Angels in the Outfield

Spoken like Hamilton “Ham” Porter himself from the Sandlot, I couldn’t tell you how many times I heard, “Hurry up batter. It’s gotta be a short game, then I gotta get home for lunch.” from my brother, Travis, as we hit and fielded balls for hours on our property every evening for several years growing up. 

If we would have had 7 of our closest friends there to join us each evening, we would have been a modern day Sandlot – we had the field, backstop, bases, equipment, and an abundance of baseball movie quotes to swap as we tried to outdo each other every pitch, and every hit.

Looking back, we were living the dream! How cool was it that we had our very own baseball field, open 24/7, 365 days a year?!?! 

Well I’ll tell you; it was awesome, and it all started one Saturday when my grandparents were over for our weekly weekend dinner; the six of us began talking about putting a backstop in the open field on the other side of our driveway. To be honest, it didn’t take much conversation or convincing on anyone’s part because we all enjoy being outdoors and we all have a competitive spirit in us.

So, it was settled, we would break ground Sunday morning and build Melvin Stadium – an unfenced, 2-acre area, that was likely more manicured than an MLB stadium thanks to Dad’s enthusiasm about always keeping a pristine yard. 

I couldn’t tell you how many hours and days Travis and I spent out there hitting and fielding balls – so much so, we found ourselves practicing before Little League games as evidenced by mom picking us up in the middle of driveway when it was time to head to the real ballfields.

Take Me Out to the Ballgame

Sometime shortly after constructing the backstop, laying down the bases, and running over several baseballs and softballs with the lawnmower, the idea of hosting a softball tournament Father’s Day weekend came up. Much like when we built the backstop, it didn’t take much conversation or convincing to have this idea come to fruition. (Our inaugural tournament was held Father’s Day weekend and every year after that it was in conjunction with Dad’s birthday, the Fourth of July.)

We created the guest list, compiled the rules, striped the field, chalked the foul lines, set up “stadium” seating, and configured the PA system…at last, it was gameday! 

As the smell of BBQ lingered in the sweltering summer air, canopies and lawn chairs lined the first base side and behind the backstop as people decked out in red, white, and blue, ranging from ages 5 to 85, began to congregate at Melvin Stadium. 

The Rules Were Simple

1. Men bat opposite handed

2. You play a different position every inning

3. Everyone must play, no matter the age – Aunt Carrie oversaw not taking no for an answer

4. AND, if you argue with the ump it was an automatic out and you were required to get everyone in the field a fresh beverage.

Covering Our Bases

Now every great ballgame needs a fair and honest umpire and every great ballpark needs an announcer as unique as the stadium. Lucky for us, we had our bases covered, pun intended – Grandpa Jim was our home plate umpire and our good family friend, Steve, was our announcer. 

At 6’3’’, wearing his famous bright orange hat, Grandpa Jim called the game by standing to the side of home plate, with one hand rested on the backstop and a Marlboro Red in the other. He carefully assessed each pitch and if the count got up to 2 strikes on the batter, the next strike was “strike two and a half”, followed by “strike two and three-quarters”. Typically, by the 5th “strike” the batter made contact with the ball and was on their way to outrun the throw to first. 

Grandpa Jim was also excellent at making calls in the field from home plate, it didn’t matter how close you were to the play, Grandpa’s call was always right – unless you wanted an automatic out for your team and the job of getting everyone in the field a fresh beverage, you didn’t argue.

Then there was the official voice of Melvin Stadium, Steve – full of personality, humor, and wit. Our games wouldn’t have been the same if it wasn’t for Steve’s ability to give a rib-tickling play-by-play of the ball game. In typical Steve fashion, he would throw in sidesplitting one-liners as he announced the batters and his one-off commentary of various things taking place outside of the game would give Johnny Carson or Robin Williams a run for their money. Steve was certainly a fan (and player) favorite!

Of course, many of the players were characters themselves and the laughs we had on the field are too many to count. Everyone enjoyed themselves and it didn’t matter who won or lost because at the end of the tournament there was still plenty of beer to drink and hundreds of pounds of BBQ to eat…you can’t beat that, coupled with great company. Our family is truly blessed with the best group of people.

The End of an Era

We did these tournaments for several years, with our last one being 10 years ago at Dad’s 50th birthday. While the players and teams changed over the years, one thing that remained the same was that Grandpa Jim called every game and Steve was the voice of Melvin Stadium.

