pirates made some strong moves and will be an even more respectable squad this season... But I'm still not getting my hopes up.

While the Pirates making a deal for A.J. Burnett rekindled my interest in baseball a bit early this year, it was something completely different that sparked it most strongly.

Last Saturday, while hanging out with my family at my great-grandmother's 97th birthday party, an impromptu game of wiffle ball broke out in the backyard.

It was sunny and hot, and I was sweating like a pig, but it made me feel like a kid again, pitching to my little cousins, who were using the standard "fat bat" we used to have when we were kids — though it would appear there have been some modifications, as the only color we ever saw was red, and the new version was green.

Nonetheless, the kids giggled as they ran the bases, and my mother and great uncle chased their hits across the yard, and the neighbors' yards, as well.

Uncle Lloyd was a machine in the outfield scooping up grounders — and finding himself on the ground more than he had planned.

The kids whined when it was their turn to play the field. We played with only three bases because there were only so many obstacles we wouldn't destroy by using them as markers. And we made up the rules as we went. Some things just never change, I suppose.

The game, though it lasted only a few short minutes, is one I won't soon forget. And while Lloyd diving across the neighbors' lawn was memorable enough, it wasn't until Sunday I realized why the game would never leave my memory.

My grandfather, who we lost to cancer back in 2010, loved baseball and taught me to love baseball.

Sunday, he would have celebrated his 73rd birthday, and it was Sunday I sat reflecting on our wiffle ball game, when I realized our little game took place on the same stomping grounds Pappy used to call his own.

Grammy Great still lives in the house where Pappy was raised, and it was in that backyard that my grandpa and his siblings — my mom and her siblings — myself, my brother and my cousins — played wiffle ball at so many of Grammy Great's parties growing up.

The game took place Saturday, but it was Sunday I was swept back to the old black-and-white days.

The games Pappy always told me about growing up all took place in black and white. He told me of men like Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente and Mickey Mantle. Now, with the marvels of the internet, I can look back on memories of those games.

Most of the photos I take come through to The Spirit's readers in black and white, but the picture that's been on my mind the past few days is one in full color, though its colors aren't quite as sharp as the day it was processed.

There's this old picture of my grandpa and me in my aunt's front yard. Pappy's throwing me a pitch, and there I am, with that bright red fat bat, waiting for it.

Looking back at it today, I realize I probably drove him nuts. My form was horrible, I was half-facing the wrong direction, and it was evident from the picture that I was stepping with the wrong foot.

But he pitched to me anyway. And that's what really matters.

As warm as it was over the weekend, it sure was tempting to reject the offer to play some ball and instead sit comfortably on the lawn chair I had claimed when I entered the yard.

As I've grown older, I've realized just how big of a pain I probably was in asking my parents, or my grandparents, or my uncles and aunts, or my great uncles to throw catch with me all those times. They were probably hot and tired, just like I was.

But because they all took the time to play that game of catch with me, I knew before I even answered what I would do when the boys asked me to play over the weekend.

Of course, I'd play.

Because one day, those boys will look back on that memory, remembering their dad playing catcher while Lloyd is rolling around in the grass, and their aunt is chasing them around the yard trying to tag them, all while they were running outside the baseline.

And whether they have a picture to look back on or not, they'll remember these times.

It's amazing just how many moments we freeze in time, and I'm blessed to have been a part of this past weekend's game at what I'll always refer to as Anita Ballpark — or as Grammy Great's backyard.

It's time for new beginnings. It's time to stretch out and work off some of the winter rust we put on. It's time to play ball.

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