Posts Tagged ‘youth baseball’

The Road to Justice Runs Through the Ball Field

December 26, 2018

Like this, but with houses and yards on either side

One of the towns where I grew up was a moderate size burg out in the Texas Panhandle. It was nice, it was reasonably clean, it was basically crime free. It was a great place to play street baseball.

I lived in a fairly new addition on the east end of town, about a quarter-mile from the local Country Club. It was a solid middle class neighborhood with lots of kids close to my age. In the addition where I lived all the north-south streets were paved and all the houses faced on to them. All the east-west streets were unpaved because no one lived on them. They fronted the sides of houses, people’s backyards, and ran into an alley that separated the backyards of one street from the backyards of the next. This was great for playing baseball.

At the north end of the block where I lived was one of those streets. The people on the south side (my side) had no fence in their yard, neither did the people on the north side. Amazingly, the people who lived the next street east had no fence on either side, so we had the following arrangement: an open backyard, an unpaved street, another open backyard, then moving east you had the alley followed by another open backyard, an unpaved street, and one final open backyard. This allowed us to drop a stick for home plate in the middle of the street, a rock at the edge where a yard met the street for both first and third base, another stick in the street for second and yet one more stick in the street for the mound (sometimes it was pie tins or a piece of metal instead of rocks or sticks). What all this gave us was the most precious of all street baseball things, right and left field.

We had one problem, no backstop. It turned out one of the guys dad had an 8×4 piece of plywood that he’d nailed a 2×4 board to either end. None of us, even the guy who had this magnificent piece of lumber in his yard, knew why ole dad had done it, but it was never used, so we’d grab it, lug it down to the street, set it in place behind home, and lodge it in place with a couple of short 2x4s that someone always had in his backyard held in place by a few rocks. It worked well except when someone occasionally unloosed a fastball that struck the backstop just right and knocked it over. Eventually, of course, we broke it.

It did have one minor failing. It was in the middle of a public street. During an average summer morning or afternoon, there might be two cars come down the unpaved side street. Almost everyone used the paved main streets, but occasionally someone was inconsiderate enough to want to use our diamond for a drive. So, we’d grab the plywood backstop and the 2×4’s and lug them out of the way so the guy could drive down the street. The stick at home sometimes got run over, but there were other sticks. Mostly the people in the car were pleasant, patient, waved, and went on with their lives. Sometimes there’d be a jerk who’d tell us to “Hurry, you bunch of heathens” (OK, generally it was other words, but this is a family site), but as a rule no one yelled and we’d get the backstop in place and go about our game.

One August we were playing when a blue Chevy (OK, after 60 years I don’t remember either the color or make of the car, so I decided to disparage blue Chevys) turned the corner on the east side of the road and headed toward us. We saw him, started grabbing the backstop and moving it out of his way. He rolled right up to us and stopped. The guy inside was screaming “Get that damned thing out of my way” and other assorted things that had a lot of words with four letters in them. We moved as fast as we could, but one of the guys dropped his side of the north end and we had to get another guy to take his place. We got the backstop out of the way as quickly as we could but the guy was out of his mind yelling at us. It may have taken all of a minute, but he was more irate than anyone we could remember and why he just didn’t drive around us when we cleared one side of the street we couldn’t figure.

So we finished the day, went home, went on about our lives. That evening the family sat down to watch the news. One of the lead stories was about our town (the station was in another town). It seems some guy had robbed the pro shop at the Country Club and escaped in a blue Chevy. The local police, notified by the pro shop, had raced to block off the three major routes out of town and got to one (I forget which after all these years) and just as a blue Chevy approached. They nabbed the crook, recovered the money, and sent the lout to the local jail. The chief admitted that they were surprised how long it took for the bandit to get to the edge of town and speculated he wasn’t a local and didn’t know the streets well.

I like to think that we singlehandedly saved the fortune of the Country Club.

 

Rattle the Pitcher

August 13, 2015

 

Jackie did it a lot better than me

Jackie did it a lot better than me

Unfortunately I have to admit to being something of an obnoxious jerk when I was playing youth baseball (And I hear those “Something? Did he say Something, just something of an…?”). I wanted to win, I wanted my team to win (and unfortunately that order is probably right for that time in my life), I wanted to excel. Well, I had limited talent, but I did have a good eye and could run. Of course that got me the leadoff spot on my team and made the stolen base a major part of my arsenal.

Did you ever notice how many youth league baseball pitchers can throw the ball, but don’t really know much else about pitching (It’s also true of a lot of big leaguers too.)? Most of them can’t figure out how not to balk or how to speed up a throw to the catcher to pick off a runner. Well, this is the story of one of them and of me and how I scored four runs without ever hitting the ball (and, as usual, all conversations approximated after 50 years).

We were well into a season (I think I was 12) when we had a late game (that’s 8 o’clock) against one of the middle-of-the-pack teams in our league. We’d faced their “ace” a time or maybe two already and I always made a point to study a pitcher. If you couldn’t hit for power and had to rely on walks and speed you studied the pitcher. This one had a couple of quirks, the most important of which is that he rattled easily with men on base. Well, that being the case, I was just obnoxious jerk enough to take advantage of it.

I led off the game and took four straight pitches for a walk. So down to first I went and while the pitcher was fuming about walking the first man, I took off for second. No one called time, the pitcher was standing like an idiot on the mound paying no attention to me, so why not? I was safe without a throw. Next, I took a giant lead off second. I was so far off the bag that I could just barely make it out on the horizon (It’s that little white thing off in the distance, right?). The shortstop was yelling at the pitcher to watch the runner. So he did. He turned and instead of running toward me, threw the ball to the bag. No one was on the bag (the shortstop was dogging me and the second baseman was playing his position) so the ball sailed into center where the fielder was staring at some girl in the stands (or something) and I managed to come all the way home standing up. One run for the good guys.

