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I was nine years old in the spring of 1967 when my father asked me if I wanted to tryout for Little League. I had no idea what Little League was but when he explained it was baseball, I quickly agreed. He had taken me to my first ballgame when I was six so any combination of my dad and baseball meant an instant yes. Back home a few hours later, he told me someone called to say I’d been picked to play for the Beachwood-Pine Beach (NJ) Little League Cardinals.
As a nine-year-old Cardinal, I was relegated to where all 9-year-old Little League “rookies” go to play. Right field. Kevin Buckman’s position. My year in right field consisted of keeping meticulous detailed records of dandelions, both flowers and blowballs, as well as the various insect species endemic to a Little League field. And when an occasional batted ball made its way out to my peaceful domain, I usually celebrated by gleefully throwing it over the nearby fence with immense satisfaction despite the runs I had just cost my team.
As a ten-year-old, I moved to shortstop where a lot more action was in store. However, the Cardinals that year had a pair of 12-year-old pitchers, Doug and Rocky, who pretty much struck everybody out all season long. Doug and Rocky were so good that the Cardinals won the league title that year. I might’ve fielded 5 or 10 groundballs all season but I made up for this lack of participation with months of quality “Hey, batter, batter. Swing, batter” encouragement backing our dual star hurlers.
As in all Little Leagues around the world, 12-year-olds move on and the younger players step up. Stripped of our twin lethal weapons, the Cardinals went a first-to-worst 0-18 the next year. That was also the year I moved behind the plate to catch, my final position move. And to quote Forrest “Forrest Gump” Gump, that’s all I have to say about that.
I continued to catch full time as a 12-year-old but I wanted to try pitching. At least once. Just to see what it was like on the mound. Our coach agreed and gave me the ball for one start. Armed with a eminently hittable fastball that traveled right down the middle of the plate, I could’ve been clobbered but instead got enough swings and misses to pick up a shaky win. The Cardinals went 10-10 that year, a far cry from our dismal winless record of the year before.
Prior to 1971, our twin boroughs did not have a Senior League. Once you turned 13, you were done playing organized baseball until high school. So 1971 was the inaugural season for the Beachwood-Pine Beach Senior League for 13 to 15-year-old boys. My father had chosen to be an umpire while I was a Cardinal but now he wanted to coach one of the new teams. And of course, he named his new team the Phillies.
The new league had a rule that placed a coach’s son on his team so I was a Phillie too. One of the other new teams, the Senators, leveraged this rule to devastating effect. The head coach’s son, Mac, was a very good player but Mac’s dad struck gold by recruiting the father of three more outstanding players to be his assistant coach. With Mac, Lou, Carl, Billy and several other good players, the inaugural Senators were loaded.
That first year was hard but fun. My dad’s Phillies won a few and lost a few. We were okay but no one could touch the Senators. I caught most of the games but also saw time at third base and shortstop.
The biggest difference between Little League and Senior League was the field itself. The bases were now 90′ apart, the standard distance. And the outfield fences were now set at 300′, not 200′. It took a few practices and games to get used to the new field but we all eventually got the hang of it.
The next year, 1972, I was 14 years old and, for some inexplicable reason, I got the pitching itch again. That was also the year the real Phillies in Philadelphia had traded for pitcher Steve Carlton who went on to one of the greatest careers in major league history.
So naturally, I decided to copy my new hero’s windup and throwing motion. Never mind that Carlton was a lefty and threw perhaps the most vicious slider any pitcher has ever thrown. With my one pitch, a mediocre fastball with no movement, I was determined to be the next 14-year-old, right-handed “Lefty.”
And so the lobbying campaign began in earnest. I wanted to try my new Carlton impersonation on a real mound against live hitters. I pestered my eternally patient father-coach for weeks to give me a start. He tried to tell me as gently as he could that I was a really good catcher for a 14-year-old. He also reminded me that pitchers need pinpoint plate control whereas catchers just need “vicinity” accuracy. I’m sure you can see where this is going. I thought the old man was nuts. I was ready to announce my presence with authority. Just give me the damn ball. Cooperstown, here I come.
What happened next is an endless story that goes back to the dawn of time, that is, when a father makes a tough but eternally wise decision to let his overconfident teenage son spread his wings and fly. “Sure, Bob, you wanna pitch? You got it. Next start is all yours.” “Thanks, Dad, I won’t let you down. By the way, who are we playing?”
