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SPOTLIGHT
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Setting them down, one by one

Published on -6/20/2013, 9:33 AM

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I decided to be patriotic on Memorial Day, so ate a piece of apple pie and attended a baseball game.

Taking yourself out to the ball game is more expensive than it once was. My daughter and son-in-law, Michelle and Peter Doherty, took me to the state-of-the-art stadium where the Washington Nationals play baseball, and we watched them lose to the Baltimore Orioles.

We were ushered into this shiny new facility while the teams were hitting batting-practice fly balls. The parking cost $42, and the seats were $67 each -- but at least a smiling attendant dusted off the seats before we sat down.

We paid $10 for hamburgers and $10 for peanuts and $4.75 for soft drinks. Some fellows behind us were handing over $10 apiece for the beers they obviously enjoyed.

This all-American outing cost the three of us more than $300, and that doesn't even include gasoline for the car. I don't know how the average family can afford this, but the stadium was full. Oh yes, I spent an additional $22 for my handsome Nationals baseball cap.

Back in the old days, when I pitched for the Downs town team, the caps and uniforms were free to the players and the admission to our games was 50 cents. We attracted 200 to 300 fans -- but that was before TV and air conditioners lured most of the fans indoors.

Almost every town boasted a baseball team in those post-World War II days. We played teams from Harlan, Portis and Ionia (which was the smallest town I ever saw but fielded one of the best teams in the country). We also played Cawker City and Glen Elder and Osborne, along with Lebanon and Smith Center and Stockton and Mankato, plus the Nebraska towns of Red Cloud and Guide Rock.

Occasionally, a local team played an exhibition with the barnstorming Kansas City Monarchs. This fabulous black team never played in Downs, but I once watched their legendary Satchel Paige pitch one inning at Franklin, Neb. Old Satch called all of the fielders but one to the bench and proceeded to strike out the side.

While the Downs team didn't face the Monarchs, we put together a Northern Kansas League all-star team that met the House of David barnstormers. That team was made up of professional ball players, and I can't say much about them except that they all wore beards, which was quite unusual at the time.

Then, one summer night, our Downs team whipped a neighboring town about 20-0 and made that town's baseball fanatics really mad. So, they hired five semi-pros from a western Kansas oil field team (or so we were told), and these guys showed up at the Downs Celebration tournament with blood in their eyes.

The visiting pitcher strutted around the grandstand before the game and bet several local sports fans Downs wouldn't have five hits in the nine-inning contest. I was especially tickled when I lined a double for our fifth hit which lost all of those bets for him.

Mostly, we played for the fun and exercise and any small bit of glory that we could manage to attract. We usually played on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays and won quite a few victories, because we were the only outfit in that part of the state that had three decent pitchers.

Everyone played for blood in those days, and the sportsmanship left something to be desired. One Sunday afternoon, when we should have been contemplating the Golden Rule, we irritated a neighboring town's baseball fans. Whatever the cause, a crowd of men rushed out of the grandstand and was bearing down on the baseball diamond where we stood.

That's when a usually mild-mannered fellow on the Downs team grabbed a baseball bat and waved it in defiance. A few other Downs players also grabbed baseball bats and waved them. That is the exact point in time when those fans halted, ruminated about the matter, and decided they weren't mad after all. They went back and sat down.

I could reflect on other examples of sportsmanship, but won't do it to protect the guilty. But please don't think that such behavior was common because most of these players were our friends in later years. They were just overly enthusiastic.

In retrospect, those were grand events (pieces of Americana) that should be chronicled with due respect. I do recall that, whenever I met a teammate or former enemy in later years, we always had something to discuss. What startled me the most was how much better we all became as our athletic feats were told and retold.

Darrel Miller lives near Downs in rural Osborne County and is a retired weekly newspaper editor.

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