A couple of innings later I came up again and again took four for a walk (I think there was a strike or two thrown in this time). Down at first, I took my lead and the kid looked over his shoulder at me. He spun, tossed the ball to first, and I was safe by a mile. OK, pitcher, you want to play, fine.

“Hey, dimwit,” I yelled. “I’m not going until the second pitch.” I don’t know whether he believed me or not, but he threw the ball home. Of course now I’m committed to going on the second pitch or looking like a liar (Would I lie about something like that? Seriously, would I?). I know he didn’t believe me about the second pitch because he threw home without even looking at me. I was safe easily. So I took another lead and yelled “Second pitch again, dimwit.” He spun, flipped the ball to the shortstop. Of course I hadn’t moved so nothing happened. He threw home, I didn’t move. He took his stretch, I led off. He threw, I broke for third and was safe again. “OK, dimwit, second pitch again.” By now my coach (who was the third base coach) was telling me to “put a sock in it.” You know I didn’t listen, don’t you. So I took my lead and the pitcher stared at me. I led off a little more. He brought up his arm and out fell the ball. “Balk, ” called the ump and I had my second run.

As luck would have it there was no one on when I came up for the third time. By now the pitcher hated me. So the first pitch almost clipped my head. The next almost got my elbow. OK, now that’s ball one and ball two. “Two more and I’m on first, dimwit.” Of course that did it. The next one knocked me down. Ball three. “Try again, dimwit.” Now the ball soared a foot over my head and I was on first again. “Hey, dimwit, second pitch again.” After the first pitch to our two hitter the catcher came out to talk to the pitcher. I waited. The stretch, the pitch. Oops, it’s a pitch out. You know they were thinking “we got that obnoxious jackass.” Except that the rattled pitcher now threw the ball eight feet over the catcher’s head and by the time it bounced halfway back to first I was safe on third. Now to get home. So I took a giant lead and the pitcher threw to third. This one didn’t go eight feet over the third baseman’s head, it went eight feet to his left and I scampered home with my third run.

I had one more at bat and this time the pitcher wasted no time. He plunked me solid in the ribs with the first pitch. OK, you got your revenge, but did you notice that I’m on base again? So down the line I went. About halfway I stopped and told him “First pitch this time, dimwit.” He apparently believed me. He toed the rubber. I led off. He spun (he was right handed) and faked a throw. That’s a balk and I’m free to second. And that was all for the pitcher. Out came his coach. In came the third baseman to pitch while the ex-pitcher went to third. While the new guy was warming up the ex-pitcher glared at me I waved at him and held up two fingers. The catcher must have seen the motion because he went out to the mound and talked with the new pitcher. The first pitch was a ball (I think) then came the second pitch. I took off and the pitcher threw to the plate. Or he threw at the plate. The ball bounced a couple of feet in front of the plate and went over the catcher’s head. I was about two feet from third when the ex-pitcher threw a great body block into me (the football coach would have been proud). He went down. I went down. It was interference. But I didn’t know that, so I reached over to grab the bag. Apparently the catcher saw me do so and heaved the ball to third. I don’t know who he was throwing to because the third baseman was on the ground with me but the ball sailed high and out into left. I got up, dashed for home, and scored my fourth run. I’m not sure what the ruling was on it (I don’t know if the ump should have stopped the play or not, but he didn’t) but I was home with four runs and not one time had I touched the bat to a ball (not even a foul).

It was a big day for me. I’d scored four runs and we’d won the game (I don’t recall the score, only that we won). Then came the postgame commentary from the coach. Something about being a good sport on the diamond and not showing up the other guys. At least I think that was what it was about. I was way too pleased to notice. Besides, I knew he couldn’t be talking to me.

You’re Not Helping, Coach

February 16, 2015
A Saturday Evening Post cover I shamelessly ripped off from Kevin's Baseball Revisited site

A Saturday Evening Post cover I shamelessly ripped off from Kevin’s Baseball Revisited site, a site you should visit

Back when I played youth baseball the system was a little different from the one they use now. Oh, yeah, we still used bats and there were gloves and balls and there were four bases and all those kinds of things, but once you got on a team you stayed four years. Age six was a one year event to get kids to understand where first base was located and where the shortstop stood. Then from age seven through age 10 you were on one team (and after I moved, the next town used the  same system). At seven you were still learning and if you were lucky you got to bat occasionally and generally got an inning in the outfield. By eight the guys who were able to pick up on how the game worked started getting decent playing time and the age nine and 10 guys were the fulltime players.

I started at seven on a team coached by a member of the local police force. He was a good enough guy. He knew my grandparents, knew my aunts and uncles. Because that was so he took particular time to work with me. He taught me how to stand on the field, told me I needed a better glove than the wretched thing I wore when I showed up. I learned how to hold a bat with the knuckles aligned, how to slide away from the throw, just all those great things that you need to really have a sense of how to truly play the game right. By eight, I was the part-time left fielder and by nine and 10 had settled in as the full-time center fielder. I was fast enough to track down balls and keep them from becoming long triples to the gaps and could, with some frequency, actually get my glove on the ball. I didn’t always catch it, but I could knock it down and I understood the concept of the cutoff man. Life, baseball speaking, was good.

