Dad took me to tryouts for the American Hose Fire Company’s little league team. They were the “A’s” [Think Oakland logo with Yankee pinstripes in white with red trim]. Down to the field that is now the High School parking lot we went. That was the same field they flooded in the winter for ice skating lessons.
Coach had me step up to hit and called Mike to the mound. My 1/2 swing was launching balls deep into the outfield – coach told Mike to heat it up. I kept hitting them with my nervous yet violent check-swing. Coach said he could teach me to swing the rest of the way and I’d be able to hit the ball even farther. I didn’t know if I was any good. I was nervous, not sure I could make a team.
Coach took me to center field they hit a few out in my direction and had me throw to second base. That seemed to go ok-ish, so he told me to see if I could throw one all the way in to home plate. I watched baseball on TV and liked the way the outfielders did that little hop step and throw. So I just collected the ball, wound up, and chucked it as best I could … right over home plate, and over the backstop … and into the parking lot. My problem was not distance.
Made the team, practices started. I’d ride my bike across town with my glove around the upper brake lever across the top of the handlebars – yep, it was that long ago.
Coach said I won the position from Richie and I would be third base. I didn’t know Richie well, but he must not have been that good because from third base I could reach the parking lot easy.
One day we entered a tournament – so did a team above us in age group. They threw so fast we didn’t get many hits. And we threw so slow they pounded everything down the third base line. Those violent ground balls kept coming at me. After 13 errors in a row I remember tearfully asking coach to take me out. But he kept saying I’d get the next one. Eventually I did.
Cheering for my team and being on deck were two of my favorite things. Along with hitting, especially when we played Locust Gap.
Coach had me catch for a while. I never played the outfield but I’m sure I threw there a few times when people tried to steal second base.
Warming up Mike before practice one day was dramatic. My new mitt had much better padding but the team mitt was broken in. I didn’t know the importance of that before one of his fastballs skipped off of the pouch and struck me square in the head. Next thing I remember was Coach asking if I’m ok. I was on my back and really didn’t know how I got there. The pastor was visiting that evening at our house and I laid on the couch with one of those old floppy bags with the big screw lid filled with ice cubes. Apparently I said things that were not what I thought I was saying so they rushed me to the hospital. That was long before we understood concussions. No one was allowed to catch without head gear after that, even in warm-ups.
My parents got those new sports glasses for me. Imagine an early R&D model of what Curt Rambis used to wear. All black, thick plastic with the temple arms hinged to fold all the way out and around. Coupled with my short hair, big ears and cap, my ‘friends’ called me Aardvark. I pretended I didn’t mind.
My last year in little league I made the all-start team. That’s the only time I got to play under the new lights. I was nervous that night at our tiny field because the small stand was full. Then a crack from the bat hammered time into slow-motion. Before I even knew it the ball was right in front of me, I could see the stitching … my body was frozen, and it flew right into my glove with a snap almost as loud as the bat.
Cheering erupted, the silence was broken and everything returned to normal speed. I threw to first base anyway because I didn’t know what else to do.
All these years later, I still can feel the excitement and enjoyment of being part of a team and playing games together. Getting to be active outside and having fun. I was never outstanding, but for me the experience was.
After finishing Seminary in Chicago, I wound up in NH coaching in the league just above T-ball. Naturally I purchased many boxes of Lemon Heads, the candy sponsor of the Chicago Cubs, and did just as the Cubbies … I would announce the Lemon Heads Player Of The Game. Actually I picked one and I had the team pick one. It could be best player or anything else positive they noticed about a teammate.
Our best player that year was a gal who played in the infield, usually second base. And she probably deserved the Lemon Heads every time. There was a lot of chasing grasshoppers in the outfield.
I kept encouraging our pitchers to relax and throw free rather than trying too hard to aim. Just focus and let it fly. To their credit, none of them ever over-shot the backstop.
The last game of the season was going long. In the final inning I realized we didn’t have much time to get to the promised ice cream cone celebration.
Coach (now that’s me) calls time to talk to the pitcher. I lay it out straight. OK, here’s the deal. It’s been a great season and you have the ball. If you throw strikes and we wrap up this game fast everyone gets ice cream. But if we can’t throw strikes, we might not make it.
Message delivered, I return to the dugout and shared “the look” with the parents that have been coaching with me. Then it happens. Strike-Strike-Strike-Strike-Strike … behold the power of ice cream.