Opinion of Kingman's Performance

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Baseball Photo Brings it All Back...Remembering a Friend that Left Us Much Too Soon

Opinion of Kingman’s Performance is a blog in which I mainly turn my attention to major league baseball and the Dodgers.  Today, I step away from that as a photo that came to my attention reminded me of a special friend from years ago that has passed on.

When I was 10 years old I had this Little League tryout for the ages.  It was the tryout where managers from all the teams watch you catch a few flies in the outfield, then make a some throws to the bases.  Then they put you in a line and all the guys fielded a few grounders at shortstop.  Then you’d get your turn hitting and you’d swing the bat at about 10 pitches.  They’d also track your speed as you ran out the last one to first base.  The purpose was for managers to get a chance to see the players in action before they selected their players.

It was quick and and there were a lot of people there.  It was a pressure packed 30 minutes or so and it was real structured.  You better be there for your 10:00 AM report time, or you or you’d be removed from the league.  There were hundreds of kids that needed to be seen and time was of the essence.

Anyway, my tryout started with a bang.  Shagging fly balls in left field it was my turn.  The adult at the plate smacked one down the left field line.  I heard him say, “Sorry, let’s try it again,” but I was already off to go catch it with a good jump.  I had spent the entire winter playing ball with my older brother and his friends.  That play would be a tough one, but I knew I could catch it.  I made a diving catch and crashed into the fence in foul territory.  The “oo’s and ah’s” could be heard from those watching.  I was non-chalant about it in my 10 year old way.  I knew it was a highlight reel snag.  I just trotted back to the end of the line and a number of guys complimented me as I returned.

I made all the other plays that came my my way out there and in the infield, I had a ball hit to deep shortstop that I backhanded and then threw to first, a bit wildly though.  As a hitter.  Everything I hit was solid.  Up the middle singles.  A liner down the 3B line, and base hit between first and second.  

I could have been placed in any one of three leagues,  the American for 10 year olds, the National for 11 year olds and the Majors for 12 year olds.  A week later I got a phone call from Mr. Matthews, he introduced himself as the manager of the Yankees from the Majors and said he had selected me in the draft.

This was a big deal.  I jumped two levels and was on the team that won the championship the year before.  It was quite a shock.  It turns out that each team in the Major division was allowed to draft two 10 year olds, and I had made it and another kid named Dennis did too.  Dennis must have had a great tryout too, otherwise, our paths probably would have never crossed.

Both Dennis and I were in for a season of struggle.  For our age I think we were pretty good athletes and with good speed, but suddenly we were playing with guys that were throwing smoke and had speed and talent that we never imagined.  To top that off, our team was the best one out there.  Our coaching was top notch.  Many of the players were returning from the championship team the season before and those guys knew the fundamentals.  Cut offs, positioning, sophisticated signs, they executed plays like moving the runner over was expected.  I think I learned more in that 1972 season than any I ever experienced.

AND...We almost never lost.  We ran a winning streak that went 14 straight before losing a meaningless game at the end of the season.   Our record was something like 21-4 when we entered that championship game.

Dennis and I would split the games as there was a Little League rule that required everyone to play each game.  Sometimes I’d go the first three innings and other times the last three.  I was a second baseman, but since our 1st string second sacker was an all star that would never be removed from any game, I would find myself in left field usually, and so would Dennis.

I think Dennis and I maybe had 5 hits all season between the two of us.  We were over matched and to top it off, we were a bit on the small side as well.  That championship game was against a formidable opponent that was easily the next best team in the league, the Indians.  We lost to them earlier in the season and then barely beat them the second time around.  I don’t remember their record, but I don’t think they lost more than four or five times in the season.

So championship game day arrived and it was quite the event.  There had to be more than a thousand people that surrounded that little field on that bright Saturday afternoon.  I don’t ever remember being so nervous.  A band was playing.  There was a play by play announcer talking over the stadium PA system.  There were even six umpires out there, compared to the two we normally had.
Unfortunately I'm unable to find a team photo of the championship team.  This is the year afterword.  I'm in the bottom row, behind the sign, second from the left.  Dennis is number 5 in the second row.  His wonderful mom was our team mother and she's in the far left, third row.

The pre-game speech from Mr. Matthews was lengthy and Knute Rockneish.  He told Dennis that he’d play the first three innings and I would finish the game for the last three.  I wasn’t sure what that meant or who he valued most, but I think we were about equal, maybe I was a faster runner by a step or two.  He also instructed both of us that we were to take pitches until we had two strikes, which spoke a lot about our offensive prowess.

