You show up at the ball field early, and the only things keeping you company are the backstop, its gray links heroically keeping foul tips from caroming off mom’s head, the worn benches that nicely accommodate a dozen little league fannies, the green, freshly-mowed grass of the infield and, of course, a sky, which today you notice is a brightly washed blue with clouds like puffs of birthday cake frosting.
Today’s a big game. That kid from Desnoyer Playground will be on the mound, the kid with a fastball like Goose Gossage. “No one can hit this kid!” it’s been said. Behind his fastball, his team is tearing up playground ball diamonds from Como Park to Battle Creek, to Duluth and Case to Edgecumb, from Hayden Heights to Hazel Park. And today they’ve come to your house.
Your mitt stinks. It’s been in the dog’s mouth, been left out in the rain for dead, then pulled from the jaws death with glove oil. It’s been punched a couple of hundred times by your right fist, abused by your best friend Kenny’s fastball, and scraped along the infield dirt near third base enough times to wear the fingertips down. But “that’s OK,” you say to anyone who would care to listen, “it’s my dad’s old mitt; nothing can take the magic out of it!”
Eventually, Randy shows up, the kid with the lanky body who can cover the distance between first and second in what seems like just a few steps. His dad, a real screamer, isn’t far behind. “How ‘bout a lil’ pepper first?” he barks to Randy, but Randy ignores him and comes to your side. Eric and his thick flow of red hair and buck teeth shows up, too. And B.J. Brothers Mike and Todd won’t be far behind. You’ve all been talking about this game. And here you are.
Moms and dads sitting on blankets fill the bleachers. Mrs. Dorsey is there with her Thermos. Mrs. Orloske has brought Rice Krispie bars for the other moms. A few of the more anti-social dads watch from parked cars on Germain Street.
The umpire arrives, blue shirt buttoned all the way to the top. With a metal face mask in one hand and a giant black chest shield in the other, he weaves his way through rows of kids paired up in twos playing catch, and the last souls getting in a few cuts at batting practice. His forearm wipes the sweat from his brow and shakes hands with the coaches.
Within minutes, you’re watching the opposing team’s pitcher fire the first few rockets to the catcher. This is the guy you’ve heard about. He’s portly. Sandy brown hair pokes out from under his ball cap like straw spears. Looks like he just ate a PB and J on the ride over. But man-oh-man can this kid hurl a baseball. It hisses as it zips its way to the catcher’s mitt. I mean you can actually hear it cutting the air as it flies by! There’s no way you can hit this thing. No way.
The coach, who also happens to be your dad, calls you over.
“Don’t worry about the heat, kid,” he says to his lead-off batter. “Just dig in and give it a rip!”
You listen like its Gospel, and dig in. But you’re nervous. You’ve never seen a ball travel this fast before, at least not one that you’ve needed to take a swing at. You wonder what would happen if the ball plunked you square in the eye, how big the welt would be if it hit you in the back, or how much damage would be done to your street cred if, in the aftermath of such an occurrence, you struggled and ultimately failed to hold back tears.
You make an executive decision. You decide that, unless the first pitch heads for the dugout, you’re jumping on it. What have you got to lose, right? All his warmup pitches have been right down the pipe. If you swing and miss, you swing and miss. Who cares? People strike out all the time, right? Just part of the game … Except that, for you, it’s really not. You don’t strike out. You make contact. It’s why you’re lead-off man. The team’s always been able to count on you. Good ol’ Robbie.
“Play ball!” the umpire shouts. He yanks his face mask from a perch atop his head down to his face. He looks over at you in a way that says, “Well kid, let’s go already.”
You dig in. The sun has lit up the diamond at Prosperity Heights Playground like something out of Mark Twain novel. The catcher is crouched, ready for a busy day of catching heaters. You take your practice cuts, then steady the bat just above your shoulder. Knees slightly bent. Focus intense. Weight on your back leg.
The portly pitcher from Desnoyer begins his wind-up. He steps back, kicks his left leg up, reaches his right arm back and then, like a whip wielded by Indiana Jones, the ball comes whizzing in on you like a bullet. In your only form of defense, you concentrate harder than you ever have, lock eyes as best as you can with the ball — its laces bearing down on you like some menacing viper with laces — and then you do the only thing you know how to do: you take a swing.
Your hips rotate, your arm muscles clench. In one fluid motion, your shoulders bring the bat from your shoulder to the strike zone. Everything your dad taught you about hitting a baseball, every nuance, every tip, every word of wisdom is in that swing, his words running from your brain and your heart through the blood in your veins and on through your biceps, elbows, forearms, wrists, hands, fingers, fingernails …
Your swing is fluid, everything is in sync. You’re just hoping to not make a fool of yourself, hoping your buddies 30 feet away will accept you when this at-bat is over. You want to show them you were up to the challenge, that their lead-off man isn’t just the lead-off man because his dad is the coach.
