Growing up in leafy Leaside yields many benefits beyond the close proximity to great Bayview shopping, excellent schools, a wonderful public library, and quite a few parks. When you lived exactly one short block from Howard Talbot Park, one of the community’s true summer glories was strolling down the street in the evening, the warmth still rising from the pavement, to take in a ball game. As a kid living just up the street, all was right with the world when they played baseball in the park.
A sure sign of a ball game was the tractor driving around the infield in the afternoon dragging the mesh screen behind until the tiny grooves in the dirt were parallel and pristine. The white lime lines were meticulously laid down using this magical wheeled contraption that I always wanted to try. And finally, the brighter-than-white bases were hammered into the ground on the points of the diamond. It was almost game time. The teams would warm up tossing balls to one another in the outfield. Eventually, each team in turn would claim the infield so the coach could hit grounders. When we could see the field lights and hear the crackle of the PA system from our backyard, we knew it was time to head to the park.
Not that we needed any more evidence by that stage that baseball would be played that night, but the other incontrovertible evidence of a game was the ageless Howie Birnie parking his car in front of our house and sauntering toward the diamond. To say Howie has been a fixture around the Leaside Baseball Association imbues the lowly word “fixture” with far too much solidity and longevity. Howie Birnie has been president of the LBA since 1973. Yes, you read that right, 1973! He is Leaside baseball and always will be. Howie would play any number of roles during the games of my childhood, including umpiring, coaching, staffing the refreshment booth, and even passing the old coffee pot during the seventh inning stretch to raise money, one quarter at a time, for the association. It’s no wonder Howie has been inducted into the Leaside and Toronto Sports Halls of Fame, and the Ontario Baseball Hall of Fame.
What I loved most about those summer nights was when my dad would come down to the park with us to watch a few innings. My father was six foot six – most of it leg. He would walk towards the park at what to all outward appearances seemed like a normal, stately pace, while my twin brother Tim and I would literally trot beside him to keep up. Some nights we’d just stand at the top of the hill and watch. Other nights, we’d walk down the grass hill (well, Tim and I would invariably roll down the hill, the young kid’s standard mode of locomotion when grass hills were involved) and grab a bench in the bleachers for a closer perspective on the game.
If the constellations were aligned, Dad would underwrite a visit to the refreshment booth for a Coke or a Lola (and if you’re not familiar with Lolas, I’m afraid that deserves an entire column on its own!).
All these years later, that distinctive crack of bat against ball (or, for that matter, mention of the word “Lola”) immediately transports me back to those idyllic Leaside summer nights. I’ve already written in an earlier column about some of our other childhood baseball exploits, including the infamous peeled-potato trick that both my brother Tim and I had a hand in. (I don’t think Howie Birnie was umpiring that night, but I’m sure he was there for it. Certainly not our proudest Leaside baseball moment.)
Our father passed away in January. This may explain why I’ve been thinking about those nights more often, now that the Leaside baseball season at Talbot is in full swing. I know I’ll find my way to the park at least a few times in what remains of the summer, to enjoy a 73-year old tradition of Leaside baseball. I’ll sit in the bleachers and immerse myself in the flood of memories it will all bring. Perhaps I’ll bring my own two sons. Maybe brother Tim will come with us, but I promise we won’t roll down the hill as we used to. We’re older now and stopped doing that months ago.