In recent months, I've made the acquaintance of one Mr. Suldog, a blogger of sterling reputation, who shares with me a love for baseball/softball (something that none of my other blog-friends have particularly shared with me before now). Often, when I read his posts, I am reminded of my own experiences on the diamond, of which I have not written before. Then, a little while ago, my dear friend Lime posted about her own baseball experiences, and I knew the time had come. . .
My family first moved to Alpena in 1960, when I was four years old. We only stayed about a year, before moving back to the 'downriver' suburbs of Detroit. In 1963 - in fact, the weekend following President Kennedy's death - we moved back Up North, and this time, we stayed almost ten years, just shy of my high school graduation. I loved living in Alpena. Most especially because it sits on the shore of Lake Huron, and every summer, for as long as we lived there, I could be in the Big Water for the price of a five-minute bike ride (there was a period of a couple years, before my parents were divorced, when Lake Huron was our back yard; and that was a pretty good working model of Heaven).
Alpena was also a baseball town. I'm not sure exactly what-all goes into making a town a Baseball Town, but Alpena was one. Our Little League team challenged every year for the state championship, which is a pretty good feat for a town of 15,000 or so souls (including all of Alpena County, the population is something like 30,000), and one year, when a kid named Lowell (he'll appear again later) was a 12-year-old, they came within a single game of playing in the Little League World Series. I went to high school with a guy who went to college on a baseball scholarship (his college team would play against the team from my school, and I'd always go down to the field to say Hi), and eventually made it to the major leagues, playing three seasons with the Cubs and Indians.
Besides the lake, summers in Alpena were marked by roving bands of boys gathering at various vacant lots around town for pickup baseball games. We'd call each other up, or just knock on each other's doors, and meet at whichever field we decided to play at that day. If we had 16 or 18 kids, we'd just choose up two full teams and play. If we didn't have a full complement of players, we had various ways of covering the shortage. Maybe the hitting team would provide the catcher, but we didn't prefer that, because it seemed to compromise the integrity of a possible close play at home. Sometimes, we'd play without a right-fielder, and if the batter hit the ball to right, it just counted as a foul ball. If we only had twelve kids or so, we'd play a game we called 'Work-Up' - nine kids would take positions in the field, and the rest would hit. When the hitter made an out, he had to go play in the field, and the other fielders would 'work their way up' - the outfielders would rotate counter-clockwise (right-center-left); the left-fielder would move to third, and the infielders would rotate clockwise (3rd-short-2nd-1st); the first-baseman went to pitch, the pitcher went in to catch, and the catcher became one of the hitters. It was a great way to play, especially for kids, since you got to play a new position every few minutes, getting progressively closer to the action; and once you got in to hit, you could stay there as long as you didn't make outs.
Summer evenings (a couple of 'em every week, at any rate) were for 'organized' games. In the early spring, there would be try-outs, and hundreds of kids would gather at the fair grounds to throw and catch and hit, under the watchful eyes of the various and sundry coaches, who would take notes on what they saw, and then hold a draft to assign players to teams.
The Little League played in two divisions, designated 'minor' and 'major', analogously to the professional leagues - the 'minors' were mostly 8-10 year-olds, although if a kid hadn't made the 'majors' by the time he was ten, he might not get selected by a 'major' team when he was 11 or 12, since the coaches preferred to develop younger players. That was the fate that befell me. As a young kid, I was pretty much a sedentary nerd. I didn't even play when I was eight; when I was nine, my dad basically told me I was gonna play, whether I wanted to or not. That year, I was pretty much like the kid in the Peter, Paul & Mary song 'Right Field', "watching the dandelions grow", except the ball never accidentally landed in my glove. I don't remember if I ever got a hit that year, or not.
