Happy birthday to my Mom, simply the best

The game was called baseball, but the scores were often in the 20s. In Hattiesburg, we called it the Morning League. It was, I suppose, a precursor to T-Ball, back before mankind made the startling discovery that little boys can’t throw strikes.

The games began at 7 a.m., before the dew had dried and the sleep was out of the eyes. We played in

Cleveland
Cleveland

T-shirts and cut-offs, with only our caps to distinguish the Senators from the Yankees or the Dodgers. There were no Astros or Blue Jays yet.

Most kids rode their bicycles to the games. Older kids umpired and coached. The baseball was often comical, with more errors than hits and more walks than anything. Did I mention that 7-year-olds can’t throw strikes?

Attendance was sparse. Most fathers and mothers were headed to work or beginning the day’s household chores. Some mornings, there’d be only four or five folks in the bleachers. One gray, drizzly morning, only one fan sat through it. She was enthusiastic, nonetheless. All the players and umpires knew her by her voice. I knew her by name: Mom.

My Mom, Carrie Cleveland, never missed a game.

•••

An under-sized, four-eyed 7-year-old never had a better fan or friend. She helped celebrate the victories and, much more importantly, helped ease the pain of the defeats. Anyone can say, “You’ll get ’em next time.” Mom made us believe it.

Carrie Cleveland
Carrie Cleveland

True story: We lost a game one morning something like 14-10. I pitched and I must have walked 20. Finally, the ordeal over, I trudged off the field, feeling lower than pond scum.

“Congratulations,” Mom said, brightly.

“For what?” I asked.

“You just threw a no-hitter,” she answered, and the next day she cut the brief article out of the newspaper and taped it into the scrapbook she kept so diligently. Never mind the headline: “Pitcher throws no-hitter, loses 14-10.”

She was always there for baseball, football and basketball games, practices, PTA meetings, for splinters and scrapes, to help with homework and to patch both jeans and egos with equal care.

In our family, Dad was often on the road or busy at work, so when her sons needed extra practice, Mom was right there in the backyard with us.

“Mama, you throw like a girl,” I told her one day.
“Well, Rickey, you know, I am one,” she answered.

•••

Whether it was school, or sports or teaching us how to slow-dance, Mom was there, always involved. She would have each of our elementary teachers over for dinner early in the school year. We didn’t have a lot in those days, so she would borrow a nice tablecloth and silver from her in-laws.

Mrs. Olsen, my first grade teacher, came over one night.

“Mrs. Olsen, how do you like these heavy forks and spoons?” I asked while Mama cringed.

“Why, they’re very nice,” Mrs. Olsen said.

“I’m glad you like them,” I said. “Mama borrowed them from my Grandma just for you.”

That was not the first embarrassing moment I provided my mother and it certainly wasn’t the last.

The point is, she always handled such moments and much worse with grace, warmth and kindness. What’s more, she married one sports writer and raised two more, which deserves either a medal or sympathy and probably both.

So it is, that I will borrow a line from Bear Bryant who used to tell his players after practice: “Boys, go back to your dorm and call your mama. I shore do wish I could go home and call mine.”

•••

Carrie Cleveland, who died on July 4, 1996, was married to Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer Ace Cleveland, who died on April 15, 1995.

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