The view from behind the plate

A friend of mine asked me to help him out with his baseball team this week while I was on vacation. He knew I'd played catcher all through Little League and high school, so he wanted me to give his catchers a few pointers. I was all too glad to oblige.

I haven't been on a baseball field in quite a few years, and the last time was as an umpire, so I was looking forward to it. I saw a chance to help some kids and do a little reconnecting with my childhood. I had no idea how much.

As soon as I walked out there I felt at home. There's just something about a baseball field. It's kind of like Ray Liotta's speech in "Field of Dreams" in which he talks about the sights, the sounds, the smells, about how he'd "have played for nothing" - unless you've played baseball I don't think you quite understand those feelings.

They started with some windsprints and throwing drills, and then pretty soon we were headed for the infield for batting practice. The first catcher started gearing up, and I was immediately envious.

Watching that kid strap on those shin guards and that chest protector brought back a lot of memories. Johnny Bench and Carlton Fisk were my heroes as a kid. The first time I set foot on a baseball, I told the coach I wanted to catch. He put me in the outfield, of course, since I knew nothing about catching.

But in the last game, I got the call. "Suit up," the coach said. I didn't have to be told twice.

It was everything I'd thought it would be. In the outfield, you stood out there wearing a bare patch in the grass and hoping they'd hit to you so you'd feel like you were in the game. Behind the plate, you got to wear that suit of armor and be in on every play - now that was playing baseball.

After that, whenever I joined a new team I headed for that little patch of dirt behind home plate. Along the line, I played some first base, some third, even a stint at shortstop back when I was a lot thinner and faster. But home was always my home.

I watched that kid don his helmet and mask, grab his mitt and crouch down behind home, and all I could think of was trading places. Jeez, has it really been 30 years since that first time behind the plate? Twenty since the last time? I remember them both like yesterday.

But now my spot was on the sidelines, watching. Every now and then I'd go over and show the kids something: turn the mitt over on low pitches, always keep the ball in front of you, if you can't catch it, knock it down, get that mask off on a wild pitch so you can see - I still remembered all of it.

One kid had a hard time getting the ball all the way to second on a steal- his first year on a bigger field - so I shared the same tip with him that a coach shared with me a long time ago: Aim for the edge of the grass and bounce it in. Then I tried to show him and was reminded of why I had to quit. I could barely get it past the pitcher's mound. I guess blown out arms don't heal themselves.

But despite that one little depressing bit, I had a great time, even if I wasn't wearing the gear. And hopefully, I helped those kids a little.

But probably not as much as they helped me.

E-mail Nate McCullough at nate.mccullough@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Fridays.