It’s summertime and that old ball park man is back in gear. The lines are long in and out of Drakes Creek and Municipal Park. Little girls and boys in baseball and softball uniforms scurry about the fields, anxious to play but more excited for the post-game snacks. Moms and dads wear team colors and wag the babies, strollers, diaper bags, toys and chairs. At almost every youth ballpark, the best seats are never in the bleachers, but along the right and left field fences. The moms chase the babies, the dads chase the foul balls. Grandparents huddle under umbrellas to hide from the heat.
This Rockefeller scene is painted across time. By changing the names of the fields to Popkin and Hillcrest, the opening lines above describe the Little League parks where I grew up playing baseball in East Tennessee. Little brothers and sisters could be found between the two fields playing cup ball, time-tested baseball played with a squished up waxy red Coke cup. The four dirt spots in the diamond pattern in the worn-out grass were the bases. The dirt circle in the middle was the pitcher’s mound. Batters smacked the cup with a swinging hand. If you got hit by the cup ball as you ran the dirt bases, you were out. That was the rule. Problem was, these scrappy games had no umpires and no little kid ever admitted to being hit by the cup if it was the least bit questionable. For that reason alone, these cup ball games were as exciting as the real games and always produced far more fights. If there had been one, I would have made the cup ball all-star team.
Those same waxy red Coke cups were used by big brothers and sisters to catch crawdads in the creek that ran on the north side of the fields along the road. At any one time there could be two dozen kids wading through the creek, turning over rocks, stirring muddy bottoms, fishing with red cups for mountain lobsters. No one took the crawdads home. Most were thrown back, but some died from being spilled in the grass or abandoned in the cups. Every night kids would get too close to the road and somebody’s parent would yell, “Get back away from that road!” Spankings were handed out in front of everybody for chasing unwilling girls with cups full of crawdads or ruining your new shoes with muddy creek water. I got whippings for both.
On the fields, we played hard, if not always well. My dad, Larry McElhaney, was my Little League coach. He made us all tuck in our jerseys, wear our hats straight with cupped bills “like real ball players,” and cuff our pants just below the knee, allowing maximum stirrup (colored socks worn over white hose-like socks) exposure. Dad would say, “We may not be able to play a lick, but we are going to look like we can.”
Steve Conway was my other coach. If we were not practicing well, not paying attention or talked back, Coach Conway would bellow out, “Go check that flag pole to see if it’s been painted.” We would have to run as hard as we could to the outfield fence and touch the pole and run back. This was punishment. In the five years I played at Popkin and Hillcrest, no flag pole had ever been painted in any of the dozens of times I personally checked it.
Like the players I coach now, win or lose, we always loved the post-game snacks. Back then, parents did not bring the snacks and pass them out before the coach meeting so none of the players pay attention. Instead, we had to run across the gravel parking lot to the concession stand. It was rare when the pushing and shoving and galloping did not lead to someone tumbling through the gravel, scraping palms and bloodying knees. Far more injuries occurred running for snacks than ever did running for home plate. The concession stand was located between the outfields of the two baseball fields and beside the cup ball field. We were each permitted to order a drink and a candy. We all got
blow pop suckers and suicides. A suicide is the perfect mixture of all the flavors in the fountain drink machine, served, of course, in those waxy red Coke cups.
There is a big monument on the hill above Popkin Field today, across the creek, near the road. It celebrates the all-star team I played on in the summer of 1985 that made it all the way to the Little League World Series. I can still take you to the spot between those fields, to the left of the concession stand, to the right of the cup ball field, where thirty-six years ago I met my best friend, Richie Conway, in the summer of 1981. We were eight years old:
“Hey what’s your name?” he said.
“Rocky. What’s yours?”
“Do you want to play cup ball or go look for crawdads?”