Sunday, December 12, 2010

I REMEMBER - Baseball, the Pain and the Triple Play

I remember being an All-American kid growing up loving to play baseball.  Mostly we played stick-ball in our yard, and in the good old days we only had a back fence in our neighborhood in McAlister, Okla.  There were no side fences or front fences, and so our yard just ran through our neighbor's yard and their neighbor's yard--until you ran out of block.  Kids could play football and have the whole 100 yards with their buddies and their neighbors' yards.

But baseball was the best.  I loved it.  I started playing catcher.  I had my moves down to throw guys out trying to steal bases.  This was sandlot ball with virtually no equipment.  We had bats, balls and gloves (most of us) and that was about it.  About a month into my career as a ball player, Timmy Johnson, big time slugger, failed to control his swing and after a mighty effort (he missed the ball), he kept coming around and connected quite solidly with my forehead.  Laid me out like a cod.  Knocked me out cold.  Other than a slight concussion (my mom said a coconut was softer), I later had the pleasure of hearing that everyone thought Timmy had killed me and they ran to HIS mom's house (three houses down) and told his mom that Timmy had killed Bobby with a bat.  Boy, did he ever get in big trouble.  That was fitting payback, because just a month earlier, I had gotten into big-time trouble because I had killed Timmy with a dart.  Sorta. 

We were playing darts in his room (yes, real pub darts - no plastic electronic darts) and I was winning.  He kept trying to pull the darts out of the board before I was through throwing and was pretending to jump in front of me to "throw" off my excellent game.

Well, this time he jumped in front of the dart board just as I had released the dart, winging its way to the bulls-eye, and the dart stuck him right square in the back of his head.  The shock made him faint.  He turned and looked at me with this funny expression.  The pupils of his eyes just disappeared, and all I could see were the whites of his eyes before he landed on the floor flat on his face. I knew I had killed him.  I did the honorable thing.  I ran home and hid in my closet. His mom and my mom searched and tracked me down.  I could have lived in that closet for a long time if my dog hadn't ratted me out.  I figure Timmy's mom heard me blast out through the front screen door and went to Timmy's room to see what was up. She found him laid out, face down, on the floor with a dart sticking out of the back of his head.  Although her screaming woke him up and there wasn't much blood, they felt an unexplainable obligation to go tell my mom and blah, blah, blah - this story isn't about darts anyway, it is about baseball. But that is why I got pleasure out of Timmy getting whacked for killing me.

But I never wanted to be catcher again.  Go figure.  I tried.  You know, "Get back on the horse, triumph over fear," etc.  But I couldn't catch the ball anymore.  I kept watching the bat, not the ball, and ducking every time someone would swing. 

So, I decided to switch positions to pitcher.  I was pretty good, and once I got my glasses, I had a lot more control over getting the ball actually over the plate.  I had one pitch.  A fastball.  I was very lucky, because nobody (except Timmy) could hit. I was now enjoying my re-found love of baseball, until Timmy got off lifetime restriction (a week without baseball) and he got to come back and play ball with us.  When it was his turn at the plate, I got two balls past him. I thought I had ended his career as the neighborhood power slugger, when on the next pitch he drilled my fastball straight into my groin.  I didn't see it coming.  I threw the ball knowing it was going to be a called-three strikeout and I would be King of the Neighborhood. I had about one second to gloat and pump my fist into the air, and then I found myself on the ground clutching my crotch and crumpled up in the most agony a young man can feel.  Just as we didn't have helmets and catcher's masks, we also didn't have protective cups.  I could not breathe.  The pain was excruciating.  I knew I was doomed to a life of singing soprano in the boy's choir.  I finally saw Timmy standing over me, and although it was hard to hear because everyone else was laughing so hard, I think he mouthed the word "Sorry."  His grin, however, belied his sincerity.  He had regained his 'King of the Neighborhood' crown on his first day off restriction.

I could not even get the ball over the plate after that.  I would curl into a defensive crouch immediately upon releasing the ball. My pitching career was over. I then moved to right field.

What I loved most about playing the right field position was that you were very unlikely to get hit in the forehead with a baseball bat or in the crotch with a screaming line drive.  You could actually see the ball coming from a long way off and get ready.  The bad thing is that nobody could hit the ball that far and it was excruciatingly boring. 

That month, my family was moving to Colorado, and they wanted to get there in August so my sister and I could start school on time and not miss any days.  It was my last Saturday playing baseball with the guys.  My team was skins and the other guys were shirts.  It isn't any more complicated than that - no protective gear and no uniforms.  So you could tell the teams apart, half the guys had to take their shirts off.  We were always the skins and Timmy's team was always the shirts.  We never won (except the week Timmy was on restriction).  Today, we were ahead and it really looked like we would actually win on my last day as an Oklahoma skin. There was one guy on base and Timmy was at bat.  Like it was ordained, he hit a high fly ball into right field.  Right at me. Home runs were based on either the ball going over the outfielder's heads or them missing the ball altogether (nobody could catch, either), and the ball would roll forever as there were no fences. So, finally, something was coming my way, other than a butterfly or a bumblebee.  I was startled because a fly ball had never reached me in my short career as a right fielder.  The sun was right in my eyes.  I put my glove hand up to shield my eyes from the sun and the ball landed right in it. 

Game over. Skins win.  Finally.  I was King of the Neighborhood at last, and then we moved away to Colorado the following Monday.  Just like a movie.  Due to circumstances, I never played baseball again.

Fast forward: I am a Dad and the coach of my son's baseball team. This particular league was in between T-Ball (where there is a pipe on a mat sticking up about waist high - you put the ball on it and the batter takes a swing) and the age where you actually had a pitcher (makes my groin hurt just thinking about it).  The team's coach was the pitcher for his own team.

My son, Nick, was a catcher (with a face-mask and protective gear), and also the team's best hitter (I am sure Timmy's kids hated baseball).  So, as the team's coach and chief strategist, I told him to just swing hard, hit the ball high in the air and run, without stopping, around all the bases.  Nobody could catch the ball in the air, and they still couldn't catch it if someone threw them the ball.  He always got home runs.  So here we are, last game of the season, the game on the line, the bases loaded (the other team), nobody out, and Nick is catching.

Anybody that loves baseball should live so long as to have the following moment unfold right in front of them.  The batter pops the ball up.  All the base runners start running on the pitch.  Nick rips the mask off, catches the pop up (out number one) and tags the runner coming from third who runs right into him (out number two).  The runners from first and second base reverse themselves and tried to get back to their original base.  The kid that was on first was just rounding second when all this unfolded. He slammed on the brakes and was making a bee-line back to first base.  Nick sees him coming and, as our first baseman was busy looking at butterflies, runs him down before he could get to the bag and tags him out (out number three. A unassisted triple play).  (Wikipedia: The unassisted triple play, a triple play in which only one fielder handles the ball, is the least common type of triple play, and is arguably the rarest occurrence in baseball: it has happened only 15 times in the Modern Era.)

My personal childhood baseball demons were vanquished, albeit vicariously through my son, forever.  I bet Timmy never had this moment.