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AMERICANA

IT WAS ONE of those short-sleeve days, the sky blue and cloudless as spring finally made its arrival on a warm, gentle breeze; it was a week-ending day too ideal, too seductive to squander indoors. Just a short drive away, on the tiny and picturesque campus of Northwood University, a doubleheader was scheduled.

I phoned my grandson, who had been freed from the classroom by some magic called teacher–in-service day, and suggested we go watch a little baseball. An eight-year-old sports fanatic, Price eagerly accepted my invitation and said he would be waiting in his driveway, shooting baskets.

Northwood, hidden away on the outskirts of the Dallas suburb of Cedar Hill, is one of those under-the-radar universities where 919 undergraduates quietly work toward business degrees in a bucolic setting. The 43-year-old campus is bordered by carved-out hillsides and is shaded by ancient trees; were it not for the array of modern buildings and student housing, it would look more like a nature center than an academic outpost. The university’s baseball team, the Knights, compete in the Red River Athletic Conference, a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics league that is on the bottom rung of the college-sports pecking order.

While the baseball field is beautifully manicured, there are no lights for night games. The wooden bleachers might accommodate 100 to 150 fans, and admission is free. It is rare for even the team’s scores to be printed in the Dallas Morning News. Here, they play the game for the sheer joy of competition and for the welcome respite it offers from academic pursuits.

As young Price and I sat among a couple dozen other spectators (a few of the players’ girlfriends, a parent or two, a handful of faculty members, and one retiree with a friendly chocolate Lab on a leash), I was delighted by my grandson’s unabashed enthusiasm. He cheered the home team, pored over the single-page program listing the names and positions of the players, marveled at a towering home run that cleared the center-field fence (“Man, Papa, he smashed that one, didn’t he?”), chased down a couple of foul balls, and assured me that the chili dog from the student-operated concession stand was the best he’d ever had.

Following the first game, the Knights coach and several of his players quickly set up a portable table behind the home dugout, and soon, sandwich makings and fruit were spread for the athletes as a between-games snack. One of the Northwood players, noticing my admiring grandson, walked over to say hello. It was Christmas morning on a springtime afternoon. Price was blissfully wandering in his own field of dreams.

As time leisurely passed and thoughts of the outside world briefly disappeared, I answered a steady stream of questions from Price: “What’s their record so far this season? Did the players for the other team ride on the bus that’s parked across the way? What’s the coach saying to the pitcher? Did you think that was a hit or an error?”

And then there was his most important question: “When do they play again?” I silently knew we’d found our occasional getaway destination for the steadily warming weeks that lay ahead.

The sun had slid behind a nearby cliff as the second game ended with the Knights scoring a one-run victory over the visiting Oklahoma City University Stars. The teams had split the doubleheader. Lengthy shadows began to spread across the campus as my grandson watched the players walking toward the field house, where hot showers and continued celebration awaited. On the way to the car, we stopped at the nearby tennis court to briefly watch as a friendly doubles game was winding down. Then, I felt a tug at my arm. Price pointed toward the outdoor basketball court located next to a small stream that wound through the campus. “Nobody’s playing,” he observed. “My basketball is in the car.”

It wasn’t difficult to pick up on the not-too-subtle hint. We retrieved his ball and were soon engaged in our first game of H-O-R-S-E. It wasn’t even close; youth easily triumphed over age. Same with the second game. And the third.

Dinnertime, I knew, was fast approaching as the glorious day began to fade to evening gray. The baseball field was now empty, silent. The tennis players were gone. Somewhere across the way, students were settling in to study. It was just us -- an eight-year-old boy and an old man, breathing in the sweet smell of the new season, listening to the gentle sounds of the night birds as they began to welcome the fast-approaching darkness.

“Your grandmother’s cooking chicken and dumplings,” I mentioned as we began our departure.

“Can I eat at your house?” Price asked.

“If your mom and dad say it’s okay,” I replied, “you certainly can.”

On the short ride home, Price, tired but clearly content, sat admiring the foul ball he’d retrieved and been told he could keep. “This,” he said with that smile that never fails to melt my heart, “was really fun.”

A bit more experienced and worldly, I graded it higher: It was perfect.