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Snapshots of New Jersey: Freehold -- Portal to the Past

Sometimes a dusty Little League field in Freehold can be more than a place to chase down fly balls.

While NJ Spotlight is on summer hiatus, we've made sure you won't lack for intriguing reading. We've put together a series of Snapshots of New Jersey, a close look at some of the varied and vibrant places that make up the Garden State -- from Wildwood to Montague and Barnegat Bay to Teaneck. Enjoy. We'll be back August 28.

It was in the middle of that 90-degree stretch of July, on what was probably my last day as a Little League coach. I was patrolling centerfield at batting practice, my shirt soaked through as I chased fly balls across the patch of ground where I spent some of my happiest hours, as both a boy and a man.

The Freehold Borough Little League field sits on the edge of the town, where my family has lived for six generations. I played here 40 years ago, and then came back to coach my own children here -- my middle daughter briefly before she decamped for soccer, and my youngest son for eight years, from T-ball all the way up to the all-star team in his last season in the major league division, practicing on this summer day before their final game.

To keep the players from melting away before that evening’s game, scheduled for under the lights in another town, we had brought them in off the field and let them wait in the shade of the dugout for their turns at bat. That's why I was in centerfield, the same territory I had covered for the Higgins Memorial Home Yankees back in 1971.

I didn't have to catch the balls hit my way, just collect them and fill up the bucket I had with me, but it was hard to resist trying. I was just an average player in my Little League years, not an all-star like my son, and I don’t remember too many plays. But I do remember what it felt like in that instant after the crack of the bat, when the ball starts its flight at an angle and speed you have only a moment to decipher before committing yourself to a path to try to catch it. I went after the first ball that sailed toward me, and when I caught it I was 12 again.

Except that I was 53. And while the field hadn’t changed, much else had. When it was built, the Little League field was ringed by the smokestacks of three factories that kept the town humming in the kind of modest prosperity that defined the American economy in those first decades after the Second World War.

The rug mill died first, a few years before I started playing baseball; the glass factory, a decade and a half after I stopped. Only the instant-coffee plant remains, its odor magnified whenever the air is heavy with moisture, a localized atmospheric phenomenon that has left me with the enduring impression that rain smells like a diner.

Over the years, the number of players has dropped. When I played, there were eight major league teams; this year there were four. The decrease is not a function of population, which hasn't suffered a similar decline, but of demographics and sociology: a large influx of Latinos, who, despite our best recruiting efforts, mostly don’t sign up for the league, and competition from other sports.

Loyalty to the league runs deep, though, and we’ve managed to keep it going, because a town without a Little League is, to my mind, like a town without a library, which is to say, not much of a town at all. But at least for me and for some of the other coaches who once played here, there’s another reason we stick by it: it’s a portal to our past.

Ours is one of the oldest Little Leagues around, and when we hit our 60th birthday last year we celebrated with a reunion at the American Legion hall on the night before Opening Day. Our most famous alumnus didn’t show -- Bruce Springsteen, reserve right fielder on the legendary 1961 Indians, who went 20-0 in the regular season only to lose to the Cardinals in the championship series. Still, 150 other former players did, coming from as far as Louisiana and Florida to measure the distance of their home runs, the speed of their fastballs, against the memories of their teammates, and to argue, too, about the controversial catcher’s interference call that, unjustly in the eyes of the still-aggrieved Indians, decided the winner half a century earlier.

Some of the old players came down to the field for the season opener the next morning, and marveled both at what good shape it was in, and how many fewer players there were. The grass was lush, babied by dedicated volunteers who lavished more care on it than they did on their own lawns. It was ready to host any kids who wanted to do what kids are meant to do on summer days -- play baseball -- and also to transport anyone who once played here back in time to their own best summers.

Summer is like that. It’s always lurking somewhere behind the surface, and you can glimpse it sometimes in the places where you fell most deeply into its embrace, the places against which you can measure the passage of your life, the places that offer one of the greatest of all gifts: the gift of return.

I was still out in centerfield when the last batter came up at the last practice, and my bucket was almost full. I was chasing fewer balls, but I was catching more of the ones I set out after. I had learned my range. The trajectory of a batted ball is, like many of the things we are asked to catch in life, tricky to calculate, but the more you do it, the better you get at it.

“Last pitch,” the coach on the mound called, and as the ball rose off the bat I started sprinting in the direction it was headed, even though I could tell I would never reach it in time. It fell uncaught, and when I stopped running I felt something salty stinging my eyes. Sweat, no doubt.

Kevin Coyne is a freelance writer from Freehold who teaches at Columbia Journalism School. His books include "Marching Home: To War and Back with the Men of One American Town," a chronicle of six World War II veterans from Freehold.

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