Giving Baseball Space to Breathe

The human orbital bone is shaped like a pear and contains about half the juice. Your optic nerve lives at the small end and throws images to your retina in the back, which relays what you’re looking at to your brain. It’s the window through which baseball reaches us; in the blink of an eye, we go from seeing to reacting.

All eyes were on the Red Sox and Tigers at Fenway Park on August 17, 1967. During batting practice, Detroit’s Dick McAuliffe sent a line drive into the stands toward nine-year-old Mike Hughes, who threw his hands up to catch it just a hair too late.

“Right between my hands,” Hughes tells me. “I was in the hospital for five days with an orbital fracture and all that stuff.”

It would be a blood-splattered weekend for the sport in Boston. The next day at Fenway Park, Red Sox outfielder Tony Conigliaro was hit by a pitch in about the same place as Hughes. It dislocated his jaw, fractured his cheekbone, and permanently damaged his left retina. He was carried off the field on a stretcher.

A year and a half after his injury, Conigliaro was back in the majors, hitting 20 home runs. The next year, he would hit a career high 36. Today, MLB’s Comeback Player of the Year award is named after him.

But for a nine-year-old boy in a hospital bed, the injury was far more than physical. When he was well enough to get back on the field, his instincts tried to pull him off of it.

“I started stepping in a bucket,” Hughes recalls. “My average went from about .480 to about .180. I lost my, you know… I loved the game still, but I wanted to be good.”

So he left. And for 25 years, Mike Hughes didn’t play baseball.

Even when we step away from it, ignore it, or change the channel, baseball is never fully absent. It’s too ingrained to not always be present in some capacity. You step on an empty bag of sunflower seeds when you get out to pump gas. You find an old bat in your garage with no memory of whose it is. You pass a little league game walking home from the office. Your dog comes home with a filthy baseball in its mouth. Where did you even get that?

Baseball is never gone. It gets lost, it goes missing, and it slips through our hands, but it always finds a way back.

In the decades after Hughes had his eye socket cracked by a foul ball, baseball got lost a couple of times: Strikes, lock-outs, and work stoppages; Pete Rose’s gambling, Wade Boggs’ adultery, and the Pirate Parrot stuffing its beak full of cocaine made us question its status as our most sun-drenched, star-spangled Americana. Its innocence bruised, its purity was propped up by nostalgia, and the game itself transformed beyond recognition to portions of its fan base over and over again.

It happens. Our current chapter of this sordid, century-spanning serial features the Astros’ cheating scandal and the sinister tendrils reaching out of it, as well as an anticipated labor stoppage on the horizon, of which we are reminded whenever someone like Kris Bryant has their service time manipulated. Baseball, in its most classic and romanticized form, is dead. It has been pumped full of drugs and dented like a trash can. But between metropolitan areas, out in its natural habitat, it can still be stirred to life.

Hughes permanently relocated to Holland, Michigan, in 2018 after visiting the city for five days. Holland sits on the state’s lower peninsula, the settlement of Dutch immigrants who did everything they could to make their new home feel like their old one: The name; the yearly tulip festival; the prevalent Christianity; the 250-year-old windmill on its own island. But unlike thousands of tourists every year, it was not the tulips or the windmill or the Christians that brought Hughes to one of CNN’s top five places to retire (in 2006).

“I came up to visit a girlfriend from 1973,” he says.

They’d been using the time-tested romantic correspondence he calls “social media crap” for 10 years when Hughes and his high school girlfriend decided to meet back up in person. He got on a plane from Daytona Beach where he’d been living, saw her for a few days, came home, packed up, and left Florida behind. Many people are worth leaving Florida for. Only a select few are worth taking a chance, moving 1,100 miles away, and experiencing your first winter in 10 years.

“I move quickly,” says Hughes. “No moss grows on me. So I didn’t really have a chance to check out the baseball scene [in Holland]. When I got here, I started talking to a few people.”

By now, Hughes had reconnected with the sport that had broken him. He’d played in and attempted to start leagues through the Men’s Senior Baseball League/Men’s Adult Baseball League (MSBL/MABL) for years and looked to continue to do so in his new home. Expansion was not a crazy idea; MSBL/MABL started with 60 players on four teams and now has over 52,000. But in Daytona Beach especially, Hughes’ attempts to scare up a league hadn’t worked.