Then the town decided to integrate the youth baseball program. It was a small Oklahoma town in the late 1950s and nothing was integrated. There were white schools and there was a black school. There were water fountains for each race, the bathrooms at the train depot and the bus station were both segregated. So into this segregated world they decided to experiment with the youth baseball program. At the time it struck me as strange to start with sports, but then as I aged I remembered that Jackie Robinson came before Brown v School Board.

The entire idea created a huge stir in our town. There were people who knew it would ruin the community and people who figured it wouldn’t hurt anything. I remember my grandparents sitting down to talk about whether I should play or not. I had big ears, so I managed to hear a conversation I wasn’t supposed to hear. They were worried about white and black kids playing together in a public setting (rather than the more private setting I was used to), about black and white kids using the same helmets and bats, about where the black parents would be allowed to sit. There weren’t a lot of bleachers at the ballyard but a new small set was built just for the black families (theirs were well down the left field line while the white folk got to sit up by the backstop). Ultimately they decided that, well, the kid loves the game, and I guess it couldn’t hurt, and, well, why not? So I got to sign up for my age 10 season. So too did three black kids. And sure as taxes, my coach drew two of them for our team. The rules stated that once you drew a kid for your team, you were stuck with him whatever you thought.

So the opening day of practice came. Every parent, or in my case grandparent, showed up along with all the kids. It’s the only time I ever saw all the kids and all the parents at the same time; that’s how important it was to them. The two black kids and their folks were standing a little way off from the rest of us, but they were there. I’d played a little with black kids (see my post The Field in the Middle of Town dated 25 February 2014 for the story), but I didn’t know either of these two.

Then Coach announced (all conversations approximated after 50 years) “We got two black kids this year. Any of you parents who want to quit will get your entry fee refunded.” He didn’t use “black” in the sentence, but another word-one that started with an “n”. That I do remember.

At the time I didn’t understand the absolute awfulness of saying that in front of the two black families, but I knew that three of the kids and their parents turned and left. Now that made no sense. It was baseball, for God’s sake, and I knew all three guys and I knew they loved to play and now they were just walking away, escorted by their parents, from the game. Well, as I said, that made no sense.

But we practiced with what we had left. A bit later we got a kid from another team (to make up for the three we lost) because the league wanted all the teams at approximately the same strength. Neither of the black kids had ever played organized ball before so they needed all the coaching help they could get. They got none. Coach simply ignored them. Occasionally he’d let one of them swing a bat (then he’d wipe off the bat with alcohol before the next white kid could swing it) or he’d stick one out in right field where they stood around totally unaware of what they were supposed to do. Now, me, I’d gotten all the help Coach could provide, but they weren’t getting a thing. I have to admit I didn’t think much about it at the time, because Coach was busy with the whole team and well, maybe he just didn’t have time to get to them.

The season started and I was back in center field. Back then the rule was simple: every kid had to play one inning in the field. Batting was optional because sometimes the last inning was a top of the inning and your team didn’t bat in the bottom of the inning or the new guy’s position in the lineup didn’t come to the plate. We did six innings, so Coach would stick one of the black kids in right field (where you always put the kid who couldn’t play) for the fifth inning and the other got the sixth. I gotta admit that Coach treated them alike there. The kid who played the fifth inning in one game generally got the sixth in the next game.

Which brings me to game one and the fifth inning. I don’t remember if we were ahead or behind. Frankly I don’t remember if we won or lost. What I remember is Coach pulling me aside and telling me, “Look, that black kid (and those aren’t the words he used) doesn’t know how to play right field. So I want you to shade over toward right center and be ready to take anything hit his way.”

“Sure thing, Coach.”

So out I went and did as I was told. We got through the game OK and the fifth and sixth inning instructions became common, “Shade over toward right center and be ready to take anything hit his way.” The problem was that we were beginning to leak runs in the fifth and sixth innings. I was over in right center, the left fielder was where he was supposed to be, and occasionally a liner got through that big gap and rolled to the fence. I don’t think it ever actually cost us a game (maybe so, I don’t remember), but it did cost us a run a few times.

So I went to the source of all baseball wisdom so far as I was concerned. “Coach, you gotta let me move back to dead center in the last innings. I can get to those balls and hold the batter to a single.”

“Do what you’re told. That black kid (again not the coach’s choice of words) doesn’t know anything so you keep playing where I say.”

“Yes, sir.” By now it was beginning to dawn on me that a lot of the reason the black kids didn’t know anything was because Coach wouldn’t teach them anything. You’re not helping here, Coach.

So back to right center I went, having decided I was going to have to do Coach’s job. I started trying to get the black kid (One was named Ronny. I have no idea the other kid’s name after all these years.) to move a little toward center, leaving the line open and letting me get back toward center field. I wasn’t going to catch that many (Hey, I wasn’t that good), but I could get to them and hold the runner at first. It actually worked and I was feeling pretty good about helping the right fielder. All that helping of Ronny and his pal got me a talking to.

“Quit telling that kid (again, wanna guess what word was actually there?) where to play,” Coach told me. “You’ll make him start to look good.”

And at that point the light went on. Coach was willing to give up runs in order to keep a kid from looking like he knew what he was doing. I’ll admit I wasn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier so it took another game or so to realize that the problem was Ronny and his cohort’s skin color. Here I was trying to win and the coach wasn’t helping because he wanted those two off his team. I should be clear that my problem was with losing, not with equal rights. It took a while to realize which was more important. In partial defense, I was but 10.

