Nothing like summer baseball

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Football and basketball are still locked out. The Women's World Cup, the British Open and Nathan's Hog Dog Eating Contest have all come and gone. The Roger Clemens trial was over before it started.

All we have is baseball. God bless the summer game.

How many of you remember playing summer baseball? Who remembers when your next baseball game was the only thing that mattered?

Growing up in Central Massachusetts, I played all the traditional programs of pre-college baseball -- Little League, Pony League, Babe Ruth and high school. Little League and high school ball were highly structured and the season was always over by early June. Pony League and Babe Ruth were different. There was less structure, fewer rules; not as many coaches and parents getting in the way of our fun. We played when it was hot outside. Summer ball was always the most fun.

There was no AAU baseball option when I grew up. In my view, this was fortunate. Fast-track AAU programs take kids away from their friends and suck joy out of the sport. There's nothing like playing summer baseball with your friends.

Our summer coach was usually Mr. Van Hoogan, a brilliant man who moved to our town from Chicago in the early 1960s. Mr. Van Hoogan was one of those rare guys who continued to coach even after his kids were done playing. He lived down the street from me and would often pick me up at my house and give me a ride to the field.

Mr. Van Hoogen's right arm was useless due to a childhood bout with polio, but it wasn't much of a handicap. With help from our catcher, the man could hit one-armed fungoes and smoke a cigarette simultaneously. He also had a spectacular vocabulary. More than once I raced home to crack open our family dictionary and learn the meaning of "nefarious" or "cahoots.''

In summer ball, we sometimes played against a team that couldn't start an inning after sundown due to religious convictions. Our games started at 6 p.m., so whenever we played Lancaster we always wanted to make sure we had a safe lead and played five full innings before sunset. When the sun was gone, so was the Lancaster team bus.

We didn't have a bus. We commuted to our road games in the back of Mr. Freidrich's green Ford pickup. It would never be allowed today -- 11 teen boys rattling around the flatbed as Mr. Friedrich cruised the bumpy back roads of Pepperell, Ayer, Shirley, Littlleton, Acton and Bolton. Certainly today the boys would have to be secured by seat belts in an air conditioned Greyhound.

Mr. Friedrich's son, Albane, was our shortstop. He was rugged, strong, totally without grace. Like an ice hockey goalie, Albane used his entire body to knock down grounders, then make the throw to first. We called him, "shortstop without a glove.'' At the plate, he went for the fences on every pitch and often struck out with Reggie Jackson flair. Whiffing never bothered Albane. In an effort on infinite consideration, Albane once fell down swinging at strike three, then sat down next to a struggling rookie teammate and said, "I hope you know I did that just to make you feel good.''

Some things you never forget. Our centerfielder never washed his uniform. Our third baseman liked Hawaiian Moon ice cream. Our first baseman, Buzzy, had a dad who served as assistant coach. We called him "Big Daddy Buzz.''

We knew the umpire and called him by his first name: Jake. One of the Groton dads saw Jake picking up a six pack at a local liquor store on a gameday afternoon and asked, "is that for before, or after the game?''

My best/worst memory of summer ball came in 1967 when my sister Mary's wedding fell smack in the middle of the Pony League playoffs.

I'd like to say this was my Sandy Koufax, Yom Kippur moment, but that would be a lie. Koufax willingly blew off the World Series because he wanted to honor his faith. Dan Shaughnessy, on the other hand, was dragged kicking and screaming to his sister's wedding (serving as an altar boy, no less), while his teammates squared the best-of-three Groton-Westford series force a third and deciding game.

Like Koufax, I was the starting pitcher in the culmination game when I came back from my holy day of obligation.

Unlike Koufax, I was throwing meatballs and was shelled by the heart of the Westford batting order in the middle innings.

We lost.

As far as I was concerned, that was the end of the summer of 1967. No more baseball.