Everyone looked forward to that orange hat, pearl-snap, Wrangler wearing umpire call the games and that infectious smile, Mr. Personality, full of life announcer give us the play-by-play and batting line-up each Fourth of July.

Today, the backstop still stands, but not for long as Mom and Dad are building a new home. That backstop that we spent a weekend building and years of enjoying sits in their new front yard and is a bit of an eyesore. Though bittersweet that the hunter green backstop will come down soon, a little piece of Melvin Stadium will remain, home plate – for a reason far greater than nostalgia sake of the fun and laughs close friends and family shared on that field. 

Angels in the Outfield

You see, Grandpa Jim passed away 7 years ago, and we lost sweet Steve last year. We’ll leave home plate as a tribute to two precious gentlemen who meant so much to our family and well, Melvin Stadium. We’ll continue to mow around it like we have for the past 15 years and each time we look west off of Mom and Dad’s new front porch we’ll be reminded of the joy Grandpa Jim and Steve not only brought to our family, but each and every person they met during their life here on Earth.

Just like in the Sandlot when Babe Ruth visits Benny Rodriquez in his dream and says “Remember kid, there’s heroes and there’s legends. Heroes get remembered, but legends never die.” – Grandpa Jim and Steve’s legacy will continue to live on at Melvin Stadium as they have in our hearts.

 

Grandpa and Haggard

This past Thursday evening I made a quick trip to Brenham, TX to meet my family for Marty Haggard’s show, A Tribute to My Dad, Merle Haggard….and what a great show it was! He sang many of his Dad’s hits, a few lesser known classics, and told stories about his dad and the songs he wrote. He prefaced the show by noting he hoped the show was as much of a trip down memory lane for the crowd as it was for him. Judging by the joy on the audiences’ faces, the singing, clapping, and occasional one-off conversation between Marty and members of the crowd, I believe he accomplished his goal. For me personally, I know for a fact his show was the ultimate trip down memory lane for my grandmother, mother and even myself, regardless of the nearly six decade age difference.

Allow me to back up. Mom grew up in southern Michigan in the household of a guitar playing, Johnny and Merle singing, hardworking, car salesman. Mom and her brothers often talk about hearing their dad and his friends strumming guitars and singing tunes in the basement through the air ducts from upstairs. Bo, her brother was once asked “How do you know the words to all these old country songs?” His reply: “When you go to sleep hearing them every night you don’t have much choice.”

As they moved around Michigan and across the US Grandpa’s love for music traveled with him from place to place. He always had a guitar nearby and greeted any opportunity to play and sing with and for friends with open arms; entertaining and having fun were two of his greatest joys. One of Mom’s high school friends, Becky, once remarked, “The Schultz house was just a place you wanted to be, the love there was palpable; there was always a camera close by, music and Mr. Schultz playing the guitar.”

Fast-forward some years later and I entered the world. My memories of Grandpa aren’t much different from those above. His Martin D-35 was always nearby, whether at his car lot in Houston or at his home in Weimar. He would sing and play just about every classic country song produced, by ear (he couldn’t read music), and if he forgot the lyrics he’d carry right on with his own version…never losing rhythm.

His CD collection was larger than most record shops and he would shuffle through six discs at a time on his stereo in the barn…anything from Bob Wills, to Merle Haggard, to Johnny Cash. Just like Mom and her brothers it was inevitable that I would know all the lyrics to music produced 20 to 35 years before I entered the world while riding my bike or shooting guns near the barn.

In addition to his CD collection I often remember sorting through the hundreds of albums stored under their record player and contemplating which one to play next. Sometimes it was a game and Grandpa would rattle off a song and I’d see how fast I could locate the artist and album. Needless to say I got pretty speedy over the time…and thanks to this game I often associate album covers with songs when I listen to old country music today.  

Occasionally Grandpa would pick my brother and I up from school and the cassette player in his ‘97 Chevy was humming some flavor of what I would call classic country, but what he would say is good music. Either way, at ages 68, 10, and 8, we’d all sing along to light-hearted tunes such as Roly Poly or deeper songs like Sing Me Back Home as we headed down CR 222 to their house.