I should stop here and tip my hat to my late father one more time. He did not feed me to the beast. He was not cruel and heartless. He had all the confidence in the world in me. But as a catcher. I mean, this was the man who had played catch with me in our backyard ever since I was six. After thousands and thousands of throws, he knew I had a strong arm for a catcher but that was it. I did not belong on a mound. He knew it but I refused to see it. And so, here it comes … “The Inning of Perpetual Despair” against the powerful Senators.
Top of the first. The Senators leadoff man is up. Ball one. Ball two. Ball three. Ball four. Up high. Too low. Too far inside. Too far outside. No command whatsoever. I stared at the catcher’s target just like Carlton. I wound up and threw it as hard as I could just like Carlton. And it went anywhere and everywhere except the strike zone. A four-pitch walk. Guy never took the bat off his shoulder. Not just like Carlton.
Okay, so man on first. Next batter up. No reason to panic. You can do this. I couldn’t help but glance over to my dad in the dugout. He was sitting stone still. Arms folded across his chest looking on in stoic silence. Naturally, I mistook this for his confidence.
So now with a man on base, it was time to try out “Lefty” Carlton’s pick off move, one of the most lethal moves any pitcher ever used. Only one problem, the same problem with my entire faux Carlton repertoire. I was right handed. So I turned like Lefty, I wheeled like Lefty and I threw it down the right field line. Runner goes to second.
And now I’m thinking, “Hey, um, Dad, maybe I’m not so sure about this.” I look over again at him and, while I’m doing Carlton, he’s doing Buddha. Not a fidget, not a sound.
So now here’s where our hopeless saga goes from uneasy to bad to horrifying to catastrophic in about 20 minutes. I can’t get any of these mashers out. If I’m not walking them, I’m throwing belt high fastballs right down the middle and they’re crushing them all over the field. My teammates behind me are frantically chasing balls from foul line to foul line. Nothing’s working. They’re scoring runs in bunches. 1-0, 2-0, 4-0, 7-0, 10-0. On and on the onslaught continued.
And then the worst possible disaster happened. My best friend, Bobby, who was also a Senator, came up to bat. I was determined to get him out. I reached back for a little more gas and threw it as hard as I could. Right down the heart of the plate. Same speed as my all other pitches. Same lack of movement. Bobby swung and it was gone the minute he hit it. Way over the fence in left field. So far gone that it landed in some scrub pine trees maybe 40′ deep behind the field. It was the ultimate humiliation. To his credit, Bobby kept his head down and circled the bases without taunting me.
Buddha still hadn’t moved. I even silently mouthed the words “Please, take me out” to him but he never budged. Eldest Son was going to get Introduction to Character Building 101 whether he had signed up for the course or not.
You wanted to pitch, son. Pitch.
My misery continued. More runs, more hits, more errors. The nightmare just would not end. Still in the first inning, the score was Senators 19, Phillies 0. It was the worst 45 minutes this 14-year-old boy had ever had. Worse than all the carsickness heaves over the Walt Whitman Bridge. Worse than the steak knife I accidentally buried in my 10-year-old leg worth four stitches. Even worse than trying to ask a girl to the 8th grade dance.
19-0. My father wouldn’t save me. My teammates were fed up with me. I was on the verge of tears. This was rock bottom.
Except it wasn’t. No, sir, there was more rock underneath rock bottom. As I mentioned earlier, my best friend, Bobby, knew I was hurting so he didn’t add insult to injury after his mammoth tater. His other Senator teammates however were not so classy.
One of the three star brothers came up to bat. He dug in to the batter’s box batting righty as usual. But then before I could throw him my next meatball, he called time, stepped out, walked behind home plate and stepped back into the left-handed batter’s box. The message was clear and unmistakable. The Senators were now going to bat left-handed so I could finally get an out. It was the ultimate taunt on a baseball field.
But then a miracle happened. Buddha actually moved. He slowly stood up, called time and casually made his way out to his stricken son standing all alone on The Mound of Misery. The score was 19-0 and the Senators were batting lefty, a cruel irony since I had failed so miserably at impersonating a lefty pitcher. My father looked me straight in the eye. His face was grim and stern. He said five words to me …
“Hit him in the ass.”
I threw one more pitch in my baseball career. From that point on, I played no other position but catcher. One more pitch. One last pitch for the ages.
It was the most accurate pitch I ever threw.