The summer Mikey caught the fly ball

Staff WriterJune 30, 2009 

  • Maybe the excuse to frolic outside makes summer memories stick. Or maybe it's the sunscreen. What do you think?

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    Whatever it is, please share it with us. Send your best summer memory, with your name and phone number, to assistant features editor Adrienne Johnson Martin at adriennj@newsobserver.com. We'll publish the best of them this summer.

Summer will always remind me of bending open my softball glove, anticipating the pitch.

And holding my hand open as Mom poured out sunflower seeds from the big pack she always had.

And seeing my 7-year old baby brother, Mikey, eyes wide open, feet unsteady, baseball glove raised, tracking one elusive fly ball the summer of 1985.

I grew up at the ballpark, with every other kid in town, in Planada, Calif. (then-population 2,400).

It didn't matter what you were trying to do once school let out -- find a parent, go to practice, fetch a child, borrow money, flirt with boys/girls, get dinner, start trouble, play ball -- you went to Glenn Davis Ballpark to do it.

The ballpark was the Chavez summer hub, too. We all played. My dad John, who pitched at Arizona State, and my mom Mary Ellen ran the Planada recreation program for years. My parents and siblings Amanda and Johnny Joe coached. I ran the concession stand the summer I was 16.

As high school and college students, the Chavez girls -- me, Amanda, Gabby and Marisa -- spent Sundays at the park, watching the same boys we'd grown up with playing Mexican-American League baseball. Dad coached, and my grandpa Joe Redondo was always there cheering, "Es mi nieto!" (That's my grandson!) whenever Johnny Joe got a hit.

Dad coached three granddaughters -- Erica, Capri and Jessica -- to a softball title the last year he directed a rec team. It was a sad day when my nephew Dannon, the youngest to grow up in Planada, aged out of the program.

We love baseball, and we still share great memories with all the families we knew growing up. My sister Gabby and I gleefully tell the one about a boys' Pony League game the summer Art Parga -- star high-school athlete, brother of my third-grade teacher and the best-looking guy in town -- coached a team of Amanda and Gabby's classmates.

In the bottom of the seventh inning of a tight game, Gilbert Hernandez got a hit that allowed Jimmy Esquivel to try to score. Rounding third, booking toward home, Jimmy slipped on the turn and struggled to get to his feet.

Art, helpless in the third-base coach's box, screamed at Jimmy, urging on the potential winning run with both arms, begging, "Get up, Jimmy! Get up!"

I called Jimmy, now a retired Naval officer/helicopter pilot, last week to relive it. ("We won in extra innings. Same situation except I didn't slip," he said. We laughed about the time he cracked me in the jaw with a foul ball. "You were in the concession stand eating a hot dog," he said.)

I would have called Art, but he was killed in the line of duty with the Stockton, Calif., Police Department SWAT unit in 1993.

Art's death at age 31 was a huge loss for his family and for our small town. I am so glad I have a great Art Parga story. We're linked thanks to the ballpark, thanks to summer.

So you understand now why the memory of Mikey wrestling with that fly ball still binds my own family, especially during rocky times. That was a happy summer. Johnny Joe, now a junior high teacher, was home from the Army and coaching our brothers on the Broadway Market minor league team he nicknamed "the Green Machine."

I was sitting with Mom. Dad was overseeing things nearby. My brothers were in the game: Johnny Joe, coach and teller of tall tales; Nick, clean-up hitter and center fielder; Pete, the Kamikaze base runner and second baseman; and Mikey, rookie right fielder (typically a spot for the uninitiated and uncoordinated).

Mikey had not yet caught a fly ball in a game. So yes, we prayed as the ball sailed toward him and he tracked its descent while fighting the glare of the setting sun.

The ball slapped in Mike's glove, the force whipping his arm behind his head. He teetered left and swayed right.

Then his eyes popped open wide and he stretched his glove into the air, realizing the ball was tucked safely inside.

My dad yelled his approval. My mom's unmistakable two-finger whistle rang out then she hollered, "Way to go, mijo!"

Other Green Machinists -- I'm almost positive they were Michael Cisneros, Alex Gonzales and one, if not both, of the Flores twins, Jesus and Camilo -- ran out to celebrate with Mikey.

It was better than the movie "The Sandlot."

It was a Disney cliché set in the dusty California central valley.

If only it was the last out.

Johnny Joe and Pete were the only ones who hadn't stepped outside their minds during our brother's epic catch.

They both screamed as opponents tried to score.

"Two outs! Two outs! Throw the baaaaallll! Mikeeeeey!"

luciana.chavez@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4864

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