I don’t know HHS baseball Coach Mike Hendrix too well. He worked on the other side of the building from me before he retired from teaching last year, and I didn’t make it to many ball games while he was here. But whenever I’d pass him in the hall and ask how he was doing, he’d smile and say with gusto, “Living the dream.” I’m certain he didn’t coin the expression, but I liked the sound of it just the same and started using it myself sometimes.
What I do know about the coach is that he’s one of the best in the state with more than 650 wins and a spot in the Tennessee Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame. He’s coached the Commandos 34 years, longer if you count his time as an assistant, and when I heard this month that this was his last season and that his team had a good shot of winning a championship, I decided to head to the ballpark.
This took some doing because as much as I like the idea of baseball - the history of it and the nostalgia of it - I, like many Americans, am obsessed with football. I’d rather pass a kidney stone than miss a Titans game. I guess baseball had become “too slow” for me, as I imagine it had for all the others who had quit paying attention to it over the past 50 years (World Series TV viewership has fallen from 44 million in 1978 to just under 12 million last year, according to Nielsen ratings).
It’s a shame, too, because for a lot of us who grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, baseball WAS summer. As a kid in Greater Cleveland, I played Little League in the afternoon, listened to the Indians (still can’t get used to the “Guardians”) on WWWE radio in the evening, and checked the American League standings in The Plain Dealer in the morning. My first summer job was dragging and lining the ball diamonds in my town. But that was a long time ago, and it had been a while since I’d even been to a ball diamond. And so lawn chair in hand, I went one clear evening in May to watch baseball again.
When I entered the ballpark, I found that not much had changed; everything was as I remembered: same bright uniforms, same smack of the ball in the glove, same smells of leather and cooking oil, same chants from the crowd, same high fives from the dugout (only now with fists), same little boys at the fence longing for their turn under the lights. Everything the same. I even got the same butterflies in my stomach as I watched a tall sandy-haired hitter warm up in the batter’s box with two outs and runners at second and third.
My dad once told me that when he was a boy, schools closed on Opening Day because so many fathers took their sons to see the Indians. That’s hard to imagine today. But I can see why for my father’s generation and many before it, baseball held a special place in the American psyche. The pageantry alone is a spectacle with the uniforms and the foods and the anthems and the traditions. And once you know the game and become invested in it, baseball can be like a child’s jack-in-the-box – tension at every turn.
The ball game that evening was easy on the nerves. The Commandos advanced to the region finals with an 8-1 drubbing of the Lebanon Blue Devils. The pitcher went all seven innings on 105 throws, striking out eight and giving up only four hits. It was a perfect night for the home team. And when it ended, the players jumped and shouted and mobbed each other as if they’d won the World Series. Coach Hendrix pumped his fist and mouthed the word “Yes.” Fans cheered the young stars as they left the field. And on a cool evening with the old coach making his final stand, I remembered why I enjoyed baseball so much as a kid and thought of something else, too: I always assumed Coach Hendrix was being sarcastic when he told me in the hall that he was “Living the dream.” Now, I’m not so sure.
By English and journalism teacher John Gerome