By IAN NELSON
When I was 13, Mike Mittelman made me feel like a major league ball player. On those summer evenings in Davidson, I would bend over out of habit to gather a handful of dirt, and as I started to rub the sandy earth between my bare hands, Mr. Mittelman would announce to the thick summer night from his press box perch above McEver Field, “Number 7, Ian Nelson.” Right foot dug into the batter’s box, left foot poised outside the chalked line, I would look down the third base line at Coach Case. A touch to the brim of his hat, then to his left forearm, and finally a swipe across his chest: OK, hit away. And we would, we would hit and field and slump and rally and try to escape from the relentless march towards growing up.
Renovations at McEver Fields
McEver Fields, at the end of South Street across from Davidson Elementary School, are closed for repairs June 11-July 23. It’s the first time in five years the fields are being improved, according to Davidson Parks & Recreation officials.
Workers are adding materials to the infields and outfields at all three fields to level the playing surfaces and improve safety.
“This is typically a project that should be undertaken every few years, and now is the perfect time to do this work,” Ron McMillan, Davidson public works operations supervisor, said in a press release.
The improvements will include removing a “big lip” that has formed over time where the infield and outfield meet, causing unpredictable hops and bounces, and endangering players.
Athletics Supervisor Harold Voelker said the fields will be ready “and in prime condition” for the annual PONY baseball tournament the week of July 23. While the work is under way, Davidson Youth Baseball Association and other groups are being accommodated at other fields, including River Run and Bradford parks.
We couldn’t wait to play on the PONY field, the big stage. It was the second field on the right as you drove down South Street. The weathered and mended wooden fence stood twelve feet as it hugged the outfield grass that Mr. Harold Jolly so dutifully mowed. Mr. Ellithorpe would tend to the infield with his riding lawn mower, driving in smaller and smaller circles, dragging behind him a piece of chain-link fence rigged and weighted in such a way that it smoothed the rust-colored space between the bases. Some kids had been waiting a generation to play. Wyatt Rivens’ uncles were great ball players, but I can’t believe that they could make it around the bases quite as fast as he could. Wyatt’s uncanny speed won us the Bronco All-Star Sectional Tournament in 1992. The stories that crept off that field were the mythology of my youth. And how could they not be when Andy Ellithorpe really did reach all the way across home plate and turn an intentional walk into a cannon shot over the right field fence.
Those folkloric moments frame my memory of a time and place that are more than half a lifetime from where I sit now. Tournaments won and games lost were preceded by the dependable rituals of the upcoming season. My dad would buy my brothers and me new gloves before the uncompromising summer heat settled in. The color of the leather was less important than how the cow’s hide collapsed around my right fist as I slammed it into the pocket of the glove, a test of things to come. With a baseball nestled between the thumb and forefinger, you needed five or six rubber bands to hold and set the fold of the glove. Once the rubber bands had done their job, I would smooth amber glove oil into the twists and turns of the mitt. The sheen from the oil accentuated the cracks and creases in my hand and gave the glove a seal skin luster. Between pitches, I found myself working my glove the way a baker kneads his dough, reaffirming our partnership again and again. When I grew nervous, I comforted myself by chewing on the dangling rawhide laces that held my mitt together. It tasted slightly sweet, if a little gritty. Coach Plank would say that with a properly formed glove, you should be able to pick up a quarter out of the outfield grass.
McEver Field and Davidson Youth Baseball were deliberately renewed and nourished in a way not unlike my care for my glove. The governing board set the ball in the pocket by writing fundraising letters, agreeing on policy, and organizing Hot Dog Day. The families that volunteered in the concession stand, took care of the fields, and cheered us on were the rubber bands that established the culture of McEver Field and held the institution together. The coaches tended to us in the same way that I would knead my glove. They were the oil that conditioned and reaffirmed the whole operation. In the end, only the combination of these things allowed for us to be taken in by the narrative of McEver Field and be released from our entanglements like quarters being plucked out of the grass. It was a sanctuary in this way, but not just for us kids. There were no doctors down at McEver field. Dr. Hess, Dr. Plank, Dr. Manning, Dr. Williams and my dad dropped their two-letter titles, pulled on ball caps, and relished being called “coach.” It was an escape for them, too. The narrative of McEver Field lured them in, as much as it did us. My good friend Mike Harney took a couple of economics classes from Dr. Hess while at Davidson College. He seemed particularly impressed with his laser-like precision answering nuanced questions in class. I told him, “That’s nothing. You should try to hit Coach Hess’s fork ball.”