For almost all my youth baseball career I had two coaches: one I revere to this day, the other I’m of two minds about. My second coach taught me not just how to play, but how to play well, how to play fairly, and in some degree how to grow up. The first (the one referenced above) taught me quite a different lesson. On the one hand he liked me, taught me how to play the game right. What he didn’t teach me was how to grow up to be a person my wife and son could be proud of, a  person who judged another on who they were, not what they looked like. It’s sad, because he was a good man in most things, but he did have this blind spot and to this day it taints the way I view a man I should otherwise like and admire. Damned shame, isn’t it?

 

 

 

 

Verdun’s Advice on How to Pick Up Girls

May 29, 2014
OK, so I didn't pick up Catherine Bell. The advice is still good.

OK, so I didn’t pick up Catherine Bell. The advice is still good.

Today a little advice for all you young guys on how to pick up girls. Trust me, I’m an old hand at it.

Back when I was in youth baseball I hit all of two home runs ever (this is germane eventually). One was a standard turn on the pitch, drive it hard, and rope it right down the right field line (I hit left-handed) and watch it go over the fence. As the first I’d ever hit, I hadn’t perfected a home run trot, so I just kind of ran around the bases and came home. But when I was 13 I hit my second homer.

With a decent knowledge of the strike zone and some speed, I was our team’s leadoff hitter. Of course I had no power, but over the years learned to bunt. I didn’t do the standard bunt all that well. I could get it down, but sometimes it rolled a couple of feet and the catcher could gun me out. Occasionally, I’d bunt it directly to the third baseman and he’d do the same as the catcher. But I did do a terrific drag bunt. Now the purpose of a drag bunt is to get on base by rolling the ball into the triangle between the pitcher, the first baseman, and the second baseman. If you do it just right, you can get to first before one of them can field it and another can cover first.

My coach knew I could lay down a drag bunt, so before this particular game he told me to try it in my first at bat. I laid down a beauty. It rolled just far enough away from the first baseman that he couldn’t get it and had to retreat quickly to first. The pitcher saw he couldn’t get it and froze. The second baseman came dashing in for the ball. I could see him from the corner of my eye and saw he’d try to grab it with his bare hand and flip it to first without being able to stand. Our assistant coach was in the first base box and, seeing that the second baseman was going to let it fly was already motioning me toward second.

Well, the kid threw a Star Trek ball. The ball “boldly went where no ball has gone before.” Remember how big Mark McGwire was? No way he was going to reach this ball, let alone some little 13-year-old kid. So I was off to second. Most of the way there I was able to pick up the head coach who was in the third base box. He was motioning for me to come on to third. So I rounded second and headed for third.

Most teams at that age have at least one kid who has no business being on a diamond, but he likes the game and so there he is. You gotta play him, so most coaches stick him in right field where, theoretically, he can do the least damage. Well, that was true of the team we were playing. They had this skinny kid who was all arms and legs (and little head) in right. He managed to get to the overthrow finally and heaved it toward the infield. At least it was supposed to go to the infield. It sailed off into left-center and the coach sent me on home. I saw the on deck hitter holding up his arms telling me not to slide, so I scored standing up and we were ahead 1-0. I found out later that the official scorer (we were a big enough town to have one) gave me a single and two errors.

As I said, I was 13 and was just beginning to pick up on girls. Linda lived across the street. She was also 13 and just beginning to blossom. She ended up the head cheerleader in both junior high and high school back when athleticism had nothing to do with becoming a cheerleader. Back then the head cheerleader and all the other cheerleaders for that matter were determined by the shape of their legs, the size of their racks, and the shape of their face. So that should tell why I was smitten with Linda.

I was outside the next day when I saw her. She waved and I wandered across the street to see her. It was a typical West Texas street, black top with a concrete sidewalk on either side and something approximating grass trying to grow on the hot, dry lawns. Both our places had a front porch that was just a concrete slab with an overhang. The porch ran across the middle third of the house front, giving access to the front door and a large picture window.

“I saw you had your uniform on last night,” she told me.

I nodded. I was a bit tongue-tied. I mean this was a girl and a pretty one too.

“Did you win?”

I nodded again. I was trying desperately to figure out something intelligent to say.

“How did you do?”

So I finally worked up the courage and told her. I told her about my home run the night before. I told her how I’d made great solid contact, how the ball had sailed majestically up in the air, almost achieving orbit, then settled down beyond the center field fence two fields away. I did have enough sense to not claim I’d called my shot.

“Oh, that’s so wonderful,” she told me. “And so are you.”

Q.E.D.

 

 

Aaron’s Catch

December 29, 2013

One of the more interesting aspects of coaching youth baseball is the variety of players you get. I’ve had kids who went on the college level ball, kids that starred in high school, one kid who made the minor leagues, and of course an entire array of kids who, talentwise, should never have been anywhere near a baseball diamond.

Aaron was not the worst player I ever had, but he was in the top about five. He couldn’t hit the floor if he fell out of bed, couldn’t catch a cold, would have lost a race to a one-legged man, but he liked the game. It was my job to find a place to play him. I always had a  rule that the weakest hitter batted eighth because I wanted a rabbit who could hit just a little in the nine-hole so I could have a man on in  front of the lead off man. Aaron hit eighth. Or more properly, Aaron was in the eight hole, the hitting was more wish than reality. There’s also an unwritten rule that the worst fielder goes to right field. Wanna guess where Aaron played? He couldn’t go back on the ball at all, but he could come in a little if he got lucky. I had my son at second and one of his jobs was to act as cut off man for the right fielder. Another job  was to make sure that Aaron stayed back in right and didn’t keep wandering in so that a hard single would go over his head for a triple. It actually worked pretty well, except that deep or shallow Aaron couldn’t catch the ball.

