My youth league baseball career was dotted with humiliations.
As a third baseman, I once tried to catch an infield fly with my right eye. It didn’t work. Bounced off my head. What an odd child I must have been.
Shortly thereafter the coach moved me to catcher. He gave me some advice that would have been wrong, had anybody else been playing the position.
“If you go after a foul pop-up,” he said, “keep your mask on.”
Sometime after the coach had made that switch, my team lost a game when the umpire ruled that an opposition runner caught in a rundown between third and home had avoided my tag. The umpire was my father. The guy who’d replaced me at third base kicked his glove all the way to the woods beyond where the left fielder normally stood.
But there were good times, too. Or at least there was one, or at least it was one for a while.
We played our games on grassy fields in the north end of town where we all lived.
Except for the one we didn’t play there.
On what I recall as an unusually hot Saturday afternoon, we played a team from the south end of town, where, as it happened, my grandparents lived.
My paternal grandfather was a quiet man. He had several shelves of books on Abraham Lincoln, whom he admired. If he admired anybody else, he didn’t let on.
He had been a good ballplayer. He’d played in college, and I’m told he had drawn some interest from a New York Yankees scout. Instead of whatever might have come of that, my grandfather opted for law school, and, as far as I ever knew, he had no regrets. My father followed in his footsteps…the footsteps that led him to law school, not the baseball footsteps. My father wasn’t a ballplayer.
Anyway, on this occasion that found the team from Northeast School visiting the south end of town, my father, who’d by then wisely retired – or been retired – from umpiring, brought my grandfather to the game.
On that hot day, the field was dry and dusty, even by elementary school playground standards. Probably my father and my grandfather sat in lawn chairs under a tree. Probably they didn’t have much company. Maybe they didn’t have any.
I will not give in to the temptation to build the suspense.
In my first at-bat, I hit a home run.
It lacked the drama of home runs that disappear over a fence. There was no fence.
It lacked the drama of home runs that disappear over a fence. There was no fence. There was the bare, dusty expanse of schoolyard playground beyond the left fielder and the center fielder, each of whom might have been thinking about something other than their immediate responsibilities when I hit a ball over the shortstop’s head. The ball bounced and bounced again, and then it rolled, and it was a long time before one of those outfielders tracked that ball down and picked it up and threw it to somebody, probably the wrong somebody. I know it took a long time, because when the ball arrived back at the infield, having bounced and perhaps rolled some more while it was there, I’d crossed home plate.
My father used to tell the story of those quasi-exciting moments on that hot and dusty day. This is the way he told the end of that story. He said he turned to my grandfather, the former ballplayer, and he said, “What do you think about that?”
He said that my grandfather’s reply dismayed him a little, though it didn’t surprise him, because by then he had known my grandfather for about 40 years.
So: “What do you think about that?”
My grandfather said, “I think he’s slow. You should get him some baseball shoes.”
Nike's wouldn’t have been available. Phil Knight didn’t make his first visit to Japan until about a decade after I hit that home run. Probably a good thing. I’d probably have begged for the Willie Mays model, they probably would have been expensive, and though I’d have been able to hold on to them because nobody was stealing anybody else’s shoes where I was living, they probably wouldn’t have helped.
This segment aired on November 12, 2016.