The torque of your body’s rotation propels the bat around as fast as you can swing it. And as the ball rockets toward the catcher’s mitt, and as your bat whips around its rotational axis, and as Dad watches from the third base line, mom watches with the other moms in the bleachers, your teammates watch from the bench — and with the portly pitcher from Desnoyer’s body uncoiling from a beastly first pitch — funny thing happens.
Your Louisville Slugger connects with that Rawlings baseball, and the ball sets a line-drive course that, unless you’re close to it, is uncatchable. It sails through the summer sky like a missile.
One problem: It’s a foul ball. Down the third-base line.
It takes you a second … but eventually you understand fully what this means. Not only did you make contact, not only were you a good enough hitter to rip a line drive off the portly pitcher from Desnoyer, not only is he not “unhittable” … but you were so far ahead of this speed-ball hurler that you drove a line drive down the third base line. This means you were ahead of his pitch. Your hitting acumen (you tell yourself) is so advanced and so astute that his pitch, it could be argued, was too slow for your Herculean swing.
You look down the third base line where and see the left fielder shagging the ball near the street curb. And as he hurls it back, you look at your teammates on the bench. Eyes wide, mouths agape (or, at least that’s how you remember it today, 35 years later) you can see what has happened. With one swing of your mighty bat, all the trepidation, all the apprehension, all the fear and worries about no one being able to get a hit off this guy were gone. In one instance of torque, one demonstration of physics, tides turned, moods shifted, possibilities emerged. Suddenly, this game was winnable.
You step back into the batter’s box no longer a frightened child waiting to be consumed by an all-powerful dragon. Instead, you are now the dragon begging the portly pitcher from Desnoyer, wherever the hell that is, to bring that weak-ass shit again. (Apologies for the slightly inappropriate vernacular of amatuer baseball; it’s just how things are said.)
And he does. He brings that weak-ass shit. But this time you, instead of being a scrawny punk merely defending yourself with nothing but a tightly gripped Louisville Slugger, you’re the guy who took his first pitch and dispatched it to deep left field (albeit foul territory) … and he knows it.
Pitch No. 2 is identical to the first, and with your newfound confidence you slap it opposite field, in the gap, and end up with a stand-up double.
Your team erupts in a fantastic volcano of “YEAH”s and “WHOOOOO”s and “OH MY GOD”s. Moms clap in mild indifference. You stand on second base, grinning like a kid who wild-guessed every answer right on a spelling quiz (which you probably actually did earlier that year in Sister Anne Marie’s class at Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary School). Your teammates’ elation seems like everything until … you glance to your right and see your dad.
He’s just standing there, arms folded, looking right at you. He’s straight-faced for a second — but the kind of straight-faced you understand. The straight face morphs into a smile, one you also understand. It’s a rare one. One reserved for championships, campfire confessions and (you’ll eventually learn) wedding day hugs. He’s proud, but he knows this moment is yours. You straighten your batting helmet, clap a few times for the next batter to get back to business.
From here on out, once the unhittable dragon had been slain, the portly pitcher from Desnoyer didn’t seem like such a threat. The next guy got on base, too. And after one inning, the Prosperity Heights team coached by Bob Murray was up 2-0. After three innings, the team coached by Bob Murray was up 6-1. And by the end of six innings (regulation for little league at the time) the team coached by Bob Murray, my dad, was victorious. Final score, 7-1.
It wasn’t a playoff victory. There was nothing on the line, really. But that moment will end up meaning more to you than almost any other moment that summer. There will be bigger wins. There will be tournaments with more on the line. There will be teams that will accomplish more. But when you look back at the story of your life in Little League baseball, few moments will make you feel as important as this one, the day you slayed the portly pitcher from Desnoyer with the PB & J stains on his shirt.
The game is over. You shook all the Desnoyer hands, thanked the umpire for his time, put all the Louisville Sluggers and baseballs back into their dusty canvas bags. The boys are milling about. They’ve heard rumors of a post-game celebration. And the rumors, the coach reveals in an announcement, are true.
It is ice cream day.
One by one your team members pile into the back of Dad’s pickup. Somehow 12 ore 13 little leaguers all seem to fit in the back of one Chevy. Dairy Queen is just a few bumpy blocks away. You pile out with your buddies and walk up to the DQ windows. Your dad announces to all that whatever they want is fair game. Banana splits, Peanut Buster Parfaits, sundaes, crunch cones — whatever.
You order a shake. Your dad orders nothing.
One by one the guys head home. Eventually, you do, too. You climb into the pickup with Dad, still smiling from having slain the dragon, still thinking about the look on your dad’s face as you stood on second base.