This game was a nail biter.  We took a one run lead, then they scored two.  Then we tied it up.  Back and forth it went.  Their ace was on the mound and he was tough. Our guy, Brian, was no slouch either.  I was playing left field in the top of the final inning, (the sixth) and the game was tied.  I had knots in my stomach.  All the negatives were running through my head.  They had a man on second base and two out and their pitcher came to the plate.  This guy had a stick too.  I was praying that he wouldn’t hit it to me.  I didn’t want to be a goat in front of all those people.

Sure enough, he belted a pitch to LF and I broke back on the ball.  Back and back I went and then CRASH!  I hit the left field wall.  There were no warning tracks on that field.  The ball was hit out ten feet beyond the fence for a homer.   I remember the crowd nearby asking if I was alright as I got up and walked back to my position.  I could see the Indians players delirious as they greeted their slugger at home plate after circling the bases.

The place was going nuts and it looked like we were done for.  Our ace retired the third out and we retreated to the dugout down 6 to 4.  I was the leadoff hitter coming up.  I heard the words of encouragement as I got ready in the on-deck circle.  My manager reminded me of his admonition to take pitches.  The guy on deck pleaded with me to get in a tight crouch and try to shrink my zone.  I’m sure there were others that would have told me to lean into any inside pitch, a la Englebert from the Bad News Bears, if the opportunity arose.  Dennis gave me some encouragement as I turned away from the on-deck circle to go to the plate.  “You can do it Ev!” he said.  I’m not sure if he wished he was in my position or not.

So into the box I stood.  The opposing catcher was Mike, was a friend from 4th grade.  He was another ten year old, but a much larger kid and better player than me.  He wouldn’t even look me in the eye.  This was all business.  Their pitcher threw absolute smoke and they were all going to be fastballs coming my way.  I slouched into that familiar crouch and he let fly his first pitch.  It was up and away, ball one.

Up and away was good.  About two weeks earlier I had been beaned in the head and suffered a slight concussion.  I had been struggling with overcoming the fear of getting hit again and had spent the last week taking batting practice from my older brother in the back yard trying to overcome that fear and not bailing out too early.  When this fireballer delivered his second delivery that was way high again, I could hear the excitement from the bench on my side of the field.  I took a look at Coach Matthews and he continued to flash me the take sign.  Pitch number three was in the dirt and the yelps from my side of the field continued.  I heard a time out and could see Mr. Osborne, the coach of the Indians walk half way to the mound.

“He’s the number nine hitter!  Throw strikes!” he said.  (Seventeen years later I encountered Mr. Osborne while working as a Customs Inspector in Calexico International Airport.  I went out to clear a plane he was piloting as he returned from a fishing trip in Baja California.  I recognized him immediately and told him the story.   He couldn’t believe it).  Anyway, back to 1972...

My coach continued to flash the take sign, but he had a look on his face that told me that I would be killed if I swung.  So the Indians ace decided to take something off his next pitch,  He laid a little floater right down the heart of the plate.  I could have crushed it had I swung, but that wasn’t going to happen.  “Strike one!” screeched the umpire.  I sneaked a look at my coach again and to my surprise he took the take sign off.  I double checked, sent him a sign to give it again and he repeated it again.  If I liked it, I had permission to swing away.

There wasn’t a need for that though because the pitcher’s next delivery was way outside.  I was on base.  Though I could run well, there was no way I was going to steal second.  Jim, our next batter, hit a seeing eye grounder that I had to hop over as it headed to right field.  I hit the second base bag and saw the third base coach waving me on to third.  I scampered my way to third base as the throw from right field came my way.  I hit the ground as I heard “Down!” at my arrival at third.  The throw came in just a second behind my slide.  Jim made it into second as the potential tying run when the throw to third wasn’t cut off.

The place was going deafeningly wild.  Fans were shaking the fences that surrounded our bandbox ballpark.  My teammates in the third base dugout were all on their feet screaming a series of confusing instructions my way.  Coaches were attempting to control everyone’s excitement and Mr. Matthews told me to just listen to him.  There was a visit to the pitchers mound.  My manager was screaming instructions to me at the top of his lungs, but I could barely hear him.  “Freeze on the line drive!  Be ready to break on a wild pitch! Tag on the fly! Wait for me to say go when tagging up!”  Our catcher, John, our other coaches son came up.  He struck out swinging and the pressure mounted.  Next came Brian, our starting pitcher, up to the plate.  He was probably the best hitter on our team.

