July 30, 2013
Traveling through Florida one time, come dinnertime I exited the main road at Vero Beach looking for a bite to eat.
Instead of a good restaurant I stumbled instead upon Dodgertown, the former and legendary spring-training camp of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team. I loved baseball when I was a kid here in the hometown.
But my childhood was a long time ago, and I had not been thinking of baseball when I pulled off in Vero Beach. I arrived during the baseball offseason. No one seemed to be around Dodgertown, there was no gate or “keep out” sign, and so I drove in and had a look around.
However, at the end of the drive I came unexpectedly upon some cars and activity. I parked and walked over to a ball park. Boy, did I get a treat.
They were having a fantasy camp, in which ordinary guys like me pay big money (not like me) to attend a mock baseball camp for a week run by real-life, retired baseball stars.
Suddenly I stood gawking in the midst of a bunch of retired baseball players I recognized from the TV and radio when I was a kid.
No, I’ve never been a Dodger fan, but I still got a kick out of getting up close to, for instance, Reggie Smith, the seven-time All Star centerfielder who seemed to be in charge of things.
But among all the famous names I saw on the backs of Dodger jerseys I focused on just one: Frank Howard.
In his heyday with the old Washington Senators when I was a kid, Howard was a mountain of a man, at 6-foot-8 a huge stature for a baseball player at the time. He was noticeably bigger at the plate than the other ballplayers I saw on TV.
Swinging a monstrous uppercut, Howard was known for hitting home runs and hitting them far.
At the old Dodgertown I turned and suddenly there was the back of big Frank Howard, walking away. Howard started his 15-year Major League career with the Dodgers.
Then someone called out to him and Howard turned around. He was in his mid-50s by that time, about the age I am now. The years had taken a toll, I quickly noted.
Howard’s shoulders were stooped. He seemed much less than 6-foot-8. Those powerful forearms I once admired on TV had withered.
Then he spoke, and I was struck by such a high-pitched, squeaky, aged voice. It took me aback.
It was not what I expected from the man who once had been the monster of Major League Baseball. A couple of young guys snickered behind Howard’s back.
Aging cuts everybody down to size. Call aging the baddest man in town. Nobody gets the best of him.
One of the tough things about coming back to the hometown after many years away was confronting all the aging.
I left young peers here with long, ‘70s-style hair. I came back to those same friends and acquaintances who were balding guys or girls sporting poofy perms. They were beginning to look like their parents. It was quite the shock.
I’ve kept my youthful, lean appearance, naturally.
Which brings me to consideration of this notice I have here of my 40th high school reunion. That’s great news. That means the coolest dudes and chicks will gather back in the hometown from who knows where.
Now I have a bit of an advantage. Since I’ve returned to the hometown I’ve come across more than a few of my former classmates who are neighbors or family members. I’m well acquainted with them.
But most of the folks I will see at the reunion will be people I have not laid eyes on in years, in decades.
Unlike Frank Howard they will not have their names on the backs of jerseys. I expect no stars at our reunion.
So I will turn to some stranger and squint a peek at a nametag and then a bit of reality will hit. My old classmates will look nothing like their school yearbook photos.
I will see no sideburns; no girl’s hair will flow down her back. I doubt I will hear the terms “cool” or “far out” spoken all night.
Instead I’ll be facing a group of distinguished elders who will look like our parents and teachers. As I thumb through the school yearbook, I realize I’m not going to see at the reunion what I’m seeing in the yearbook.
I’ll hear talk of a lot of place names, family and job descriptions. And there will be a lot of double takes in the room, regardless of whether the voices are high-pitched and squeaky.
But that’s all right. We’ll all be home-run hitters for making it this far, to our 40th reunion – more than a few in the class didn’t make it this far.
And we’ll be well aware of how blessed we are, with health, wealth, families and good memories.
Look for me. I’ll be the one with the floppy white hair trying to hide a receding hairline, which is just like my daddy’s.
Postscript: Hey, ex-classmates, the reunion’s Oct. 5. Contact me if you need details. Be there or be square.
Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.