The Zak Zone

Over the course of the past week-and-a-half, I've been doing a lot of thinking about dandelions.

I suppose lot of us have had dandelions on the brain over that time period given the fact that it is grass cutting season, and dandelions have caused much more frequent mowing than is usual due to their persistent growth and unappealing visual nature once they turn from flower to seed pod.

And with it being dandelions' prime growth season, some of us have even been fortunate enough to cut our lawns more than once in a week to keep them from looking similar to undiscovered jungles.

Grass cutting isn't the reason I've been thinking so much about dandelions, though. My thinking began last week at a visit to my family's mechanic to make an appointment to have my car inspected.

Typically, I would call and make an appointment, but on this occasion, I was driving past and figured I could just stop in and see when his calendar was next free.

While chatting in the garage after inking a time, we were encountered by a pleasant interruption — the mechanic's granddaughter stopping in to visit him.

She came running into the garage and gave her grandpa a hug and said hello to her dad, who also works at the shop, before turning to me and showing me what she had in her hands: Two dandelions.

“Look at my flowers!,” she exclaimed.

I smiled at her and told her that dandelions just happen to be one of my favorite flowers, as they remind me of my own late grandfather, adding, “Even if they are considered weeds, I still love them.”

She grinned as she turned and skipped away, but the mechanic had overheard my weed comment and said, “You know, lots of people say that dandelions are just weeds. But they really have some good uses.”

Looking at him inquisitively, he told me he didn't quite consider it a weed, as you can eat a dandelion or even use it to make some types of wine.

Later, I encountered a front yard full of dandelions at my grandmother's house, stalks so high I had to cut them despite just doing so a few days prior.

And when I returned to the couch after mowing, I decided to look more into the other uses for dandelions. But first, I looked up the “official” definition of weed.

The first definition on the always useful Web site tells us that a weed is “any valueless plant growing wild, especially one that grows on cultivated ground...”

My mechanic was right. Dandelions have a plethora of uses — all parts of the plant are in fact edible, making it a valuable asset in salads or even eaten alone after being fried; dried dandelions can be used in certain blends of teas; and the plant has a plethora of medicinal uses as well.

In fact, some sites cite the dandelion as one of the most nutritious things one could consume — I won't bore you any more with the details, but if you're interested, Google works wonders.

I digress, but I say all of this to point to the fact that, if we follow the initial definition, a dandelion is far from a weed.

Now, there is a second definition of weed. That definition says a weed is “any undesirable or troublesome plant.”

Given this definition, it is also fair to classify a dandelion as a weed, I suppose, as desire is in the eye of the beholder. Thus, any plant could technically be a weed, but dandelions are commonly unwanted because of the fact that they “grow like a weed.”

“Why in the world is this on the sports pages?,” you're probably thinking to yourself. Well, as much as I like metaphors to help us relate to life, I couldn't help but think, “What in the world can I learn from all this thinking about dandelions?”

And as I sat watching a baseball game between the Pirates and the Reds with my father over the weekend, the thought occured to me: I was once one of those "weeds."

My Little League baseball stat sheet shows a five-year career, one that spanned four years from ages nine through 12, and added another season of Senior League ball as a 16-year-old — a season during which I led the league in the elusive category of strikeouts (as a hitter, and unfortunately not as a pitcher).

During my Minor League and Little League careers, though, I played for the same team — the Deeley/Dereume Dodgers.

While my love for the game of baseball started at a young age, when I would sit up past my bedtime listening to Pirates games on the radio, my love for and desire to play the game didn't translate into talent. In fact, I was terrible.

In most folks' eyes, I was the dandelion that thrived most sitting on the bench, but because of the kind-hearted nature of my coaches and a Little League rule that says every player must play two full innings, those coaches were forced to plant this dandelion somewhere between those foul lines for those two innings each and every game.

Ironically, I recall — a time or two — them having to tell me to stop kicking the dandelions and pay attention to what was going on in the game. And the miracle is they did so with smiles on their faces.

I was a dandelion, and those coaches were placed in a position where they had to choose if they wanted to view me as a flower or a weed.

And despite the fact that, on most nights, I played like a weed, they treated me like a bright yellow flower every time they sent me out there, encouraging me and pulling for me every time.

I still remember a night game near the end of the season — the last game of the season if I recall correctly — which the Dodgers needed to win to advance to a playoff.

It was close coming down to the wire, and my mandatory at-bat was rapidly approaching with it looking as if the game might be in the balance when I stepped up and planted my roots in the batter's box.

I have a way of romanticizing these things, but I believe we were down one run in our last trip to the plate — the picture-perfect story says there were two outs, but I can't say that was actually the case.

Regardless, I came to the plate with a runner in scoring position knowing my team needed a hit out of me. I was the least likely one on the team to deliver that hit, though, given my history as a hitter. I struck out a lot more than I reached base.

But that one night, underneath the lights that seemed to shine so bright, this weed took one of those “eyes-half-closed, reaching-for-a-bad-pitch” sort of swings, and something magical happened.

I connected on what should have been a foul ball, and that ball looped over the first baseman's head and dropped in the grass just inside the first baseline.

I recall very clearly Mr. Deeley holding out his hand to give me a high five and telling me I had done it. My coaches all congratulated me after the game as if they'd expected it all along. They chose to evaluate their players on the first definition of a weed rather than the second. They looked for uses from their players that made them beneficial instead of writing them off as valueless.

Sometimes, when you view something you've seen as a weed all your life from just the right angle, or under just the right light, you catch a glimpse of a flower.

Coaches, fans and parents that I run into at the ball field throughout this upcoming summer, I thank you in advance because I've already seen it. Thanks for remembering that each and every one of these kids is far more valuable than a weed could ever be.