No Birds, Just Long Bus Rides

By Ben Smith:

Rolling into the end of March, I’d really hoped to have an article written about killing a turkey by now. I’ve played the scenario over in my head multiple times. I get to the woods early, get set up, and just as the sun begins to break a gobbler hammers down from a limb in the near distance. Shortly after, he flies down and my sweet yelping coaxes him right to me. I take careful aim and blast him away with my 1965 Stevens 12 gauge that my dad hunted with. It’s a picture perfect scene that just will not play out for me.

Don’t get me wrong, some of that story has played out. I’ve gotten to the woods early a few times this season. I’ve gotten set up each of those times and every single time the sun has shattered the darkness. Heck, I’ve even had an Ol’ Tom gobble, just not from a near distance. And the only thing that has flown down around me has been mockingbirds and mosquitoes. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought of some pretty desperate, and sketchy, things at this point. I’d almost shoot one off a limb from 400 yards with a rifle right now…almost.

But since I haven’t killed a bird yet, and I’m not yet willing to break the law, or my standards, I’m going to write about baseball, well kind of. We’ve been on the road a good bit lately, and the road can be a lonely place at times, even amongst thirty other guys. As the miles add up, it’s easy to get melancholy thinking about your family and what they are doing, or what you are missing.

After a long weekend series, including a doubleheader on Saturday where we scored 47 runs for the day, the bus ride home seemed like it lasted forever. It was only a three hour trip, but I felt like we were sitting still (no offense to Johnny, our driver). It was dark and about half of the guys were asleep and the other half were playing some stupid game in the back. My mind began to wander. For most of the trip I hadn’t been paying much attention to where we were, but then I saw a sign that read, “City of Laurel” and my brain went into overdrive.

Being spring and being on a bus coming home from a baseball road trip, I began to think about playing baseball at Laurel High School years ago. We passed the 16th Avenue exit and I thought about how my high school baseball field is no longer even there. Now sits Laurel Middle School on what I considered hallowed ground. The school has since built a new field right next to the high school next to the water tower that used to have a giant tornado painted on it. The field bears the name “Luke Leggett Field” on the centerfield wall in honor of my former head coach that lost his battle to cancer a few years back.

As we passed through town, I thought of Coach Leggett and the legacy that he left at Laurel. He left a lasting impact on many young people during his time at Laurel, myself included. We had a special relationship that continued after I finished playing and went into coaching. Oftentimes, I’d pick the phone up and call him for advice on certain things and he’d laugh and tell me that I already knew the answer. Sometimes he was right. Sometimes I did know the answer, but I called him anyway because I loved talking to him. Since he’s passed, there have been plenty of times that I didn’t know the answer and I sorely wish I could pick the phone up and call him.

When the bus passed by where the old “S-curve” used to be next to South Central Regional Medical Center, my mind wandered even more. I thought about how many times I’d been in that emergency room. Broken bones and cuts needing stitches, or staples, were the usual culprit of my visits, but on this night one other visit came back to me as if it happened yesterday. I thought about the night my friend, Brandon Freeman, died in a motorcycle accident. It was April of my senior year, but it feels like yesterday during this moment. Brandon was a great friend, a great teammate, and loved Laurel High School as much as anyone. The afternoon of the day he wrecked he’d brought me home from school on that same motorcycle. That was the last time that I ever rode on a motorcycle. A few days later we had Brandon’s funeral and that night I wore his jersey during our game. Of all of the special things that I’ve had happen in my career as a player, or coach, that night is still the most special to me. Every time I see someone wearing the #19, I think of Brandon.

Baseball at Laurel High School is different these days. The tradition is nowhere near what it used to be, and it bothers me. Somewhere along the way folks have forgotten just how good baseball used to be there. Of course, losing a man like Luke Leggett and former players like Brandon Freeman don’t help matters. Guys like them were the glue that kept the program rolling and people interested. At this point, I’m not sure what it would take to get it back to where it was. Maybe it can’t be done.

The bus rolled on through town and past Ellisville. Less than 30 minutes from campus, I pushed my emotions back down and readied myself to make a quick escape when we got back. We pulled into the parking lot at Milton Wheeler Field and began to unload the bus. With my mind on the task of unloading and driving home, I’d forgotten about my trip down memory lane. After the players finished unloading and were leaving to go home, I picked up my bag to leave and noticed one of them in front of me carrying his jersey…#19.

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