Friday, February 15, 2013
On the field, he was in the tradition of Eisenhower, I swear. Not Patton, Eisenhower. He was, by character, not a pusher or a screamer, but someone who, back then, led by sheer example.
He was a catcher, the catcher, the field general of our baseball team--of our teams really, because the two of us played ball on the same team from fifth grade to high school graduation, 1966. I don't remember playing anywhere other third base, and I can't begin to imagine anyone else behind the plate.
He was and is quintessential to my childhood because, as a kid, nothing moved me like baseball. I loved basketball too and even learned to love football. Track was fun, but winning was totally singular--if I did well, it was only me who did it, no one else. Baseball required nine of us, a team.
And we were good at baseball. Six months ago, I swear, sifting through a lifetime of trinkets and goofy fetishes meaningless to anyone else, I tossed a bunch, including a baseball that had no words scribbled on it, no autographs, nothing to distinguish it from any scrub ball you could pick up in the weeds behind some small-town diamond. I knew what it was because in our last league game, the championship, that baseball ended up in my Rawlings and stayed with me from my eighteenth year, a museum piece.
I threw it away in June because I figured no one would ever treasure it, no child of mine would ever want it, and as far as I knew no one on earth knew its origins and worth. Now I wish I hadn't.
I wish I could hold it right now because the catcher died this week, didn't wake up one night, wasn't sick or in hospice care, simply didn't wake up; and in a way, I'm envious, not because he's gone--I'm sure he wouldn't have chosen to leave, nor would I; but because the end came so neatly that anyone his age, me included, can't help but hope for something roughly similar.
And it wasn't like him to die without a fight because he was a competitor. I have film clips in my memory I'll never lose--the way squatted behind home, the way he'd hover on his feet to block those drop balls Reggie didn't quite get to the plate, the way he'd roar when describing some kid trying to get wood on one of those wild drops. I can see him showing us the whacky way those poor guys whiffed, I can hear the explosions of laughter, see the sweat around his forehead from the mask, hear the clacking of those shin guards he'd wear even when we weren't on the field. And I'll always see him coming out from behind the plate to signal the outs with an upraised horned right fist, making dang sure everyone knew there were two down, one to go. Dead seriousness went into baseball, Oostburg, Wisconsin, mid-60s.
He was a public school kid and I wasn't, so even in a burg as small as the town we came from, he was a stranger for a while, even a villain, as all public school kids were. But we started playing ball together in pee-wees, the two of us and our good buddies totally enthralled with a rollicking coach we loved, dragged from town to town in a backseat with a few too many empty Blatz cans. By eighth grade, we played B-team, town softball, and what we called Pony League, minor leagues for high school baseball.
All those hours are still registered in my memory, even if the individual battles are long gone. In every last one of those memories, Herbie is behind the plate, the field general, running the show, forever running the show.
It doesn't surprise that his obituary says he umpired high school baseball for 30 years, doesn't surprise me at all. He was very much at home right there behind the plate.
In college, my coach took a look at my posterior, noted the strength of my arm, and decided I was going to be a catcher. I thought it was sacrilege. I never really dared to tell Herb because to me there could be no other catcher than Herb Roerdink.
My mother told me a story back then, a story about Herb long before his life began. She told me she'd always loved his dad because he was such a good time when she'd go over to visit her grandma in Oostburg. I asked her why Herb's dad was always there. She said Herb, Sr., was a nephew of my great-grandma, a woman I never knew. He was a nephew and an orphan because his parents died tragically in a fire in Oostburg more than a century ago. So my great-grandma had taken in little Herb, Sr., and raised him, when her own kids were already gone. "He was like a brother," my mother said. "He was so much fun."
It's probably a story that no one knows anymore, no one but my mother; but it's also a story that fills in the portrait of Herbie, the catcher, Herbie my friend, because he's always been, in a way, a relative. I honestly don't think I ever mentioned that story to him--it just didn't matter to the game.
But it mattered to me, and it still does, because it helps me understand why his death hit me so hard. There's a small town story there, a long story, a generational story that city folks will never, ever understand, and that's okay. In an odd way, Herb died in my world.
I've seen Herb only a few times in the last half-century. What's more, I'm an inveterate graveyard wanderer, and I read obits in local papers these days as if they were the news--because they are. But when an old high school friend sent me an e-mail and said Herbie was gone, I was stunned because my world was simply not the same.
I just wish I had that ball.
I won't miss him like his family will, but all week long, 500 miles away, believe me, I've mourned his passing.
To him, it won't be long at all before the rest of the team comes to where he is, and when it happens, good Lord!--I'd love to look down the line from third base to see the field general back there once more behind the plate. And then, once again, we'll play. And win.