My glove was part of who I was during the summer. The coaches down at McEver field made sure we all had gloves, even though not every family could afford them. We shared everything else: batting helmets, aluminum bats, catcher’s mitts and pads, sunflower seeds, and Big League Chew. If you were on deck, and two or more people were on base, you were inevitably anxious about the batting helmet situation. You wouldn’t think that the head size of 13-year-old boys could vary so much, but it was our version of Goldie Locks and Three Bears. In trying to squeeze into the small helmet I was afraid that I might scrape off my ears, and the big helmet made my head feel like the clapper inside of a church bell. Damon Kerns swung from his hip, spinning about his right foot, almost pirouetting when he missed. The big helmet was liable to rattle clean off his head if he really stepped into one. And if you got going fast around the bases, you’d run right out of the big helmet. Wyatt had to hold onto his helmet after only a few steps. I didn’t have to start worrying about it flying off until I rounded first.
But we shared more than just baseball equipment. Our summer pastime united as a community, on the field and in the stands. The railroad tracks that split the town into East and west sides are a reminder of the discriminatory history of our small southern town. But despite the weight of an ugly past, we gathered together at McEver Field. We also came together as we traveled to away games. The trip to Mallard Creek was like a follow-up visit to your proctologist – not quite sure what’s in store, but pretty sure it’s not going to be pleasant. We got the same reception there as Derek Jeter gets when he runs out on the infield at Fenway Park.
Back home, at McEver Field, my mom would grow anxious as the click-clack of opposing team’s metal cleats scarred the concrete behind the cracked and worn wooden bleachers. She probably only watched half of the time when one of us was pitching or at bat, turning away or covering her eyes, but she was always there, even if it was the hottest place on earth for those seven innings. McEver Field was where my little brother had his first kiss and where he learned how to spit, though not in that order. It was where Mr. Ellithorpe taught my older brother how to keep the score book, a summer art. It was where my Dad dogmatically used his wooden bat to hit fungos during outfield practice. As kids, it was where strangely philosophical debates were waged over how many wax-covered paper cups should be precisely crumpled together to make the ball for our epic cupball games. We would scrounge up four makeshift bases and place them about 15 feet apart in an elongated diamond. The cupball field was a narrow nook between the right field of the pony field and the left field of the bronco field. A ragged section of chain-link fence was our Green Monster, and we would take turns slapping at the cupball with our open hands, recreating a bare boned version of the pastime being played just a few feet away. Occasionally a skirmish would interrupt our game as we fought to retrieve a foul ball from the PONY game. With the 25-cent reward for each foul ball returned, you had a real decision to make as you made your way to the concession stand to gather your bounty: an Airhead or a pack of Now-and-Laters.
As a kid I knew that there was more to McEver Field than the clichéd and overly cute Norman Rockwell images of kids playing ball. I had an attachment to the place. Not in the way a seven-year-old becomes infatuated with a new toy, but in a way that you only come to realize when you enter the third decade of your life. At the time, I did not have the wisdom, or cultural lens through which to observe and recognize the things that made it that way; I just knew. Now I have come to better understand the complexities and the diverse community that cradled those three fields and the families that came to play and watch. My parents were among many who made a concerted effort to create and maintain the community at McEver Field. It took foresight, sweat, a sense of equality, and a love of a pastime. There are moments when I wonder if some of my singular memories were colored by the idealism of youth, romanticized by a naïve recollection. I can’t be sure about each moment, but I am sure of the totality. The triumph of McEver Field was only achieved through a dedicated community and needed no embellishment or nostalgic reworking.
McEver Field is not the same, and we are not the same either. Some of us have traded in our baseball caps and stirrups for lab coats, diplomatic clearances, and businesses that bear our names. Laboriously constructed and maintained, the community that was manifested at McEver Field was real and powerful, but it had its limits and the efforts of so many could only reach so far. As we stopped playing together on those summer nights, life took hold and pulled us along in difference directions. But none of us could have predict how quickly and tragically some of our paths would diverge. Wyatt and Damon’s lives ended violently, and their deaths gripped our community. The church on Jetton Street couldn’t hold all of us at Wyatt’s funeral. Too many people needed to, but didn’t want to say goodbye. As I sat beside my mom and dad in the back of the church, I couldn’t stop picturing his big smile wrapped in a pinstriped uniform. But no amount of examination or recollection will ever make sense of why Wyatt and Damon are dead and I am left writing this remembrance of place that we shared. We found sanctuary while we played inside the chalked lines at McEver Field, but we couldn’t escape from the world outside the lines. McEver Field couldn’t save us all.
Ian Nelson is a Davidson native, the son of Randy and Susan Nelson. He graduated from Davidson College in 2002 and now lives in Asheville, where he is the high school math curriculum coach for Asheville City Schools.