Diamond Reflections

The neighborhood I grew up in had a lot of guys in it.  They were all a lot older than I was and great athletes (or at least that’s the way I remembered them).  We lived almost across the street from Central School and the basketball courts there were always jammed.  The guys that played in those games were huge.  The games were more like football sometimes and then you had the occasional disagreement that led to some kind of fight.  The fights were more a wrestling match with the winner always getting the loser in a headlock.  Once the headlock was established the fight was automatically over and the game resumed.  All this was part of the informal “rule book” of street basketball.

 I was 7 years old and by far the smallest kid in the area.  The fact that the older guys let me even watch was amazing to me.  One of the guys who lived two doors down even talked to me once in a while.  Billy was 12.  I was about 2 foot 7 and he seemed to be about 6 foot 8.  He assured me that I would get killed on the basketball court but – “have you ever thought about baseball”.

Now you’re talking.  Ever since I could turn on the TV I watched the Saturday Game of the Week.  The announcers were Dizzy Dean and PeeWee Reese – hall of famers, no less and they were doing play-by-play right in my living room.  Looking back, I think old Dizzy had a problem.  The broadcasts were sponsored by Wiedeman’s Beer.  They must have stocked the booth with free samples.  By the 7th inning old Diz would be slurring his words and calling people by the wrong name, singing, and telling stories.  It was an amazing transformation from 1st inning Dizzy to 7th inning Dizzy.  By the end of the game Pee Wee was pretty much on his own.

 The play-by-play of these games hardly mattered.  I knew every New York Yankee on a first name basis, what number they wore, and what they did in their spare time.  I didn’t need Dizzy or Pee Wee to tell me what was going on.  I lived and died with the Yankees in the late ’50’s and early 60’s.  I think they had some connection to CBS network because the game of the week was always a Yankees game.

Billy instantly became my career advisor.  He told me about Little League Baseball.  Wow.  How could that possibly be true?  But he was 12 and much more worldly than I was so I had to believe him.  What do I need to do?

“Get your parents to get you a baseball glove (problem #1).  Get one of them to take you to tryouts (problem #2).  They will have to sign some papers (problem #3) and pay some money so you can play (problem #4).”

 We didn’t have much money for things like baseball gloves or any kind of sports career.  We just barely had enough money for school clothes – 4 kids, 1 income does not leave room for luxury.  So just when I was starting to abandon all hope, Billy throws in the ultimate, over-the-top, deal you can’t refuse.

“You have to tryout but if you’re really good, I’ll talk to the coach and try to get you on my team – the Yankees.”

My heart stopped.  This had to be divine direction.  If all the stars aligned, I would wear a uniform that said Yankees across the front.  He probably kept talking but I didn’t hear anything after that.  I had to devise a plan to get to that tryout.

 I’ll save you all the drama because there really wasn’t any.  My mom in response to any request for permission replied “you have to talk to your dad”.  Dad wasn’t real fond of kids (or so I thought) and especially kids that needed money.  But into the lions den I went – actually it was the basement where he was working on some minor mechanical miracle.

  “Dad, I really want to play baseball.  I could be on the Yankees (that should cement the deal).  All I need is a glove and enough money to pay the fee.”

“Well, I have an old glove you can use and we’ll get you the money.  Did I ever tell you I was the catcher on the orphanage team?  I was pretty good at it too.”

Dad must have been inhaling the 3-in-1 oil that day.  This isn’t my Dad’s normal reaction.  Other than the part about being a catcher, this was incredible.  (Nobody wants to be a catcher.)  He actually went and started digging through a secret box.  He presented me with what had to be the first baseball glove ever stitched together.  It was flat and about the size of an oven mitt with fingers.  I didn’t care.  It was even signed by someone named “Enos – Country – Slaughter”.  I think he wrote the preamble to the constitution or something.  Wow – problems #1, #4 solved leaving only signing papers and transportation to tryouts.

The form actually came in the local paper, The Middletown News. Mom and Dad both signed.  Problem 3 – done.  What could be done about getting to tryouts?  My Mom knew very little about baseball but knew where the park was.  She didn’t drive (it didn’t matter, we only had 1 car) but she knew how to walk.  Oh no – the park is like 300 miles away and I’m only 7 but I had faith, a walking Mom, and a potential Yankees uniform for motivation.

Needless to say, we walked the 300 miles, money was paid, forms submitted, tryouts were done, and after a long agonizing week of waiting I got the call.  I was a Yankee.  I had made the big show.  People would stand in awe when I walked by in that uni (that’s what all us ballplayers call our outfit – “uniform” is too common place).

 I was quite a sight.  The shirt was as tall as I was.  Two of me could have fit in the pants but I didn’t care.  It said “Yanks” on the front (cost saving over the more formal “Yankees”).  By the way, What’s an athletic supporter?

 I played that first year on cloud nine.  More correctly, I sat on the bench that first year most of the time but they had to put me in every game.  That’s the rule.  Game days were incredible and several times I thought I was going to throw-up from all the excitement.

The season started before school was out.  On game days, I would rush home as quick as I could (which meant crossing the street – we lived next door).  So by 3:30 I was in my uniform and wanting to get to the park so I wouldn’t miss the 5:30 game start.  (After school was out, I was in uniform by about 2:00.) Mom always thought I should eat something before I went but there was no way.