Two-thirds of the way through the season we were involved in a fairly close game (one we eventually lost) with Aaron in right. In the fifth inning (I still have the score book and checked) we had two outs, two on, and Aaron still in right. The batter hit a soft liner that carried farther than we expected. It was obviously going to right and Aaron was, for once, actually back where he was supposed to be. I could hear my son shouting, “Aaron, Aaron,” as he moved to assume his usual cut off position. Aaron looked up, stared for a second, then began dashing (OK, dashing is too strong a word, but he was moving forward) in for the ball. He stuck up his glove (I think his eyes were closed) and the ball fell magically into his glove for the third out. I knew at that moment there was a God and that He loved baseball. There was no other explanation.

The team went slightly nuts. The parents went slightly nuts. The coaching staff went slightly nuts. His Dad went absolutely crazy. Even the umpires, who were on the diamond enough to get a pretty good idea of how good or awful were the players on each team, were smiling. The chief ump, who we called “Smiley” for the same reason you call a huge man “Tiny”, was manning home plate that night. He really was smiling when he shook my hand as I moved out to the third base coaching box. “Taught him everything he knows,” I told him.

Yeah, we lost. But for a change no one cared. Aaron’s catch was one of the highlights of the year for the team. It’s funny how that works. For a change the players were more concerned with a teammate doing well than with winning or losing. I couldn’t tell you a single stat from the best player on the team that year (except that I remember he came in second in batting average) without looking it up, but I remember the catch.  I never had Aaron in youth baseball again, but I ran into him later after he became an adult, working at a Walmart or some such place. We shook hands and talked a moment. He asked if I remembered the catch. I told him I did (I quoted the name of the other team as proof). He was happy I remembered. I believe I was even more happy that he remembered his shining moment in youth baseball. Ain’t that great?

Baseball and the Skid Row Bum

July 22, 2013

His name was Frank and he was a bum. There’s no way to varnish that. The man was a classic rendition of a skid row bum. He was alcoholic, generally dirty, just plain seedy. But he did a good turn for us.

Back when I was growing up, I lived in two towns. They were in adjoining states and each was different. The second one was larger and more prosperous. But like the first one, it had a Main Street Mission. Some of you may remember these. A few of them are still around, although they’ve changed locations and usually have newer, fancier names. Most were run by churches (ours by the local Methodists). They served the down and out of the community. Generally, the clientele could show up, get a hot meal, a warm bed, and a sermon. Frank once  told me he’d been “saved” six times and every one of them was worth the meal and the bed. He’d also memorized two verses of “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” I’m not sure how much religion the men, and they were all men where I lived, actually took in, but at least they were warm and fed.

One of the problems they had was a lack of employment and, frankly, a lack of employable skills. In my hometown, some genius came up with a solution that seemed to work. The local mission had joined with the local Optimist’s Club to find menial tasks for the men. It gave them a chance to do something meaningful, to get a few dollars, to keep them off the streets, and to help the mission meet some of its expenses. Some of them worked the ball fields. Frank was one.

The Optimist’s Club ran the local youth baseball (and football and basketball) programs. Most of the work was strictly volunteer and a lot of the Optimist’s didn’t have a lot of time to do a lot of actual work to help the local leagues. On the whole they were good people who would shell out money for uniforms and the players appreciated that, although I suppose it’s true that most of us never really thought about who paid for our uniforms. Or they would buy new equipment for the teams, but to actually go out and work on the fields to prep them for games, well, most of them didn’t do that. They claimed they didn’t have time, which was probably true, but many of us secretly anarchist ball players thought they just couldn’t be bothered with actual labor (Yeah, there was a Marxist streak in a few of us). So someone decided to enlist the aid of what we lovingly called “skid row bums” to work on the fields.

The Optimist’s Club would send a van down to the mission in the afternoons and a handful of men were brought out to the fields to get them ready for the evening’s games. They’d mow or use the roller to flatten the infield. They might repair a fence, paint a foul pole, or clean out the dugouts. It was simple work, but it had to be done. And by and large the “bums” did a pretty good job.

Frank was the roller man. I don’t believe I ever knew his last name. He had this big metal roller that looked a lot like a beer keg turned on its side. There were a couple of metal poles attached, one on either side, and a handle joined them (bet you’ve seen one at some point). I always wondered if the beer keg look caught Frank’s attention and he gravitated toward the roller job. He was good at it. The fields were level, the rocks and pebbles gone, the dirt smooth. As a first baseman, I really appreciated Frank’s work.

a ball field roller. Ours wasn't painted and didn't attach to a tractor.

a ball field roller. Ours wasn’t painted and didn’t attach to a tractor.

A handful of us, when we had nothing better to do with our time, hung out at the ball fields doing nothing at all special. That’s how I met Frank. We would watch him roll the fields then he’d stop for a drink of water in a thermos that the Optimist Club left for him (and the other guys out working on the fields). We’d wander over and he’d regale us with stories. Some of them were probably true. He’d been in World War II. He was Army and had been in the Pacific. There were no stories about him being a hero or anything, just things about how he’d gotten on and the people he’d known. He never blamed the military for his current condition. Somewhere along the line there’d been a girl, but apparently it had never amounted to much. He’d had a series of odd jobs, lost them (we figured from the drinking, but he never said), and ended up out on the fields with his roller. Occasionally, after a particularly good story, we’d put together a handful of quarters and give him some money for a meal. We knew he’d buy booze with it, but we couldn’t force him to use it for something other than a cheap bottle of Ripple.

