Friday, August 31, 2012

Hey, Coach! (Part 1 of 2)

I would definitely be considered a geek from the activities and hobbies I had since childhood.

However, I also had a long time love affair with athletics, and I was a decent practitioner. I had played just about all of them, but one in particular became my main squeeze and remains so to this day, as both a former player and now coach.

Baseball, America's pastime.

Since I was a little kid, I was enamored with the notion that a boy like me might have a chance to be a big league ballplayer. I was told I had some talent, but some of these comments inflated my head to a point where it created some insufferable arrogance. This and the fact I was often the best player on the team created a unrealistic view of my aspirations.

Oh, how things change in a hurry.

One summer, when I was thirteen, I got my first taste of Pony league. The field was larger, not quite the size size of MLB fields, but larger than Little League.  The kids were bigger, some of them as big as  adults. (I was only 5' 5" 120 lbs. at the time.) Practices were more intense, as the coaches yelled much more often.

I hung in there, actually did okay, but I quickly realized I was not the best player there. Not by a long shot.

My first game at Pony. I was the starting pitcher and batting lead off. The kid on the mound on the other team seemed like a giant. (At 6' 2" 200 lbs he was compared to me.)  I was standing on the grass near the dugout, taking my practice swings. After every pitch during his warm- up, he would stare me down when he got the ball back from his catcher.

I just smiled at him. I was not going to show anyone how terrified I felt.

The home plate umpire shouts: "Play ball"

This big pitcher threw left- handed. As a switch-hitter, I stepped into the right-handed batter's box. I dug in, hugging home plate,then brought my bat up to a ready position.

He wound up. I was guessing a fastball inside and high to try to knock me off the plate.

I was right, but the pitched was not as inside and high as he wanted. I brought my hands in close to my body as I swung, and I felt and heard the crack. I don't think I hit a ball as hard as I hit that one. I just stood there and watched. I knew it was gone.

The wind of about 10 m.p.h. blowing right to left. I watched as the ball start to tail toward the left field foul line.

The ball went a few inches to the left of that blasted foul pole.

"Foul ball!"  The third base umpire bellows.

I slumped my shoulders in disappointment, but perked up in mere moments, thinking maybe I could hit off this kid.

I stepped back in the batter's box. I looked at the pitcher. The smirk on my face told him I was no longer intimidated and my confidence was growing.

He wound up again. It was the same motion as the first pitch, but I was guessing changeup low and on outside corner of the plate.

For the second time in a roll, I guessed correctly.

I hit the pitch solid, hearing the crack of the bat once more. Not as hard as the first one, but a good charge. I sprinted out of the box, and ran down the first base line. I had a good view of the ball, this time as it was going down the right field line. I knew the wind was now aiding me, instead of hindering, as was the case with the first swing.

I circled first base, digging for two in case it stayed in the park. I lost sight of the ball but I happened to see the second base umpire extend his right arm straight up. His index finger was pointing to the sky and his hand was turning an air circle in a counterclockwise motion.

Home run!  Then the bad news came rather quickly.

I heard a cry that made me stop in my tracks and kneel down in frustration.

"Foul ball!"

Now, any ball hit down the right field line is the jurisdiction of the first base umpire. Of course, I'm not thinking about that because I was elated in thinking I just hit a four bagger.

Time was called. All the umps huddle together on the grass in between the mound and second. The third base coach told me to stay at second until told otherwise.

After a brief conference,  I heard the phrase for the third time.

"Foul ball!" The first base umpire booms, emphasizing it with his left arm extended toward the first base dugout.

"Batter up!"  The home plate umpire squawks. I step back into the box once again, frowning at the man-boy, trying to turn the table of his game of diamond terrorism ."0 balls, 2 strikes."  The home plate ump  reminds everyone the hole I dug myself.

The third pitch I saw, changed my destiny. It was not the curveball both coach and I thought would come, but it was like the first one, fastball inside. However, it was too far inside.

I didn't have any time to react and I heard the ball hit the handle of the bat. I also felt it hit the outside of my ulnar bone of my left wrist, simultaneously.

"Foul ball!" The home plate umpire screams. I barely heard the phrase, the fourth time uttered, through the haze of the most intense pain I ever felt in my then young life. Immediately, I dropped my bat and fell to the ground, I was clutching my wrist on the way down, but I didn't scream.

"Time!" The words sounded like it came from a long distance away, but the man who said them stood only a few feet from my now prone form.

Laying there in a fetal position, I remember hearing voices. They were familiar, but I couldn't connect them to any face. I was too busy trying to be tough and not cry in front of everyone.  My closed eyes still leaked. I could feel the wetness on my eyelashes, which kept these tears from streaming down my face.

 I don't remember how long I was getting reacquainted with the dirt, but I did eventually evolve into a sitting position. My coach, and fortunately for me, a player's father who was a doctor, was there to see the extent of my injury.

The doctor asked me to do a whole array of movement of my hand and wrist. Through the pain, which now subsided to bearable, I could do all of them. There was some swelling and bruising in the wrist area. Nothing seemed to be broken. The bat took some of the force. If that pitch hit me flush, it would be no doubt of the attire I would be wearing for several long weeks. The dreaded cast.

Both the doctor and Coach concurred that I should be replaced in the game. I would hear none of that. I pleaded, begged, whined, and would of risked the embarrassment of crying (the irony in that!) to stay in and play.

Now, back in the 80's, coaches had more discretion in whether or not a kid could play after a incident that caused the player to be hurt. If there was no discernible injury, and the player was willing to stay in the game, the coach would let him.

So, I got my wish, but to continue forward was predicated on the injury not getting any worse. I agreed not to complain if he decided to yank me because of this.

As my luck would have it, this happened with the very next pitch thrown.

After all the theatrics that occurred at home plate, I jogged to first, staring at the pitcher all the way there. He looked at me and shrugged, like it was no big deal. I thought it was, and I promised myself I would return the favor and drill him when he came up to bat.

(As an aside, I played baseball in an era where it was okay for a pitcher to knock a guy down that was too close to the plate. If a guy got hit, his pitcher would plunk a player on the other team. Very rarely did this practice get out of hand.)

First though, I was going to steal second base. It would be tough to do because a lefty pitcher faces first base. He is allowed to pick up his leg as long it doesn't go toward home plate. You have to time it just right.

My first base coach gave the next batter (right-hander) the sign for a hit and run. I took my lead, watching for my chance. I expected he would throw to first just to keep me honest. He wound up, I watched for the leg. That fraction of a second when I saw the leg go toward home, I took off.

Here is the pitch! Curve ball! Line drive down the third base line! Fair!

I rounded second and as I headed to third when I saw the third base coach winding up his right arm. He wanted me to score!  I wounded third sharply, catching the inside corner of the bag to keep me inside the line for a shorter distance and better chance to plate the run.

I saw the catcher. Big kid. (He is the brother of the pitcher I found out later.) He was stationed perfectly, just to the first base side of home. He was close to the plate as possible without blocking it.  I ran as fast as I could. I wanted to score the first run of the season. And to celebrate, I was going to salute my good buddy, the opposing pitcher.

I was about ten feet away when I went into my slide. Leading with my feet at about two o'clock. As my left hip hit the ground, I saw the ball in his glove. He moved his body to his left, moving with surprising agility and speed. His left leg, bent at the knee with the shin guard touching the earth, was moving toward my left hand, his glove making a low sweep.

My already damaged paw met his shin guard and bent it back at the wrist. I saw as my fingernails touch my forearm. Anyone who saw it said it was appalling. I had no time to ponder because I blacked out from the pain.

The rest of the story on my next post.

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