On the first pitch he hit a sharp grounder in the direction of their second baseman.  I broke for the plate as hard as I could.  I figured this would be a ground out and I’d score easily.  Heading home I could hear the crowd go wild.   I didn’t know it at the time, but that ground ball went right through the legs of their second baseman.  I touched home, turned around to coach the incoming runner at the plate as I had been instructed and could see Jim heading my way with the tying run.    He scored standing up.

The place was going nuts and we embraced running arm and arm back to the dugout only to be greeted by headslaps that probably resulted in an undiagnosed second concussion for me.   The dugout was alive.  We had the winning run on second and there was one out.  The energy was vibrant.  We were all on our feet watching Angel, our left handed swinging first baseman step up to the plate.

Angel’s dad was a baseball man.  He coached his sons with an iron fisted authority.  I kind of felt sorry for them as they were really under a lot of pressure.  His dad was an advance scout for the St. Louis Cardinals.  He had two kids on the team and they had the state of the art equipment and all this Cardinals gear that looked real cool.  Their dad was Puerto Rican I believe.  He’d wear that Panama hat and was always smoking a cigar.  Think of a young Mike Brito, that was him.

So Angel stepped to the plate with all this pressure and I’m sure his cigar chomping dad was within earshot.  I’m not sure though, as I was too engaged with my teammates as we were excited to have the winning run standing out there on the bases. Angel lofted an opposite field fly ball to left.  The thing was hit well and it kept carrying and carrying and we were shocked to see it sail over the outfield wall for a home run.  

Bedlam ensued.  It was like the ’69 series with the fans invading Shea Stadium after the Mets won.  A bunch of the crowd jumped on to the field.  We went to home plate to mob our teammate.  I noticed my friend, Mike, the Indians catcher.  He was wailing.  He had tossed his mask against the fence and was practicably inconsolable.  I turned my attention to my teammates and Angel was on the shoulders of some of our teammates as he was carried around the field in celebration of our championship.

I looked at Dennis and we embraced.  “We did it!” he said.  “Can you believe it?”  That had particular special meaning to me because both Dennis and I had struggled all season being completely overmatched by boys two and three years older than us.   It had been a long year and one where we were constantly feeling the pressure and trying to keep up with a lot of excellent players.

Dennis and I played two more seasons together.  We figured that by our 12 year old season, we’d be the team leaders.  And that appeared to be the case until our new manager was named and he had a different plan in mind.  He played a lot of the young guys in an effort to give them experience.  It was a rebuilding season and though I’m convinced we were the best guys out there, we weren’t give much of a shot to excel.  He played us out of position and batted us down in the batting order.   

We were connected on the field and at practices.   He was a jokester and his laughter was infectious. You’d often hear him cracking jokes and keeping the younger guys at ease.  Our new manager knew next to nothing about baseball compared to Mr. Matthews.  Dennis and I had our own signs that last year amongst ourselves, putting on hit and run plays and he as catcher and me as an infielder, operating some pick off plays.  When the coach found out about it, he saw us as insubordinate but the truth was, we were just trying to get things going with our sorry inexperienced team.  It was a disappointing end for us and Little League baseball had come to an end.

I never saw Dennis again after age 12.  Though time and again I’d think about him.  We lived in different parts of our community.  He went to the cross town rival high school.  I had always wondered what happened to him, and then I noticed on facebook someone has posted a photograph of our team picture on a page dedicated on our Community Little League.  A post that addressed the photo mentioned his name with the inscription added, “RIP.”  He died when he was 19 years old.  I don’t even know what happened.

So forty years after we played our last game together and 33 years after Dennis passed away I’m feeling some emptiness and a lot of sadness.  Sad because I lost touch with a great kid.  Sad because he died so young.  Empty because I have enjoyed a life with children and now grandchildren, with an advanced education and  a career and he never got to experience any of that. 

Dennis has been gone now for way more than half of my life and yet baseball reminds me of him.  Team comradery brings back lifetime memories.  Here it is 42 years later and I remember that championship game vividly.  I don’t know if that speaks for my lame athletic career as I have to go back that far to discuss a significant personal event or not.  I just know that I’m thankful that this silly game reminds me of a joyous time.  A happy kid and a wonderful human being that departed this earth much too soon.

Rest in peace Dennis.  I remember you vividly and they are wonderful memories.  I’m sorry we lost touch.

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