When the games started, he’d stay around some times and watch the early game. He always sat alone. I don’t think any of the parents wanted to sit near him and certainly didn’t want their kids around him. I think they felt that alcoholism was catching. He never stayed for the late game. I guess he went back to the Mission or to the streets, whichever pleased him most that night.

After I was done with youth baseball I would see him sometimes on the street. I waved at him a couple of times, but I don’t think he ever waved back. I don’t know what happened to him after I left home for the Army and college. I haven’t visited the town in years and presume he’s dead now. I’d like to say he gave me some great insight into life, but he was a drunk and I was a dumb kid. He did make me a little more understanding of the wretched of the earth. You know, that’s not a bad legacy for a skid row “bum”.

“What Passing Bells for Those Who Die…”

July 10, 2013

The quote above is from “Anthem for Doomed Youth” by Wilfred Owen. He is one of the more famous “War Poets” of the First World War. His poem “Dulce Et Decorum Est” is arguably the most famous of all war poems (other than the “Iliad” which is a whole different animal). When I was 12, I’d never heard of Wilfred Owen, but I had to face a death.

Death is one of those strange concepts that is almost unreal to a 12-year-old kid. I mean you could flip on TV and watch John Doucette (an old cowboy actor) get killed on “The Lone Ranger”, then a couple of weeks later “Cheyenne” would knock him off again, and finally if you waited for another month or so then he’d get bumped off on “The Rifleman.”

Death was one of those things that occurred when you were playing cowboys and indians or war. You went bang and the other guy did (or sometimes didn’t) fall down dead. Then mother’s would start calling for kids to come home and all the dead guys were magically resurrected and went home for dinner. So death had a certain element of fantasy to it.

I got to the ballyard one evening for a game. There were generally two games on each field per night and we had the early game. Coach was busy passing out black armbands for us to wear. Now I was smart enough to know what they were for. Someone had died. Turns out a kid named Bobby had gotten killed in a car wreck. It was back in the day when there were no airbags and seatbelts were a novelty. The kid was thrown through a windshield and died at the scene.

Even here there was a certain element of unreality to it. I kind of vaguely knew the kid. We went to different schools, lived in different parts of town. He played center field for the Cubs, my team was the Bears. So it wasn’t like I knew him, although what little I did know made him seem like a nice enough guy. It was more that I knew of him.

He was buried in his Cubs uniform and games were cancelled that day. I heard that some of the teams signed balls and added them to the coffin, but ours didn’t so I won’t swear that’s true. All the teams were to wear the black armbands for the rest of the season. Our league was divided into two division cleverly called the National League and the American League. You played every team in your division twice and the teams in the other division once. We were in the National League and the Cubs in the American. It didn’t  make sense having  the Cubs inthe American League, but then if it had to make sense there would have been no team called the Bears. We hadn’t yet played our game against the Cubs so there was some serious discussion among the players about throwing the game in Bobby’s honor. We decided that was a bad idea for a lot or reasons, not least of which is that the kid would be disappointed (and Coach would have killed us). I remember we beat them, but don’t recall the score.

Our league was set up so that the top two teams in each division played a postseason tournament. As luck would have it, both of us made the playoffs. Bobby’s Dad threw out the first pitch in the first game (which we were in). We won. The Cubs had the other game (and I never found out why Bobby’s Dad didn’t throw out the first pitch in that game instead of ours). We won, they lost; so we didn’t have to play each other. After the season ended there was a big picnic where trophies were given out and awards presented. There was a big trophy case in the local Optimist’s Club where the trophies were put on display (as far as I know they’re still there). They added a picture of Bobby to that season’s stack of trophies.

It was my first real confrontation with death. Because he was a peripheral person in my life it didn’t hit me really hard. That came later when family members died and when I lost friends in Viet Nam. But I still remember it.

“Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes/Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.”

Wilfred Owen, “Anthem for Doomed Youth”

Taking One for the Team

May 13, 2013
It wasn't quite this bad

It wasn’t quite this bad

I’ve been thrown out of ball games exactly four times ever: twice as a player, twice as a coach. I told you about the youth baseball experience in a post dated  6 September 2012 and titled “Be Careful What You Ask For”. My other time as a player occurred while playing for an army team. I’m not particularly proud of either moment, but there is one time as a coach that I was kind of proud of being tossed. (All conversation cleaned up for the family nature of this site and approximated after 25 year’s time.)

I was coaching a little league (not capitalized because I’m using it in the generic sense, not in reference to the organization in Williamsport, PA) a number of years ago. We had a decent team, finished about third or fourth. We were involved in a close game against one of the better teams in the league when there was a bang-bang play at second. The opposing team’s player bolted from first, our catcher threw a great strike to second. Our shortstop slapped down the tag, the guy was out. Except for the small fact that the shortstop dropped the ball. It rolled under the guy and apparently no one but the umpire and I noticed. So the ump, being a man of integrity called the guy “safe.”

My team’s parents erupted. Now we had 12 players and most of them were there that night. That meant that there were roughly 12 sets of parents, grandparents, in-laws, friends, girlfriends, cousins, nephews, nieces, and assorted hangers-on sitting behind our bench and down the third base line (we were on the third base bench). The players were screaming. My assistant coaches were screaming. Everyone of them was absolutely sure that the ump was blind as a lawyer to his client’s guilt and cold as a cop at a traffic stop. You know, just your standard spawn of Satan type. I had three fathers threatening to go out and cut the ump’s throat (or a part of his anatomy somewhat lower). It was obvious that the crowd was going to get out of hand if someone didn’t do something. So being a combat vet (and deathly afraid of little league parents) I decided it had to be me.

