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1976 bat is reminder of a sport I let slip away

Over the years, you accumulate things that you think may have some value or may be useful from time to time, or to which you have a sentimental attachment. A lot of it is useless stuff, and your kids won't know what to do with it when you check out.

My aerie where I write contains hundreds of items like badges and books and golf scorecards and photographs.

One that gets scant attention, because it is around a corner from where I suffer, is a baseball bat, a Louisville Slugger with the world "Powerized" and a lightning bolt branded in its blonde skin.

On the rare occasions that I do take it down and heft it, though, the years fall away and I am a barefoot kid in short pants and no shirt playing in the dust of an unkempt field somewhere back yonder, when, as a poet named Mary Gilmore wrote, "My world was larger then, quieter, safer, and greener, too. Daddies were taller, trees were shadier, trips were longer, and Saturdays were a long way apart."

One of the regrets of my career, and my life, for that matter, is that I let baseball get away from me -- not the playing of it, but the passion of it that engulfs so many.

I've always thought I could have been a good player because I was good when I was a kid, good enough to play with adults and better than most of them.

I made the high school team but I'm almost certain that was because I was then writing for the old Charlotte News, covering high school sports. I had already spent too much time away from baseball, skipping from childhood to my teen years, and I couldn't catch up. Then, when a crazy wild pitcher plunked me in the ribs with a fastball during batting practice, I decided to devote my time to editing the school newspaper, working for the News and clerking at the Big Star grocery.

I spent many years covering Charlotte's minor league teams and the bat is a souvenir of one of those teams, the 1976 Charlotte Orioles. I wrote about Cal Ripken, Minnie Mendoza, Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva, and Graig Nettles, and those summer nights still echo in my memory. That was a good beat to work. The games mattered to us because we knew the players, and we didn't have pro football or pro basketball shouldering the team aside.

The arrival of those two sports giants, along with the removal of the local nine from what is now Southend across the state line into South Carolina, greatly diminished the baseball team. It became easy to stay away.

I keep an eye on the Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs, White Sox, Braves and Phillies, read essays about the stars, keep track of pennant races, but I don't read a lot of box scores, don't play in a fantasy league, couldn't name three guys who play for the Cincinnati Reds.

And that's not the way I would have had it. I wish I had embraced it with more passion, but life happened.

I know there is a deep spiritual meaning in baseball. I stand in awe of its history and tradition. I understand and applaud every parent who takes a kid to a game -- not kid league stuff, but a game in a ballpark where everything is man-sized and infielders can turn impossible double plays and home runs fly forever.

I let it get away or it let me get away. But from time to time, I take down the bat and I'm a player again. I take a stance and wait for an imaginary fast ball, one that doesn't get me in the ribs.