When people say “the local nine” in Daytona Beach, they might be referring to the Daytona Tortugas, a Florida State League affiliate of the Reds, who released a displeased statement in 2019 regarding their franchise being listed among the 42 minor league teams Rob Manfred and MLB would consider “contracting.”

But Florida has a lot going on, and despite being a hotbed for pro talent, baseball isn’t always a priority. The sport has come and gone many times in the Sunshine State, and the annual attendance figures of both the Marlins and Rays, even when competitive, have served as punchlines to the sport’s questionable popularity there. Like the rest of Florida’s everyday horrors, it seems like baseball is suffered through like wet heat or a meth-gator climbing out of your toilet.

“How can you be in such great weather and not want to play baseball?” asks Hughes. “I don’t get it, you know? We had leagues in West Palm and Jacksonville, but there was nothing in between.”

The people Hughes talked to were more interested in coastal sand than infield dirt. He met a lot of them who had come there to relax, or were just passing through, or had more passive long-term agendas.

“If you know Florida at all, it’s transient,” Hughes explains. “A lot of people don’t want to take time to commit to anything. They’re committed to, you know, staying there until [they] die. my old timer friend said, he’s 75. He said, ‘Just don’t quit,’” Hughes remembers. “But I quit down there.”

Hughes still cared enough about the sport that almost killed him to try and bring it to life up north after arriving in Holland, which sits between the big cities in the northern midwest.

The road between Chicago and Detroit has a travel buddy in the St. Joseph River, bending and winding together across 270 miles, past fields and forests; a machine shop here, a vacant farmhouse there. As the drive heavies your eyelids, perhaps you veer off the road and narrowly avoid hitting a sign about a mattress sale. One house becomes a few houses, a post office, and a church. It is clear that God hasn’t forgotten this place. But maybe baseball has.

“I got on our map site for MSBL/MABL and I was like, ‘Holy shit, there’s nothing between Chicago and Detroit, and nothing above us all the way to the Canadian border,’” Hughes explains. “Lake Michigan’s right here, and I think there’s a lot of fishermen, and softball has been so big here for so long… [But with baseball], nobody’s taken a chance.”

There’s what Hughes calls “ragtag” leagues around, but they lack the structure players get from MSBL/MABL: Two certified umps. Games that start on time. Enough players. Good uniforms. People who know the rules. Don’t wipe out catchers. Don’t throw your spikes at anybody. Logistically, when a couple of people meet up to play ball, somebody can play first base with a beer in their hand and have a good time. The kind of league Hughes was looking for – as were many other ex-high school and college players, former minor leaguers and other professionals – had a bit more structure. As we’ve learned throughout baseball’s history, the integrity of the game tends to fall apart when you realize the rules are just suggestions until someone else discovers you’re not playing by them. And if the guys playing the game don’t care, why should anyone else?

Eventually, everybody has a reason to step away from baseball. We realize the competition is too stiff, our interest is too low, or our bodies aren’t built to be repeatedly stretched, strained, bruised, and smashed into the ground. Beat-up players retire after long, glorious, professional careers; fans watch their team blow an eight-run lead and see what else is on.

Josh Trevino, a rapper from Holland, left baseball in high school to pursue music, telling the Holland Sentinel it was a decision he still regrets: “I’ve missed it ever since. [Hughes and I] got to talking about baseball and neither of us want to play coed softball with people getting drunk — we miss the game of baseball.”

“Once I got on the field at 42, I just looked around and I go, ‘Oh my God, I’m playing baseball again,’” says Hughes. “To put on a uniform and feel like you’re back in the game and between the lines is just like… it was like a spiritual thing to me. And so [Trevino], he’s so pumped. I said, ‘Well, start calling your friends and former teammates and stuff.’”

Hughes knows that when you leave baseball behind, the road back is a lot longer than 90 feet.

“We’ve had a bunch of players that have come back to baseball just because they miss the game, and they’ll pay their league fees and they just play with regular guys. But there’s a lot of former college players and high school players and guys that got hit in the face with a baseball like me and stopped playing. It makes me feel alive at 64. I get to watch these guys come back, and remember the feeling I had when I got back on the field, and to see it in them… You know, for us, the millions of ball players out there that think it’s over… it’s not.”

Together with Trevino, Hughes is putting together a league in Holland. They need four teams and 60 players to become the 326th MSBL/MABL league, as well as a couple of fields to play on. But Hughes, who just met with some local umpires, thinks they can do it. There will be two divisions: one for the 18-25 year-olds to tucker each other out while the 25-and-older crowd plays separately. With one or two games a week, the season can last from May to September without becoming too taxing. Hughes has helped secure a training facility in Zeeland, the next town over.