Music and guitars were so near and dear to Grandpa that about 10 or 12 years ago my mom surprised Grandpa one weekend by showing him that she could sing and play right along with him after taking guitar lessons for the past several months. At 45 she not only learned to play the guitar, but learned to play the songs she grew up on and the songs Grandpa sang.

It’s my belief that the reason Grandpa enjoyed music so much is because he was a creative. He constantly encouraged us grandchildren to find what sparks our creativity. While I didn’t take the music route as I have no musical ambition and can’t carry a tune in a bucket I do appreciate good music…and that is just the world Grandpa Jim introduced me to. My fondest memories of Grandpa will always be him playing the guitar and singing songs.

Today, most call me an old soul, and I’ll admit I LOVE classic country. There are certain songs and especially certain artists that will always remind of Grandpa, Merle Haggard being one of them.

So thanks Marty, for taking my family for a trip down memory lane. It’s amazing to me how one genre of music and a handful of artists can have such a lasting impact through the generations. Music for me provides wonderful memories of those who are no longer with us – I know two gentlemen that were smiling down extra big that night, Grandpa and Merle.

Here are a few pictures of Grandpa Jim over the years doing what he loved!

Myself, Marty, Grandma, and Mom after the show. Marty asked me “How old are you?” I replied “23”. He said, “….and you really like this music”. Absolutely Marty, absolutely.

Summer Camp that Lasted ALL Year

Rancho Delores- Weimar, TX

Summer is upon us and many kids are heading off to summer camp. They are ready to brave the hot weather, connect with new and old friends and learn new skills. Watching these kids head off to camp brought back many fond memories of my time as a camper at various camps. While I enjoyed each one, it’s hard to beat the one that was located just 15 miles from my house. After a quick drive down a farm-to-market road and a few curves down a county road you arrived at “camp”. As you drove along the white fence, you noticed the huge American and Texas flags waving proudly out by the road. When you turned in you were greeted by two of the nicest individuals and you couldn’t wait to jump out of the car and begin your adventure! So after a quick hug goodbye to Mom and Dad…..it was HELLO Camp Grandma and Grandpa!!!

What an awesome place to spend just about every weekend and many summer days…..it was literally a summer camp that lasted ALL year! It was a place for creativity, skill building, fellowship, adventure and FUN. Not to mention we (my brother, cousin and I) could do just about anything we wanted…..and we did!

There is no telling how many bike ramps we built, go-carts, 4-wheelers, or dirt bikes we rode, clay pigeons we shot, fish we caught, guitars we played, trails we trimmed, Blue Bell ice we devoured or bacon sandwiches we ate. The possibilities were endless and if for some reason you were bored, someone was quick to dream up the next adventure!

One of my favorite memories is Grandpa sitting at the only spot he ever sat at, at the picnic table, smoking a cigarette and giving us grandkids a challenge….something he LOVED to do! The challenge entailed each grand kid riding the go-cart, 4-wheeler or dirt bike around the property for 15 minutes in which we were to return with an exciting, fictional story of what occurred during our ride. Needless to say we came back with some pretty creative stories- from the bear that chased us to the bubble gum weapon we used to defend the bear.

He was also excellent at mental math and loved to give us math equations at the dinner table that weren’t overly difficult, but certainly made you think. After all, unless you used your carrots as a calculator you had to really exercise your brain power to find a solution to his questions.

On the other hand, when we got the bright idea to build or create something Grandma was always there to help out. I don’t know how many pools, rafts or boats she repaired so that the fun would never end. She always seemed to be the one picking up a lot of the tree limbs as we cut new trails through the woods for mountain bikes and 4-wheelers.

I also spent many hours with her learning to sew and created what I thought were works of art at the time, but looking back would be considered a good effort. And of course like any good Grandma we spent a lot of time in the kitchen baking and cooking…not to mention she made sure we wore plenty of sunscreen, stayed hydrated and took lots of breaks! 😉

It’s fair to say, Grandma and Grandpa’s house was the place to be! From swimming in the lake, jumping on the water trampoline, paddling around in the paddle boats, fishing for catfish, racing RC boats, building and creating things and everything in between, Rancho Delores will always hold a special place in my heart. Creativity was abundant, skill building was endless and living quarters were above a bunk bed in a cabin of 20. I’m thankful that it wasn’t a place to be visited just one time a year, but year round…..it was summer camp that lasted ALL year!