It's been 48 years ago this month since I last played a Little League baseball game, and every time I've covered one in the years since, I've found myself drifting back to a blessed childhood filled with golden memories.
In some ways, it was an uphill battle. I was small for my age, and young for my age in Little League -- meaning that I played my 11-year-old season as a 10-year-old and my 12-year-old season as an 11-year-old. In those days, an early July birthday was referred to as a "bad birthday" in Little League lingo.
I was also the son of a prominent coach.
My father, Jim Pickens Sr., was a well-known figure in the Bowling Green community, having coached the Bowling Green Purples to the KHSAA State Baseball Championship in 1965. By the time I was in Little League, he was coaching the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers. Consequently, there was a trace of tension because, small and young or not, I was expected to be good.
No pressure, right?
Truth be told, I loved the game so much that neither of those factors ever seriously impacted me in a negative way during my Little League career. After all, I was well-schooled in the fundamentals thanks to a lot of backyard work with my Dad, and the size and age simply motivated me to work harder.
I played for the Coca-Cola Indians of what was then known as the Bowling Green American League, and is now Bowling Green East.
The Indians were pretty good throughout my four years, particularly my 10-year-old season and my 12-year-old season, when we won the championship by winning 10 consecutive games to close the season. I was fortunate to start all 60 regular-season games of my Little League career, playing second base my first two seasons, pitcher-shortstop my third year, and pitcher-third base my final season.
Moreover, being a Coca-Cola Indian brought special privileges. There was a Burger Chef (that's right, youngsters, Burger Chef) two blocks from our ballpark, and anytime we wore our uniforms in there we received a free Coke. All we had to do was turn around and show them the Coca-Cola cloth patch logo sewed to the back of our jerseys.
Also, there was a hole-in-the-wall restaurant adjacent to the park, The Chicken Box, that served the best french fries I've ever tasted. Decades later, a friend who should know explained that their unique taste derived from them being deep fried in coconut oil. All I know is they were delicious beyond human expression.
We played our games at 11th Street Field in the heart of the city. It was a glorious venue, with authentic dugouts, the only Little League grass infield in town, and oak trees whose branches and leaves hung over the wooden grandstands to provide welcome shade -- our own majestic Field of Dreams decades before the Kevin Costner movie.
The park shut down following the 1972 season, and when thinking of it now I'm reminded of Joni Mitchell's classic song, "Big Yellow Taxi," in which she sang, "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot ..." Indeed, Joni, indeed.
My Little League coaches were some of the finest mentors in my life. They had a passion for the game, cared deeply about kids, and kept everything in proper perspective.
There were my teammates and opponents; individuals I am still close to 50 years down the line through a bond we all shared -- youth baseball. This is, by no means, unique to me. Anyone who played the game knows precisely what I'm getting at.
I was fortunate enough to make both the 11- and 12-year-old All-Star teams, and I wish I could tell you these experiences were as golden as the rest of my career. They were, in fact, bittersweet. Sweet, because it's gratifying to make any All-Star team; bitter, because we lost both years in an era when the Area Tournament was single elimination.
Nonetheless, there were a few memorable All-Star moments.
In my 11-year-old year, we lost 6-3 to Franklin at BG Federal League Park. I entered the game in the middle innings as a pinch-hitter. Who did I face? Lester Boyd, who was a foot taller, 100 pounds heavier, and would later become a star linebacker at the University of Kentucky. If there was more than perspiration dripping down my legs when I stepped into the batter's box, I would not be surprised.
First time up, I worked Mr. Boyd for a walk and eventually scored. Second time, he struck me out on a 3-2 pitch in the dirt. Defensively, I was at third base. The first time a ball was hit my way, it was scorched so hard I literally didn't see it -- only heard the frightening whoosh as it whizzed between my legs. Had it bounced a foot higher, I'm certain I would have spoken four octaves higher thereafter.
My 12-year-old All-Star year I was on the mound at BG National League park against Beaver Dam. I should have sued -- even as a pre-teen -- for non-support.
In a frustrating 4-2 loss, I gave up three unearned runs on seven errors. I threw a 5-hitter and struck out 11, but one of those hits may still be going. I grooved one to ninth-place hitter Terry Wright and he belted it a mile. Down 4-0, we scored two sixth-inning runs and threatened to complete a stirring comeback, but left the bases juiced at the end. I was on third when the final out of my Little League career was recorded.
If any of you are surprised by the degree of detail recalled a half-century later, I can only surmise that we remember best the moments that meant the most to us, and Little League meant everything to me between 1968-71.
Now, nearly 50 years after my final game, I reflect -- sights, sounds, smells, emotions, hits, plays in the field, running the bases, victories, defeats, passing the hat for the umpires, players, coaches, girls in the stands, the iconic Little League Pledge, and, you'd better believe it, those free Burger Chef Cokes and those scrumptious Chicken Box fries.
All of this is still right here in my mind, my heart, my soul.
It has never faded away.
I pray it never will.