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On The Trail

Telephone ramble

I’m upbeat on a gray morning, steaming Tom White cup of black coffee on the Queen Anne stand beside me, killing time in front of the boob tube before my daily walk with the dogs. The phone rings. It’s a dear old friend who’s had a tough go the past year. We share a precious friendship, one formed on the softball diamond, where, if the guy making out the lineup was worth his salt, he’d pencil us back-to-back, the big guy before me. That way, I could coach him through the hitter’s checklist from the on-deck circle.

“Relax,” I’d sooth with confident aggression. “Hands loose, eye on the ball, give it a ride.”

My big, rugged buddy was a great listener. Sad he never had the luxury of good coaching. His independent streak made it difficult to obey public-school rules and regs, just one of many fine country ballplayers who fell through the cracks in a system that didn’t recognize his gifts. Years later, with my diamond skills greatly diminished by age and injury, we fed off each other like only special teammates can, and no one can ever break the strong bond between us, even now, after all these years, still loyal pals, savoring a rare connection worth maintaining.

Fact is I seldom talk or write about my baseball days, have moved on after staying too long. Readers often ask why I don’t venture back to the diamond. They know I have stories to tell, some that would make crew-cut coaches cringe, maybe even fire off letters to the editor accusing me of irresponsibility for telling the naked truth. That threat doesn’t scare me. No, I guess I just don’t feel like writing about my ballplaying daze. Not now, anyway. I’m sure the day will come. But still, whenever the big guy calls, which is not often, our warm conversation always drifts onto the smaller diamond of my twilight years, and I do step briefly down those worn dugout steps before breaking free to re-enter the real world of daily routine. Always entertaining, our conversations often trigger gut-busting laughs from both ends of the phone. We traipse from one subject to another like hummingbirds flittering from flower to flower, and many a tale is unprintable in a family paper. As usual, the big guy hit on three or four subjects that opened a hot geyser of light banter and deep thought, revved me up, so to speak. The salient four topics were bears, cougars, presidential politics and Over-30 Baseball. They got my wheels spinning, none more than the political seed that germinated into risqué reflection that could stir hard feelings in some readers — a chance you take when sharing deep introspection. Why hold back? I can handle the heat.

Let’s begin with the harmless matter of black bears, though, and the fact that they’re still pestering my bear-like buddy in his Miller River neighborhood. There, they seem to enjoy making mincemeat of his birdfeeders and ripping open his trash when given the opportunity. But the big guy is plenty cool with it. He kinda likes bears, would like to get to know them, was even once foolish enough to get up close and personal with an injured bruin, calmly talking to a big limping beast from within spitting distance in his yard before coming to his senses and thinking, “Hey, Man, what are you? Freakin’ nuts or something? This beast could hurt you.” This, mind you, from a man who’d physically blend nicely into any corner of an NFL locker room reserved only for the largest hogs. Because he mentioned bears, I told him I had finally heard from MassWildlife about the preliminary September harvest, which was a record 168, less than half the annual total needed to stabilize a burgeoning Bay State oppulation. Still, there’s no denying 168 is better than 68, so don’t complain. According to the email received that arrived last Thursday, the previous-best September harvest was 142 in 2003 and 2004.

Our bear discussion didn’t linger. No, instead it leapt straight toward the historic king of New England predators — cougars or mountain lions or panthers or catamounts. Whatever you want to call them, believe it, they’re on the comeback trail. I had to tell him about another sighting reported to me this week, it right there in his neighborhood. Yes, it seems one Bill Morris, more than familiar with cougars as a former Southern Californian, drove right up to the long-tailed beast in his Erving driveway just before dark a couple of weeks back. He got a clear, close look before the beast ambled off into the woods in no great hurry, headed toward Rattlesnake and Northfield mountains, where others have reported seeing cougars. My buddy wasn’t surprised. He is one of many eastern Franklin County residents who’s seen a cougar, his spotted side of the road while driving through Wendell.