When I was ten, my dad remarried after his divorce, and I acquired a step-brother who was pretty much a complete jock. So I got more into baseball, and sports in general. And that summer, my skill level increased pretty dramatically. By the time I was eleven, I was That Kid - the Oversized Hormone Case that made the other kids' moms cry, and their dads demand to see my birth certificate. I probably should have been on a 'major' team, but none of the coaches knew who I was, and besides, they preferred for their 'rookies' to be younger, so I stayed in the 'minors' to terrorize young, un-coordinated kids. And the same when I was twelve. I hit a bunch of home runs on balls I didn't even hit that well.
There was one coach in the 'minors' who seemed to take particular delight in agitating me, perhaps because I was the biggest kid in the league, and his was one of the better teams in the league, and we ended up competing for the 'minor division' championship. He always demanded to see my birth certificate, and even half-heartedly accused my dad of doctoring it once (although why my dad would doctor my birth certificate for me to play in the 'minors' never quite made sense). And whenever I came to bat, he would have a few needling remarks, to try and get under my skin, I guess. I tried to ignore it, and just play the games, but after a while, it kinda pissed me off.
He had a pitcher who was probably the best pitcher in our league, another 12-year-old who probably should have been in the 'majors', but had gotten good too late. The kid could throw hard, especially for a 'minor-league' pitcher, and most of the kids in our league had a hard time getting around on him. So, we were playing this team, and he was pitching. The first time I came to bat, the coach was up to his usual games, making little needling remarks almost under his breath, but loud enough that I could hear him. The pitcher was extra cranked-up, trying to get me out, and he was throwing even harder than usual. His first pitch, I was really late getting around on, but I hit it square, sending a screaming line drive into their dugout. The poor coach never saw it coming; it hit him square on the nose, breaking it, and splattering blood all over his face. He ended up having to leave the game, which we ended up winning, when I got around for a home run off their ace pitcher.
The next time we played their team, the coach actually accused me of having broken his nose on purpose. I wish I was that good, but not many twelve-year-olds are quite adept enough with a baseball bat to put a line drive on somebody's nose when they feel like it. Which isn't to say that I didn't feel like it. . .
When I turned 13, I moved up to the Babe Ruth League, for 13-15-year-olds. There were no 'divisions', so I was playing with and against kids who had been in the 'major' division (mostly those kids, since fewer of the 'minor' players were motivated to move up to the next level). As a 13-year-old, I was a 'rookie' again, playing against kids my own age and older. But I was still 'Big for My Age', so some of the disadvantage of being young was mitigated by also being big.
One of my first games in the Babe Ruth League, the pitcher for our opponents was Lowell, the kid I mentioned above who had led his Little League team to within a game of the World Series. At 15, he was still something of a local legend for the speed with which he could throw a baseball. Had someone put a radar gun on one of his pitches, I have no idea what it would have said; as far as I was concerned, it was just 'Faster Than Hell'. Lowell was fast, but he was almost as wild as he was fast (rather like a young Nolan Ryan, maybe). In fact, the first time I stepped in to face him, he drilled me right square in my left ass-cheek. Which didn't hurt as bad as it might have, had another part of my body received the blow, but it still hurt plenty. And it also planted in my brain the idea that Lowell was not a guy you could really dig in against (the self-preservation instinct being what it is).
So the next time I stepped in against Lowell, I was considerably lighter on my toes (and readier to get the hell out of there, if need be) than I had been previously. He threw me five pitches, each of which was past me before I could hope to swing at it. Two of his pitches were strikes, and three were balls, and I couldn't muster up a swing at any of them. The outfielders, sensing the extent of my out-classed-ness, all moved in by several steps, until they were only a few steps beyond the infield dirt. As I awaited the full-count pitch, my butt was reminding me of how my previous turn at bat had ended. Lowell went into his windup, and he threw the fateful pitch, as I tensed up.
Then suddenly, I saw it. For some reason known only to God and Lowell, his full-count pitch was a change-up, right down the middle of the plate. Perhaps he was just being overly cautious, not wanting to risk walking a fat 13-year-old who couldn't hope to hit him anyway; I don't know. But I do know that my eyes got real big, and the thought flashed through my mind, "Hey! I can hit this!" So I swung, as hard as I could. And I crushed it.
