I have heard it said that school-sponsored athletic trips contribute greatly to the education process and I agree wholeheartedly. When I think back to the treks of our sadly underfunded Division II college baseball team, I realized that we learned about much more than baseball.
One of our most memorable trips was over spring break in 1982. We had spent the winter raising money ourselves and looked forward to traveling to the northern Florida coast to play games in the warm weather. Sun, beaches and baseball—what could be better?
Well, apparently there was one other thing. The day before we left, the coach of the local Catholic high school dropped by to pick up the pitching machine our coach was loaning him to use while we were away. The Catholic coach was a robust man in his early thirties, with a thick chest and an impossible shock of dark hair exploding from the top of his two-sizes-too-small t-shirt. He had an unkempt mustache that hung down at the corners and made him look like a tobacco-chewing walrus. He listened impatiently as our coach talked about how excited we were to get down there and play baseball. He responded with a gruff voice between spits of brown juice, "If I was their age I know what I'd be wanting to get down there for. To look for some butt." Somehow, by a linguistic talent I had not heard before, he turned the last word into two syllables.
Our coach, who never uttered a stouter word than crap, and aware that our young impressionable ears were nearby, quickly tried to overlook the comment, "Yeah, they're pretty tired of this miserable cold weather up here. They can't wait to get down there for some nice weather."
"They can't wait to get down there to look for some bu-utt," came the immediate reply.
With great anticipation, of nice weather, baseball and other things, we loaded the vans in the cool early morning darkness. While some teams traveled in comfort on chartered busses, we rode in two ancient rusty vans, sitting on hard, cracked vinyl benches. There was a definite social order to the vans, although it was never spoken or written down. The first van, which I’ll call the “cool” van, was where the upper classmen and leaders of the team rode. The "other" van contained underclassmen, benchwarmers and the socially inept. I rode the other van.
Gino, one of the seniors Coach deemed responsible, usually drove the cool van. Coach drove our van. I tried to kid myself that he drove our van because the contents were so valuable that he wouldn't trust anyone else to drive, but I wasn't convinced. The cool van got to listen to our second baseman’s boom box—an enormous monstrosity of 1970s technology that allowed the user to carry his tunes wherever he went. The back of the boom box held enough D batteries to power a small third world republic and provided just enough energy to hear music for a few hours. They listened to the Eagles, the Rolling Stones and Journey. A great time was had in the cool van.
In our van we didn’t have music other than what could be pulled in from the small scratchy dashboard AM radio--which was often very little while traveling through rural cornfields. Instead, we listened to Coach play music trivia for hours: “Who sang King of the Road? Roger Miller.”
Before climbing in for the long trip to Florida, I overheard Coach tell Gino to be prepared for quick stops because, “I got the Raging Buttholes, I think I had a bad burrito last night.” While I had never heard of this nefarious malady before (or since), by the gravity of his tone, I surmised that it was significant and I considered myself lucky to pick up this little tidbit of info. I moved as far in the back of the van as possible and cracked the window.
Although none of us had seen the hideous hour of 5 AM before, spirits were incredibly high. As the two vans vied for the lead racing down the highway, we exchanged friendly hand gestures back and forth. Once as the vans passed, we witnessed everyone in their van frantically rolling down windows and waving their hats in the air. Everyone, that is, except our catcher, who had known gastrologic issues. He sat back with his hands behind his head and a satisfied smile on his face. We were all silently happy that we were in our own van at that point.
Chatter eventually died down and we drifted off to sleep, a difficult task in the cramped vans. Since there was no place to rest our heads, we would just close our eyes. As sleep arrived, this inevitably led to our heads haphazardly lolling from side to side or plunging straight down in a free fall that snapped out necks and brought laughter from those sitting behind.
The western Kentucky flatlands passed by in an oblivious blur of headsnapping slumber. When we stopped and unpiled at a Tennessee gas station, I heard one of the freshmen timidly mention to Coach that he thought he had left our bucket of baseballs--the only balls we had other than the dozen game balls under Coach's seat--sitting next to the gym door. The Tennessee hills echoed with an agonizing "CRAAAAP!" that sounded like an injured bear.
Coach's fragile psychologic state was saved when Gino ambled by and casually remarked that he had seen the bucket sitting there alone and stuck it in the back of his van.
After hours of watching the Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama countryside pass by, it was a big event when someone spotted the ocean in the distance. The sun seemed to grow in brilliance with each passing minute. Soon, the smell of saltwater and the fishy aroma of the beach increased our anticipation. We gawked at the beautiful high-rise beachfront hotels as we drove by, wondering which would be ours.
Our hearts fell when Coach slowed and instead of turning left into the pristine parking lots of the hotels on the beach, made a right, into the broken-asphalted, weed-strewn parking lot of a shabby motel with a low, uneven roof. The rusted sign in front with two missing lights announced it as The Tiki House, but Bucky, our center fielder, instantly dubbed it the Tiki-Dive.
Undaunted, we quickly recovered our excitement—we wouldn’t be spending much time in the motel anyway, we reasoned. We poured from the vans, got our keys and room assignments--four players to each tiny room--and quickly stored our stuff, anxious to hit the beach. Coach announced that we had two hours before we had to be back for dinner.
We made our way in a single file line through a dirty alley, along a narrow sand trail with large weeds on either side that pricked at our bare ankles and calves, crossed the street and walked between two nice hotels to the public beach access point. The beach was packed. Sunbathers glistened from blankets and people were splashing in the surf. We peeled our shirts, revealing pitiful ghost-white chests with baseball-tanned arms. We walked up the beach, allowing the ice-cold water to pour over our feet as we collectively pondered the next move. The possibilities were endless.
A long-haired bearded beach rat who looked like he had been in the same place since the sixties, spotted us, spread his arms wide and hollered, "What are you guys doing just standing there? You're wasting your time. Just look at all this skin."
Just then, as if ordered by Coach to save us from certain temptation, the heavens opened up and it began to pour. We quickly ran back to our safe haven, the Tiki-Dive, and waited.
It rained non-stop for two days. We sat in our miserable, cramped, smelly rooms, playing cards or watching mindless game shows, occasionally risking an optimistic look out the window and making stupid jokes about building arks. After our first two days of games were washed out, we were elated when the rain finally stopped. We loaded our stuff into the vans and headed toward a local college where Coach said he was good friends with the coach there and he was sure the field would be in great shape.
The field looked like a swamp when we pulled up. There was standing water in several places in the infield and around the dugouts. Someone stepped into the mud of the on-deck circle and his foot sunk two inches, making a loud sucking noise when, with effort, he pulled his shoe out. I thought I saw an alligator floating in left field.
But Coach would not be denied. He picked up a rake and started frantically pawing at the infield dirt. He grabbed a wheelbarrow and lugged a couple of bags of Diamond Dry out and spread the contents around. Their coach, probably feeling sorry for these crazed northerners, finally agreed to play ball. As if by magic, the sun suddenly broke through the clouds and bathed us in all its glory. Someone in our dugout shouted, "Let's play two!" With great joy we scurried out on to the field, the misery of our lodgings and the weather totally forgotten. We were young, the sun was peeking through the clouds and we were playing baseball. Life couldn’t be better.
And then the other team came up to bat.