By Jimmie Earls
Sun Sports Writer
It was just a small corner lot located at 11th Avenue and 5th Street West near Ritter Park in Huntington, W.Va., but to us, it was Riverfront Stadium. Why it was vacant, we didn’t know. We were just grateful it was.
Home plate was a crude circle of dirt at the east end. First base was a slab of sidewalk that still remained from whatever dwelling once inhabited the property. Second base was a small indention in the earth, no doubt made by sliding into the ground over a period of time. I think third base was the same way; I barely remember it because I was mostly a singles hitter and rarely got that far.
In the summer of 1975, I was the new kid across the block, simply known as the guy who moved into Brian Swan's old house. I was 11 years old, which is an awkward time for boys in itself, nevermind the challenge of making new friends.
I don't exactly remember how I made friends with the local kids, I just remember being in the outfield one day and when the ball got near me, I picked it up and threw it to somebody. If you've ever seen the movie The Sandlot, it was pretty much like that.
I was always a chubby kid, not the most athletic by any means. I was also going to a private Christian school at the time, so I did not know these guys from public school. The odds were stacked against me, but I persisted, became part of the gang and spent the next three summers with my new friends on that field.
The dimensions weren’t exactly to major league standards, but for our purpose, they were good enough.
There were no foul lines or outfield fence. If you managed to hit Dr. Guthrie’s aluminum siding, let’s just call that a home run.
I remember hitting a foul ball and watching it move in slow motion as it headed for the house next to the lot. It had a lot of rotation on it and merely rolled off the window instead of breaking it. But I will never forget the sound the ball made as it banged against the glass, nor the feeling of my heart rising into my chest.
The real menaces to our baseball joy were the city sewer drains on the street corners. The fact that none of us got hit by a car as we raced into the street to chase down a ball before it got to a drain is a miracle.
I moved from the neighborhood in August 1977 and never saw those friends again. I think of them often and how life has treated them. I hope they are all healthy and happy. I have thought about tracking them down but I always chicken out, fearing that they don't remember me.
I recently took a trip back to Huntington and drove by the old neighborhood. Just as I have changed over the past thirty years, so has the lot. Our former ball field is now littered with several modest houses, and the owners are probably unaware that they are residing on sacred ground. But that’s all a matter of opinion, isn’t it?
This week’s column is dedicated to Jeff Bastianelli, Gordy White, Rob Bastianelli and Steve Varney. There were others who played with us, but these were the guys I hung around with most. I was most likely a royal pain in the rear, but at least they tolerated me and made me feel accepted. Even though I may have been picked last a few times, at least I was picked and I'm forever grateful to them. It wasn’t so much about sports, as it was about friendship and a sense of worth and belonging.
Although the sandlot is now gone, the memories of those days live on every time I set foot onto a baseball field, and I think of my childhood friends and how an empty lot can fill so many with happiness.