Those of you who have ever played baseball, if you've ever really crushed a ball, you know that that sweet, smooth feeling that passes from the bat into your hands when you hit the ball really, really well is just one of the coolest things you ever experience in a baseball game. And right along with it, is to see the outfielder freeze in his tracks as the ball takes off like a rocket over his head, and then to see him turn his back to the infield and just run like a bat out of hell after the ball you've just hit. Yeah, that's just what it was like. Alas, I was still a slow 13-year-old, so even though the ball bounced off the center-field fence, I could only manage a double out of it. But I had crushed a ball off the mighty Lowell!
Another feature of life in the Babe Ruth League was night games. There were fewer available full-size fields, and so there would be two games each night, the second one being played under the lights.
Now, the lights on our field had an interesting feature, in that all of the lights were aimed down, toward the field. Which is to say, none of them were pointed upward, to even the smallest degree. So that, when the batter hit a fly ball, the ball itself was in the lights for the first 50 or so vertical feet of its flight, and then again, when it came back down. So, being an outfielder, I got pretty adept at judging the flight of the ball from the first, visible part of its trajectory; I would run to where my visual/mental calculations told me the ball was headed, then look up into the black sky for a gray dot descending out of the darkness. Then, when the ball descended back into the lights, I could catch it, and proceed normally.
I got better as I went along in Babe Ruth League play. I was never one of the league's all-stars, but I didn't embarrass myself. Except once. I usually played one of the corner outfield positions - right or left field, most often right. Twice, I threw out a batter at first from right field. The first was a guy who was one of the league's better players; he could hit the heck out of the ball, but was pathetically slow. He smoked the ball straight at me; I fielded it on one hop, and seeing that he wasn't even halfway to first yet, I threw the ball in and got the force-out at first. Pretty cool.
The other one was the last game of my 15-year-old season. A pudgy little 13-year-old came up to bat; we pulled all our fielders way in. The kid swung late on the pitch, and it cleared the drawn-in infielders. It rolled to me, and without even thinking, since I was practically an infielder where I was playing, I picked it up and threw the kid out. I didn't think much about it until after the game, when we were in the handshake line, their coach took me aside and said, "I know you didn't mean anything by it, but that would've been his only hit this year." Which made me feel like the world's biggest jerk.
When I was 15, I got one of my first looks at a curve-ball. Fortunately for me, it was another 13-year-old, who didn't throw particularly hard, but he could throw this big bender that got a lot of the hitters off-balance. I recall facing him for the first time, and he threw this big roundhouse curve to me that came in big and slow, with a big neon-flashing "Hit Me" sign. As I saw it coming, I remember thinking to myself, "this must be what a hung curve-ball looks like; I can see why people talk about crushing them." So I did. By then, I was 15, and pretty close to my full adult dimensions. The field we were playing on that day didn't have a fence. There was a drainage ditch that ran along the side of the road beyond the outfield, maybe 150 yards or so from home plate; the ball cratered itself into the mud by the edge of the ditch.
When I was 16, I went out for the high school team, and I made the JV squad. But I didn't play very much. By now, I was playing against guys who were also in their full adult bodies, so the advantage I'd had when I was younger was gone. I was regularly hitting against guys who could throw harder than I could get around on. Which was bad enough, but most of the pitchers also had real curve-balls, too; not the big round-houses that I'd seen before. I vividly remember stepping in against one of the better pitchers we'd face all year, and he threw me two fastballs that I heard more than saw. And then, ahead of me two strikes in the count, his next pitch came blazing right straight for the ear-hole of my helmet. I couldn't get myself out of the batter's box fast enough, and as I fell backwards, I saw the ball break sharply, crossing right across the heart of the plate. The umpire bellowed and punched me out, and I walked back to the dugout with the sure knowledge that I'd gone as far as I was gonna go as a baseball player. . .