The Vernon Hills Park District used to give out nondescript colored shirts for baseball teams. The colors selected would be based on that team’s name; red for Cardinals, blue for Tigers...you get it.
No fancy official logos were present in these 1987 uniforms, the year of my organized baseball introduction. Each shirt had a large printed image of a baseball; beneath the baseball, in print, ‘Vernon Hills Park District Youth Baseball’.
This was the generic shirt for the generic community that had sprouted just north of Chicago. Vernon Hills, my town, my sprawling suburb situated off of the Route 60 exit on Interstate 94, was a 20,000 person test case for the American Dream. It was the lower of the upper-middle class; dreaming to be upper class, with most settling for upper-middle class, and some, like my family, existing in a middle class with a sprinkling of scraps from the upper class table.
It’s a town where they made the mall first and the homes second.
It’s a town whose name does not come from the founder being a ‘Vernon’ or the land having any distinct ‘hills’. It’s a town named after a tee box on a hole of the town’s country club that happened…to be a on a hill.
It’s a town that’s more of a statement on what we are rather than a town of its own distinct standing. Vernon Hills has always said more about where we are, rather than what it truly is.
My family was perfect for the town. If they passed a ‘test family’ for the American middle class, my parents may have won an award. We were dead-center for central casting. My dad worked the night shift at the post office, my mom worked in a customer service center, and we drove a station wagon that was lucky to have hot air in November…but not so much by January.
In the spring and summer of 1987, my hazed memories of happiness came from being at the village’s park district pool, or at the local J&L gas station. At the gas station is where we would get baseball cards, baseball stickers, the local newspaper, and ice cream.
My first memories associated with playing in an actual baseball league game are scattered. There’s the time I was tagged out between second and third because the runner ahead of me stayed at third rather than going home. I refused to leave the field, and my uncle had to come pick me up and drag me off while I wept.
There’s also the time I asked my coach after three strikes if I could bunt the next pitch rather than use a tee.
Yet, most of my memories are lodged in my coach. No games, no snacks after games, no obnoxious dealings with catcher’s equipment during the games…the coach.
My coach was a walking 1980’s oil painting of Kent Tekulve; shades and all. Tall, lanky, blue jeans, and always chewing something that may or may not have been tobacco. It was 1987, and these things just happened.
Outside of the jersey and the coach? Not much…just the feeling that this was supposed to be something.
I was to learn in this year, and in the years after, that baseball had rules. Set rules, confusing rules, but rules. You had to follow the rules. You had to know the rules. Not knowing the rules was akin to anarchistic/communistic thought, and in these here late 1980’s we couldn’t have any of that pink-o thought! We were pressuring those Russkies to get East Germany to ‘tear down that wall’!
So, we gathered; 70-80 kids from throughout Vernon Hills embarking on some sort of communal activity that would bond ourselves with ‘heritage’.
Baseball, I knew even then, was a microcosm of something that was bigger than me. I would participate in baseball because this was my destiny. If my father played, then I would play, and then maybe someday, by God, I could replace that god-forsaken Keith Moreland at third base.
We played the games; scattered around the field like any little league. And still, with all the confusion, the coaches were adamant about the rules.
I remember the stoppages. The lectures. “Son, there’s a ‘force’ at this base. Son, this is a ‘tag’ play. Son, you have to tag up when a pop fly is caught.”
How we remember the rules is amazing. Think about it. Basketball requires knowing that a made basket is two points. The only time it is not, is if you make the basket outside of the ‘3-point arc’. Also, you can score one point by making a ‘free throw’.
Baseball has balks, walks, hit batsmen, force plays, tag plays, tag ups, dropped third strikes, strike outs, called strikes, swinging strikes…and…we were told ‘stealing’. With leadoffs. But that was for the big kids, as was the dropped third strikes, but…wait, what was it that Coach Kent Tekulve told us about bunts?
Being seven was confusing. Hell, everything I was taking in during 1987 was a little confusing.
At seven years of age, all I wanted out of life was to not be so damn confused anymore. When was everything going to get better? When was everything going to be okay?!
I was told everything would get better as I got older.
But...maybe things were going to get better now? Why wait?
Hell, I was going to replace Keith Moreland!
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