I turned to my assistant coach, “Dave, be prepared to take over, I’m going to have to get run.”

“Say what?”

“I’m going to have to go argue with the ump about the call and I’m going to have to argue enough he’s going to run me outta here.”

Dave nodded and I headed over to second. I stopped first to talk with my shortstop. “Did you get him out?”

“Yeah, coach, I got him,” he lied. Now I was in even worse trouble. Terrific. Now I had to back my player who I knew was lying.

So on out to the ump I went. We stepped a few feet away from the players so no one could hear us.

“Don’t start, Coach,” the ump told me. “Your man dropped the ball.”

With my face screwed into the tightest grimace of anger I could manage I replied, “Yeah, I know.”

“Then what the heck are you doing out here?” He looked at me like I was a total idiot.

“You see those parents back there?” I asked through my best scowl.

He looked over my shoulder toward the team parents. Four of them (not all males) were trying to climb the chain link fence to get onto the field. Two of them had those little plastic forks they gave you when you got chili-cheese fries at the concession stand. The ump blanched.

“I gotta keep them calm, so I gotta argue with you. I gotta argue enough that you toss me.”

He thought for a second, then nodded. “OK, but we gotta take a while, don’t we?”

“Yeah, how long you figure?” I asked pointing my finger at him and waving it threateningly.

He took a quick look down at his watch and looked up with his worst grimace of anger, “I guess about a minute.”

“OK.” Now at a total loss as to what to do next, I asked, “So what do we talk about?” I threw up an arm in utter disgust at whatever he said.

“How about the blonde with the big melons?” he suggested while punching his finger into my face about an inch short of my nose.

One of the other team’s mothers was this nice looking blonde with big melons who was seated just in eyesight of both of us. She had on one of those blue summer dresses that have no sleeves, a couple of thin straps and a short, but wide skirt.

“Nice legs too,” I told him with both arms flailing in his direction.

“Yep. You oughta try getting her kid next year,” the ump told me with a jerk of his head and a glare.

I screwed up my face again, threw both arms up and gestured wildly, “I’ll have to find out which one he is.”

“I think it’s the kid they have in center tonight,” he said through clinched teeth.

“You sure?” I responded through equally clinched teeth.

“No, but I’ve seen her yell for him when he’s at bat,” he told me as he glanced at his watch. “The minute’s almost up so toss your cap down and I’ll run you, OK?”

So I threw down my cap. He threw up his arm with thumb extended in the classic “Yer outta here” signal. I grabbed my cap, trudged back to the dugout, winked at Dave and went out through the player’s gate over by third base. My parents were giving me a standing ovation.

Back then when you were tossed out in the local league, you had to leave the ball yard entirely. Of course there was a parking area just to the first base side of the field, so I wandered over there, leaned back on a car, and waited for the game to end. We managed to win the game (and the guy safe at second didn’t score). So I headed back to the field to talk with the team. Half the fathers patted me on the back, the other half shook my hand. One of the mother’s kissed my cheek (It wasn’t the blonde. I have no idea what she did).

So I was a hero, but for every action there is an equal an opposite reaction (thank you, Isaac Newton). The next game I showed up, the same ump showed up, the league president showed up. He motioned for both of us to come over.

“What the hell happened out here Tuesday?”

“It’s OK, Dutch,” the ump told him. “Coach here had to argue with me to keep the fans in line and I had to toss him to make it look good. No harm, Dutch.”

I nodded.

“Damn it, guys, we can’t be doing it that way. League rules say I gotta suspend you for being tossed, Coach.” I could see he was in something of a  dilemma and wasn’t sure how to get out of it. No one seemed angry and someone was supposed to be furious.

“But, Dutch, he didn’t really say anything and I’m not upset,” my new hero told him. “Couldn’t we just forget it?”

“Can’t do it. ” There was a long pause as he searched for a solution to his problem.  He looked over at me, “But tell you what I’ll do.  I’ll  suspend you for one inning of this game and that’ll be it. OK?”

“Deal.”

So I leaned against another car while we scored a run or two. Then in a little league rarity in our town we set the other team down in order. So I was back to coaching, was a hero to my players and parents, made a friend in the ump, and we won the game. Not a bad outcome, right?

Oh, and the blonde? I never did get her kid. Damn.

The Broad in the First Base Box

April 18, 2013

I’ve never been known as much of an innovator when it comes to baseball. I have no real new stats that have revolutionized the game. I’ve not come up with a way to hold the bat that made .220 hitters into superstars. I did once do something for gender equity in youth baseball. Let me tell you about it.

The local youth baseball league where I live and where my son grew to manhood let girls play. Some of them were pretty good, others not so much. But that’s all they did. They simply didn’t have female coaches. Turns out I had a friend who played softball when she was younger. She was a catcher and knew quite a bit about the game. She was also a big baseball fan and she and I would talk about the game on occasion. most importantly for my purposes, she had a son about the same age as mine.

The way it worked around here was that you would tell the powers that be in the local league that you wanted to coach. They were always desperate for coaches so you were never turned down. Then you got to pick your own assistant coaches (you got 2). My buddy Pete was already an assistant so I needed a second. My solution? Ask “Jane” (Not her real name. She’d kill me if I used it). She said yes.

Now this created quite some shock. A handful of coaches thought it was a terrible idea, others thought it was fine. There were no Cap Anson’s (I ain’t gonna let my guys play against some team with a woman on it), but there were a few snide comments.

The team took it fairly well. No complaints from the players. She was actually pretty good at working with the kids, especially the guys I wanted at catcher. She managed to soothe a couple of ruffled feathers a time or two. In other words, she worked. 