“I am reading about the integrity of the game here, you know, and I think it’s here at this level,” says Hughes. “Why would you do anything besides be thankful for being out there, you know? You’re not gonna make $1 million more by getting 10 points more on your average, by winning the playoffs, by cheating. I can’t believe it, but it’s good. It’s good for you.”

Typically you won’t hear the phrase “the integrity of the game” in regards to Major League Baseball unless something has gone terribly wrong. It is no longer a reference to its immaculate summertime poetry; it’s the historic precedent it stands on, the rules within which it is played, and the assumption that the players on the upper most talent tier don’t have to break it to make it work. But what has repeatedly come to define the the highest level that exists with every passing generation is how good you can be at it without anyone finding out that you’re cheating.

So it takes some thankless passion to come back to a sport that punished you with a head wound at a young age, and pull a version of it out of the dirt in a place where no one was playing it. People playing baseball because they want to, because they used to, or because it feels good, don’t have a reason to cheat. But the point is not that baseball conjures ancient magic that delivers former players redemption or reminds us how the gAmE wAs MeAnT tO bE pLaYeD or reconnects fathers and sons through the mists of time. No ghosts are walking out of the tulip patch in Holland, Michigan. It’s that everyone wants to step through a gateway that takes them to a place they thought they’d never see again. And for some people, that place is baseball.

One of the players recruited for the new league is a former minor leaguer who played a lot of ball in Canada. He’s eager for the sport to reach a level of organization and stability that allows them to more closely emulate the sport at its highest level: Crowds, tournaments, hot dogs, and popcorn.

“Sure,” Hughes says. “And then, we can learn how to cheat!”

Justin has contributed to FanGraphs and is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He is known in his family for jamming free hot dogs in his pockets during an off-season tour of Veterans Stadium and eating them on the car ride home.

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Green Mountain Boy
4 years ago

Justin – what a beautiful piece. It touched my heart.

Like Mike Hughes, I am a 62 year-old from Massachusetts. I don’t know what I was doing on August17, 1967, but I know where I was on the evening of August 18 when Tony C got hit. I was at a high school football pre-season all-star showcase in Lynn with my brother-in-law, who was born and raised in Swampscott and Lynn, and played against Tony C in high school. I still remember the hush that came over the crowd when it was either announced or came over radio play-by-play that local hero Tony C had gotten beaned. Yeah, it was like JFK being assassinated… all of us Red Sox fans remember where we were that evening.

I played baseball from as early as I can remember right through Legion ball. I was a pitcher. I absolutely loved being in the middle of the action, controlling (hopefully) the game. There was no bigger rush that freezing a batter with a curveball or striking him out with a sinker. But I had no illusions. At 5’11” and 150 lbs, with a fastball maybe topping out at 80, I would have been lucky (and grateful) to play college ball. But I never got the chance. Like with Mike Hughes, fate stepped in.

In 1977 I was hit head on by a drunk driver. They told me later he was 8′ into my lane and I was lucky to be alive, but I remembered nothing. Still don’t. What I did know was I was in a hospital, my knees were shattered, patellar tendons torn, and I had compound fractures in both bones of my right arm. I carry the plates and screws that put me back together to this day.

There were no over-25, over-40, or over-whatever hardball leagues back then. I was done. It wasn’t until the mid-90s or early 2000s that those leagues began to be organized in my area. Regardless, I could do a lot of things with two plates and four screws in my right arm, but pitching, which I studied and loved, wasn’t one of them.

I got into coaching as my sons got old enough to play organized ball. Although there was nothing left for me, I wanted to give something back, and I do feel like I influenced a lot of young men’s lives. To this day, some 30-something year old will come up to me and say “Hey, Coach!”, and I know I had some positive effect. And maybe, truth be told, it makes me feel better than any of my missed opportunities would. No, not maybe. It does.

So in a way, this story of Mike Hughes and my own story both end up the same way. Our own dreams were taken away by unfortunate circumstances (wrong place, wrong time, right?), but we found a way to give back. I’m sure there are thousands of guys with similar stories, but I just want to say:

Thank You Justin, for writing this piece. I hope it’s inspirational to others who love baseball but had their dreams snatched away through no fault of their own…. There are still ways to give back, Thank you!