My Life in Little League...in which Uncle Duke gets clues on how to do Dad
I think I was in Little League. But it might have been Pony League. I was maybe 12. And actually, I was a pretty decent hitter. And a darned good first baseman. But our coach somehow saw certain indications that I would make a first-rate, dandy pitcher. I was left-handed, for one—a sort of rare commodity back then. I had a decent arm and could throw strikes with some consistency. Another rare commodity. And I confess I looked good out there, glaring in at the hitter and the catcher. Shaking off signs for pitches that I did not know how to throw. So a decision was made, more or less on the spot, that I would be the starting pitcher in our next outing.
That night I warmed up and was finding the plate pretty good, and the next thing I knew I was out there. I was feeling pretty confident, hitting my catcher’s glove. It made a pretty good ‘thunk’, and I could see my career as a hurler stretching out in front of me. “Jewel in the rough mows down batter after batter.” “Southpaw wunderkind found in rural Kentucky.” “Small town boy finds fame and fortune in the Major Leagues.” It was my destiny. I could feel it. “Play Ball,” said the umpire.
The flaw in the ointment was that though I could find the plate well enough, though strikes were not an issue, my pitches could not avoid the other team’s bats. Batter after batter turned my grooved, predictable strikes into base hits. They clouted pitch after pitch over the infielders and between the outfielders. Baserunner after baserunner was rounding corners and heading for home.
It turned out that I was not so much a ‘game pitcher’ as a ‘batting practice pitcher’. My particular skill as a pitcher was in increasing the confidence level of forlorn and slump-ridden batters. I had a knack for throwing my pitches into the precise arc in which batters with no particular skill were swinging. It was a skill, to be sure, but not one valued in most game situations.
I could see my coach looking more and more nervous in our little chicken-wire dugout. And I could see my infielders and outfielders moving further and further away from me, deeper and deeper as a form of self-defense. But I doggedly continued to do what I had been put out there to do—throw strikes so that someone (hopefully three someones) might hit the ball directly at one of my fielders. I did not have a Plan B, and apparently neither did our coach. He left me in there for the duration of that 1st inning—which lasted, as I recall it, several weeks.
But eventually three smoked baseballs wound up in the gloves of my beleaguered defense. Side out. Finally. And I took my pitching career back to the dugout and sat down dejectedly.
I don’t recall the score. How many runs they plated. But it was a bunch. It was clear that this pitching tryout had run its course. There would be no headlines in the weekly paper. There would be no fame spread far and wide. The only thing that would spread would be humiliation. And it would follow me to my grave. “Local Boy Allows More Runs Than Could Fit in Scorebook.”
So I don’t recall many butt slaps or atta-boys in the dugout when I got back in there. Not even a “That’s OK. We’ll get ‘em back.” What I recollect was that I was pretty much invisible. Nobody said a word. I was a 12-year-old cipher. A pitching experiment gone bad. A 6th grade, scrap-heaped hurler. A grade school has-been.
But as it turned out, I had no time for excessive self-pity. I was due up to bat that 1st inning. And I dutifully limbered up, pulled out my trusty bat and sauntered up to the plate.
One of the joys of being 12 is that your brain doesn’t really process things all that quickly. So my identity as an abject adolescent failure had not actually registered yet. So I walked up there with a singularity of purpose and eyed their pitcher the way I always did. And as luck would have it, his first pitch to me was one in my wheelhouse. I swung and hit it as far as I could hit it. I had never hit a ball that hard. It flew out over the left-fielder’s head into the outer reaches of hyper-space. It soared deep, deep, deep into an uncharted realm of the universe. The dark frontier outside the lights.
There was however no home run fence, so I began running as fast as I could run. My legs have never, before or since moved so swiftly, and I rounded 1st base and headed for 2nd. I had it in my head, from the stroke of the bat, that it was a round-tripper.
My primary miscalculation however was in thinking that there was nothing else in hyperspace. That the frontier was empty. There were in fact cars parked out there. At the far end of the Universe, where no baseballs ever reached. And though my grandly struck baseball would have still been rolling to this day without obstruction, it hit a bumper in the parking lot and bounced directly back into the glove of the outfielder futilely chasing it. Receiving this gift from the baseball gods, he fired it into the 3rd baseman who then stood waiting for me, perhaps still on the way to 2nd at the time, my head down, my legs churning, my brain envisioning a home run. A heroic circling of the bases and triumphantly crossing home plate.
There was therefore some period of time in which everyone in the ballpark, with the exception of myself, knew that the baseball, which I had, I thought, just moments before, hit into the next county, was now waiting for me in the glove of the 3rd baseman. When I arrived there, I was summarily and shockingly tagged out. In the aftermath of which there was of course grand merriment and jubilation by the opposing team. At my considerable expense. On my part, there was only bewilderment.
I do not remember anything of the rest of this game. I would presume that we lost, but the details of that loss are not in my memory bank. You will perhaps understand, however, that there was much that had transpired in my impressionable and malleable young brain in a short period of time. It was not the stuff of legends, as I had hoped, but the stuff of ignominy. I was one crestfallen little dude. The God of baseball, which was the God I mostly prayed to in the Summer, had not been kind to me.
But friends, this isn’t a story about baseball. Not really. Fortunately, this is a story about Fathers.
When I got home that night, my father called me into the inner sanctum—the bedroom. He had of course been at the game that night. In his customary seat in the bleachers, no doubt working a Roi-Tan. He was always there. Every game. And I gave him no mind mostly. That is what Dads did—they watched their sons play ball. And commented very little, good or bad.
But this night he called me into his room. This was generally not good, and I did not know what to expect. But he began speaking to me in a respectful tone. He was not a man for whom words of praise came easily. And I don’t remember the words precisely, but it was in a language of high approval. I had in his view performed admirably. I had not let the poor results of my efforts spoil the efforts themselves. I had continued playing the game full force, even though the outcome and the score had not favored me.
He got up and went to his dresser. He pulled out a small object, wrapped in tissue paper, and handed it to me. It was an 1880 silver dollar. “I am proud of you,” he said. “Now good-night.” We then shook hands, as was our custom. That was what men did. And I went up to bed.
I didn’t exactly know what to make of all that. Except that my feelings about that ballgame and everything that had happened had changed. I was no longer humiliated by it all, but somehow proud. I had pretty much failed from start to finish, but I was now fairly satisfied and even pleased by my performance. Tomorrow was a day to look forward to. After breakfast, I would grab my glove and run out the door in the morning and play ball all day long. I had an 1880 silver dollar in my pocket and a father who was proud of me. Life was good.
That is the power of Fathers, gentlemen. Happy Father’s Day.