I stuck “Jane” as the first base coach while I took third and Pete handled the bench. This brought her directly onto the field during games. She had a tendency to wear shorts (short ones) and her uniform top was fairly tight. That got the attention of the adult males in the crowd. Now “Jane” was still young (several years younger than either Pete or me) and still had her figure. It bent in and out at all the right places and in just the right amounts. With her in the first base coaches box you couldn’t help but notice. That led another female friend of mine to ask, “You trying to distract the umps?” Wished I’d thought of it.

We had a decent season, coming in third in an eight team league. We got trophies at the big awards ceremony at the end of the season. The kids were happy. Several of them asked if I was going to coach again next season. I thought to myself, “Isn’t it great to be appreciated?” A number of the father’s on the other hand asked if I was going to use the same assistant the next year. If so they wanted their kid on my team. I thought that a great compliment to Pete.

Doing My Juan Marichal Impression

March 5, 2013
The mound

The mound

When I was in youth baseball I spent most of my time in either center field or first base. I was pretty fast (a lot less poundage then) and could catch well so it was center and first for me. The team was pretty good and much of our strength was our pitching (bet that surprised the heck out of you, didn’t it?). We had three excellent, for youth baseball, pitchers and when they were on we could run up some pretty serious scores. If they weren’t on, well,  the other team was known to run up some pretty serious scores. Our coach had a policy of not wasting pitching when we were either blowing the other guys out or they were blowing us out. In that case, he’d bring in one of the position players to take up a couple of  innings or to take one for the team. That’s how I got my one and only chance at pitching immortality.

I was 11 (I think) and we were up a gazillion to nothing after four innings. We did six innings back then and Coach decided it was time to change out pitchers. As we came off the field he pulled me aside and told me that after I finished my at bat (and hopefully scored) I was to go warm up as I would pitch the fifth and our other first baseman (he was normally the third baseman) would take over for me at first. Despite being in something of a fog of amazement, I got on base (don’t recall how), scored, then found the backup catcher and started warming up. I wasn’t sure exactly how you warmed up, but I threw the ball to the catcher a few times.

Then it was my turn. Coach pulled me aside, “Look, we’ve got this one sewn up. Just go out there and lob the ball down the middle. Let ’em hit it at someone. We field well.” So off I went to the mound. “Chariots of Fire” and “Rocky” weren’t out yet so I have no idea what theme music was going through my head, but there I was perched for greatness.

You ever notice how high a mound is? OK, I’d been on one before when we had meetings at the mound, but I’d never really looked the damned thing over before. It was really tall. I was a good head and shoulders above everyone else out there except for this one really tall umpire. Now that makes you think about greatness.

But exactly how do you pitch? I had no idea, I’d never done it before. Well, Juan Marichal was new, seemed good, and looked great with that giant leg kick of his. So if he could do the high leg kick, why couldn’t I. He also threw really, really hard like I was gonna do (sorry, Coach, but I just have to show the world my speed). So I rocked back, threw my leg as high as I could, and realized I couldn’t see the plate, the leg was in the way. I let the ball go as hard as I could throw. It missed the plate by eight feet. The catcher missed it by five feet. That brought both the catcher and Coach to the mound.

“What the heck was that? You not understand the word ‘lob’? Just lob the damned ball over the plate,” I was reminded. The catcher gave me the ball, a shake of the head, and went back to his squat. OK, Coach, you want a lob, you got a lob. This one bounced about three feet in front of the plate. Ball two. The next pitch was better and the poor batter, finally seeing something he might hit, took a swing. The ball had nothing on it, he topped it, and it rolled into the infield, coming to rest a couple of feet from me. I picked it up, tossed it to our backup first baseman, and I’d gotten an out. One third of an inning and no base runners.  

Hey, this stuff  is easy, Coach. How’s come I don’t get to pitch more? Doing great, Juan, doing great.

But now here came the next batter. I knew the kid. He was their eight hitter and it dawned on me that Coach had given me the seven, eight, and nine hitters to get out. OK, Coach, I can mow down the bottom of the order.

So I stared in at the batter. I stared. I stared again. I stared some more. Bob Gibson would have been proud of that stare. I was intimidating the heck out of him. Kid wasn’t going to hit me. He was going to tremble. The opposition was going to tremble.

“Hey, idiot, throw the ball.” My teammates were, however, going to be bored.

Oh, yeah, I gotta throw it. I did. He swung. He missed. The catcher caught it. Then came another swinging strike. Now I had him.  Turned out I did. He was so out of sorts, I lobbed one right by him. He took it for strike three and I now had a strikeout. Top that, Juan Marichal. Can you strut while standing still?

OK, one more out to get and it’s the very bottom of the order. Here’ a kid that hasn’t gotten a hit all year. He’s swung maybe twice. He’s been hit once, he’s walked once, he’s never scored. So I got him easy, right? So let’s do something daring. I threw the ball a little harder and he swung. For God’s sake he swung. The ball rolled out into the field. I was shocked, he was shocked, his mother was shocked. Fortunately our second baseman wasn’t shocked. He raced over, picked up the ball, tossed it to first and the inning was over.

So I came off the field. No one raised me on their shoulders. No one played martial music (we were a very undemonstrative team). Coach nodded “good job.” And I went to the rack, got a bat (I was on deck to lead off the sixth). God, that was easy. Maybe Coach will give me the ball again. I got this pitching stuff down. He never did, but I still got an 0.00 ERA with a strikeout. Talk about a heck of a WHIP. Top that, Juan Marichal.