Now that Padres’ pitchers and catchers have at long last reported, let’s celebrate our national pastime’s timely return, knock on wood, with a little local lore, hardball-style.

Before the old high-school and Pony League baseball diamond down by the bay at the foot of B Avenue was bulldozed to make way for today’s ferry-landing development, I’d managed to (ahem) surreptitiously “salvage” the center-field fence’s big, plywood, “356” sign, which I’ve kept snugly tucked away under my mattress ever since ‘82, when the long-gone ballpark was razed. In my day, a dinger to dead-center was a modest 356-foot poke, where just beyond the rickety green fence loomed the bay, meaning homers became floaters. Classic! Splish-splash.

In those bygone days, we used real-deal wooden bats, mostly “Powerized” Hillerich & Bradsby Louisville Sluggers. My favorite go-to “signature” shillelaghs (a little Mark “Mudcat” Grant lingo) were the Jackie Robinson, Nelson Fox, Henry Aaron (sigh), Mickey Mantle, and Roberto Clemente (my favorite player) models, each with its own shape, each with its own “feel.” Give me the distinctive, solid ker-rack of wood over the puny, tinny ping of aluminum every day of the week and twice on Sundays. When I close my eyes, I can again hear and feel the crack of the bat. Heavenly! Often during the most solid contact, with the loudest ker-rack, you wouldn’t feel a thing. No sting. No bees in the hands. Only sweetness, like a perfectly-struck tee shot from an old persimmon driver.

Back to hardball...where once in a while, wicked line drives would be spanked off the wall on a frozen rope, reaching the 356 in the blink of an eye. Doink! Clang! And in the sweetest of dreams, I see God’s own fastball with my name written all over it, waiting to

be whacked. My beady eyes bulge as I jump all over His high heater. With an effortless

swing and a lightning-quick flick of the wrists, the innocent, unsuspecting baseball is sent flying over the fence, across the bay, out of the world, and screaming into orbit. Outasight!

Like massive taters mashed into the stratosphere, “to infinity and beyond,” mimicking one of big Frank Howard’s towering moon shots, just like the one I remember him crushing in that

classic 1969 Nestle’s Quik commercial. “Hondo” Howard stood 6’ 8’’ and weighed in at 280 chiseled pounds: one very tall drink of water, and a most intimidating presence at the plate!

He clobbered 382 round-trippers for the L.A. Dodgers and the old Washington Senators; and was once manager of the then-hopelessly hapless Padres. While playing for the equally hapless Senators, big Frank Howard was dubbed “The Washington Monument”, and best of all, perhaps, he was known as “The Capitol Punisher,” Apt, and apt! Let’s return to Earth.

I loved when my Coronado Little League team had the early, Saturday-morning game. By design, I’d get to the bayside ball field way too early, my sweet Schwinn Stingray and I flying all the way, my trusty Rawlings “Brooks Robinson” baseball mitt hooked over the handlebar, its well-oiled “Heart of the Hide” leather flapping against the bike frame. I can almost smell the citrus in the air, mixing with the “fragrance” of the bay. I can see the early-morning dew sparkling upon the green grass of the infield, outlined by the white gypsum of freshly-drawn foul lines. Always jump over the line. Never step on it. Look, but don’t touch. Superstitious?

Completely. That’s Baseball 101.

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