 I was nervous.  I would play the game again and again in my head before I even left the house.  I was a wreck.  I had been to enough practices that I could now walk to the park on my own.  Think about that today – 7 years old walking through town all alone (not really 300 miles but far enough). I love small town America for that reason.  I knew everybody and they knew me.  If I ventured too far off the direct route to the park, somebody would either correct me or call my mom.  I never felt safer.

 My first year we won the league title.  I had little to do with that but I wore the uniform and got the trophy, which I still have. Life was good.

 The next year I was a pro at this game.  My neighbor Billy was now 13 and playing Babe Ruth League so I didn’t see him much.  Dad even sprung for a new glove – so long Enos Slaughter.  This was a real glove with an Al Kaline autograph (look it up).  Life is better than ever.

The coach came to me one day – his name was Al (the first grown-up that I was allowed to call by his first name).  He said “you have a decent arm but you’re kind of small.”  How astute – I already knew both of these things.  “Have you thought about being a pitcher?” Just when I thought life couldn’t get any better – it went to a whole new level.

“Give me the ball and stand back.”  That’s what I said and I was right.  No one wanted to be in the area when I started pitching because the ball might go anywhere. I needed some work so I came up with a plan – far fetched but a plan none the less.  I would ask my Dad for help.  After all, he used to be a catcher so he should know something about the guy throwing the ball to him.  It turns out he was a genius.

“Here is a cardboard box and here is a line that is the pitcher’s mound.  Here are some old tennis balls.  Do your wind up and throw the ball into the box.  You’ll either learn control or you’ll wear yourself out chasing tennis balls.  Oh yeah, don’t forget to mow the yard.”  World Series here I come or maybe a career as the grounds keeper.

I wore a path between my “pitcher’s mound” and the cardboard box as well as the neighbors yard, corn field, under the car, etc.  I finally figured out that if I put the box up against the house, I wouldn’t have to chase the balls as far – I should have a patent on that.  Problem was that throwing at the box was not improving my fielding ability – hey you can’t pitch every game – league rules.  Time for another brilliant idea from the mind of an 8 year old.

The back door to our house was exactly 4 stair steps above ground level.  This would not seem relevant except that when you couple a rubber ball (baseball size of course) with 4 concrete steps you have an automatic ball return.  Not only could I work on my pitching but sometimes the rubber ball would come back as a “grounder”, sometimes as a line-drive, and very infrequently a “pop-up”.

 This could have been the perfect solution except for one minor issue.  Sometimes the ball would skip off the step and instead of bouncing back would continue on its course right into the back screen door.  New problem – rubber ball traveling at all the velocity an 8 year old could muster hitting a screen door soon allows said ball to enter the house as screen is destroyed.  Ok – I never solved this one – I just learned to keep the ball low.  I also learned that it costs several weeks allowance to repair screen doors.

I loved to pitch.  I was a shy kid and didn’t talk to very many people.  Something about being on that mound, in that uniform, and holding that brand new baseball lit something in me.  It was one small piece of my life when I was in total control of the action.  I was the king of my little league team (in my mind) and never wanted it to end.

 This was repeated until I was 11 when I made the all-star team.  I didn’t think life could get any better but then this happened.  I was playing with the best players in our league – what a change from my normal team.  These guys were awesome.  I didn’t get to pitch but I played shortstop or second base depending on who was pitching that day.  We played in the New Castle district tournament.  M-town had never won a game there and when I was 11 we held true to tradition.  I was in tears (really).  I only played ½ of the game then it was over.

My last year of Little League was a repeat of the previous season.  I pitched and won 4 games.  Hall of fame, here I come. Then came all-stars again.

We were a rag-tag looking bunch.  When we went to New Castle to play, we all wore our league uniforms.  The other teams there all had matching uni’s that said “All Stars” all over them.  I didn’t care.

First game, I was at second base and in about the 3rd inning I had an unassisted double play.  Wow.  We had a left handed pitcher that other teams never quite figured out.  We won – we actually beat one of the 2 New Castle teams.  On to the next game.  We beat Spiceland which put us in the championship game against the other New Castle team.

 We won again and kept winning.  We won tournaments at Connorsville and Anderson.  We were headed for the state finals at Gary, Indiana.  Our pictures were in all the local newspapers and I was truly living the dream.

 I was staying away from my Mom and Dad for the first time ever.  We were on cots in Lew Wallace High School in Gary.  The first game we played a team from Gary called East Glen.  I thought we were good in our non-matching uni’s but Gary had a guy who I swear had a beard.  He was only 12 years old but hit the ball into the next county.  We got beat 7 to 1.  Single elimination – we were out.  I was devastated.  If we could have won that game we had a chance at going to Williamsport.

We were invited back to play a “consolation” game.  We played a team from Rochester and thumped them.  I think it was 13-3 or something.  My Little League career was over.

I loved baseball growing up but now don’t have the patience for it.  I haven’t watched a TV game for years.  Things change.  I changed.  There is a great picture posted somewhere on FaceBook of our team after we won the tourney in Connorsville.  It makes me smile every time I see it.  To this day, when I find myself alone, I’ll sometimes head to the park and walk slowly onto the Little League diamond pausing at the appropriate places (shortstop and second base).  I spend the most time just standing on the pitcher’s mound still wondering who the heck is Enos “Country” Slaughter.