Soon our little chat predictably swung from wildlife to the softball diamond. He wanted to reminisce about the good old days when we’d pull into a ballpark complex for weekend semi-fast tournaments in Athol or Worcester or Gloucester, Turners Falls, Shelburne Falls or Whately. The local semi-fast leagues lasted until about 1990, when they and all other local competitive men’s softball died a sudden death. My buddy tried to hang on by playing in an over-30 baseball league, which he said quickly devolved into a hapless joke when the best players fled in boredom. I admitted to knowing little and caring less about over-30 leagues but couldn’t resist sharing with him the hot summer day I stopped on a whim along the raised shoulder overlooking Herlihy Park in Whately to briefly watch such a game while devouring a pleasing large vanilla waffle cone from Pasiecnik’s adjacent creemee stand. I watched six tiresome outs and left wondering how that game could satisfy anyone’s competitive juices. The skill-level was pathetic, a far cry from the days when cars lined that same elevated lip to view the likes of Eddie Skribiski, Matty Murphy, Mike Perenteau, Bobby Bourbeau, Glen Desjkavich, Raul DeHoyos and many, many other pretty-fair country ballplayers strutting their stuff for the annual Frontier Men’s League Tournament. Those players carried themselves like athletes, turned double plays like grizzled vets, a far cry from what I witnessed that day in Whately. No wonder those coed leagues are the new rage. Must be the fringe benefits justify the travel expenses. Just an educated guess.

Finally, the big guy and I surprisingly ventured into maiden territory, discussing, of all things, presidential politics, a subject I didn’t anticipate and wouldn’t initiate. He must know where I stand from what he’s read, but I would have never surmised he’s an outspoken Obama man. In fact, the big guy harbors genuine dislike for Romney, didn’t hesitate to label the man a liar. Good news, I guess, for Democratic operatives. Imagine that: a big, white, 50-something, former farm boy and ballplayer repulsed by the concept of a Romney Administration. Trust me, the man is not one of these ivory-tower eggheads pejoratively referred to as “secular progressives” by the likes of Hanitty or O’Reilly and Rush. No, this is a simple working man, the type of rugged individual the Romney machine assumes it can manipulate to their cause with hateful, race-baiting, guns-God-and-gays rhetoric. Well, it hasn’t worked with my big lovable buddy, and I hope there are many others like him. The wild card up Obama’s sleeve is Romney’s low likeability factor. Here we have a president ripe for the plucking and the other side marches out a staid corporate stuffed shirt who’s doorknob dull. Then Romney has the audacity to pick a right-wing ideologue for his running mate. I wish everyone in America could read Matt Taibbi’s “Rolling Stone” piece from a few weeks back about Romney’s Bain Capital. If widely read, my guess is that even folks totally disenchanted with Obama would choose to sit out the election rather than vote for Romney, ripped by Taibbi as among the filthiest of capitalist swine.

With the phone call behind me, I was walking the dogs through Sunken Meadow, thinking ahead to an evening discussion I’ll lead next Thursday at the Ashfield Bullitt Reservation, and my mind skipped backward, reopening that provoking Romney vein, which bled straight into peripheral reflection about our furious Brown/Warren race. Although I don’t know what my buddy thinks about Warren, I’m not afraid to admit I’m pulling for her. The woman has guts. In his 2010 book “Gritopia,” Taibbi savages Wall Street and our lap-dog government overseeing it. In the same breath, he praises Warren as one of the few honest politicians left in America. My guess is that Warren will ride Obama’s coattails to victory. I can’t foresee many voters selecting Obama and Pretty-Boy Brown in one fell swoop. Which pulls me straight into that previously mentioned mischievous though train. I must say I chuckle at the frustrated housewives proudly sporting Warren stickers on their bumpers these days. They too admire Warren’s guts, but with pure envy. Trapped in bad places, outspoken on community chat boards, Twitter, Facebook and maybe even during parent-teacher conferences, they are, once inside their home threshold, reduced to voiceless servants dominated and demeaned by half-wit spouses. Behind closed doors, these women can only fanaticize about growing guts like Warren’s. They publicly deny their husbands’ support for Pretty Boy after he bludgeons Warren with his sarcastic “Professor” moniker to whip up that blue-collar throng howling the Braves’ chant on debate-hall steps. Meanwhile, their subservient wives wear their best Prozak smiles to the mini-mart counter, take the roundabout route to bawl their way home, and stand outside the polling place defiantly holding large Warren signs high and proud. It’s all show.

Enough! Gotta go. Lily and Chubby are waiting for another romp.

Recorder sports editor Gary Sanderson is a longtime member of the outdoor-writers associations of America and New England. Read his blog at tavernfare.com. Send email to gary@oldtavernfarm.com.

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