Another true tale of error and winning, by L.E. Taylor
THE SOUTHEASTERN HIGH SCHOOL baseball field was not in the young ballplayer’s neighborhood. It was the usual 1950s Detroit sandlot – dirt infield, no fences, just a green-stubble outfield that went forever, cut through right-to-left by a street about 400 feet from home plate. He was more nervous than usual. The bleachers were crowded with loud, hostile fans of the Mudcats, the home team.
The young man was leadoff batter for the Rockets. He started the game with a walk from a tough-looking pitcher whose pitches were as wild as they were deadly fast. The boy stole second right away to settle his nerves, and there he remained while the next three Rocket batters all fanned to end the top of the inning. He jogged over to his nearby place at shortstop, took the warmup grounders from first baseman Dave Benner, and managed to toss each of the two practice throws back within reach of Dave’s big mitt without embarrassment.
He could field anything that was hit within a three-step sprint of his place on the field. But his young throwing arm was undisciplined. Fear pumped adrenaline into his muscles; the ball could end up anywhere.
The next four innings bore out his reputation for throwing errors, and the Mudcats were up 2-1 on two unearned runs. Now the kid stepped into the batter’s box for his third at bat with two out and the bases empty. Amidst taunting hoots and catcalls he blinked at the big hurler. He was rattled and unfocused. He took the first pitch, a dazzling strike that snapped like a pistol shot into the catcher’s mitt.
The hooligans behind home plate screamed with cruel delight – Romans in the Coliseum. He took a deep breath, and swung smartly at the next pitch; it shot back foul into the screen. Along with that second strike came two flashes of good luck: First, the kid realized he’d seen the pitch well and timed it perfectly, but had swung under the ball, missing by only a fraction of an inch; and second, the gaggle of Mudcat fans went nasty – and personal. “Dat’s yer hit, shorty… woo-hooo, siddown, you stink…” It got up his gorge. And focused his mind.
The boy stepped out of the box, scooped up a handful of clay dust and rubbed his hands together. He glanced over a shoulder into the eyes of his tormentors. He did not look at his father who sat on the Rockets’ bench keeping the official score book. He did not look into the bleachers for his mother or his brother or aunt and uncle who attended his games each Sunday.
He shifted attention and engaged the pitcher. The pitcher’s hands caressing the ball. The pitcher’s angry sideways stance. The pitcher’s eyes. Without looking away, the boy took his place in the box, tapped the plate, and drew an imaginary trajectory of the same pitch this Mudcats’ bum had been firing all afternoon. The pitcher wound up and the ball came like lightning.
The crack of the bat was that sweet, clean sound every old time baseball lover knows as the music of the game.
He darted from the batter’s box. Sprinting past first base, a quick glance toward center field revealed the tiny dot that was the back of the rival outfielder; he was crossing the street where a fence would have been in any respectable American stadium. The boy gritted his teeth and sped. Rounding third now, still at his best scamper speed, breath labored, he circumnavigated his own dumbfounded manager whose fervor had taken the man well homeward, out of the coach’s box, though still away from the sacred base path. Just fifty feet ahead the boy saw the other team’s catcher and pitcher in disarray, both blocking the plate. Evidently a throw was on its way from the cutoff man. The kid thought the heck with this, no way am I gonna slide. He raced past them at full speed and collided with the backstop screen.
His dad had dropped the score pad and joined with the rest of the Rockets to embrace his young hero.
In a year, the young man went on to college and later to a self-employed career in business. He never reached his dream of playing professional baseball, of course. But he never forgot the hot July Sunday he learned to not let his weaknesses block him from performing to the best of his strengths. And to use his brain to drive his performance, unhindered by emotions.
- What happened then? Well, next inning, the Rockets again fell behind on a throwing error by their shortstop. But they retook the lead on a homerun by first baseman Dave Benner. The final out of the game was on a cleanly fielded ground ball to the Rockets shortstop who set himself calmly and to the relief of all, fired a strike into Dave’s trusty-dusty mitt. –LET
- Next time, Part Three –The Lesson.