Even after 30 years, base hits, bloopers and bubble gum remain intertwined in my memories of my son’s years in Pony League baseball.
Jimmy was 12 his first season, and his coach knew little about baseball. Still, it was commendable that he undertook the role. A high school “helper” did the actual coaching. Although the games’ outcomes were predictable, it was amazing how each loss was different from the one before. Pauline couldn’t have survived her perils more gloriously than one young opponent who successfully bunted her way onto base, then proceeded to steal second and third, thanks to the bungling efforts of male infielders who later grumbled, “So where are you supposed to tag her?”
As the season wound down, we came to dread the sight of our son at bat. It was an exciting moment the day a solid hit rebounded off his bat. It was usually his fate to get picked off trying to steal second, so when he managed to reach third with no outs, I had high hopes that for once my son could score. Tentatively, he led off as the pitcher went into his stretch. Then, as the ball headed toward the plate, so did he.
The batter swung. This was no squeeze play — the batter was swinging for the fence! But he missed the ball. Somehow the bat also missed our son’s head. We were too relieved even to care that the catcher dropped the ball, allowing our son to score.
After the game, Jimmy insisted, “The coach told me to go, Dad. It was our surprise play. It worked, Dad! I scored.”
Dad was neither impressed nor convinced. “No coach would have someone steal home when there were no outs,” he declared, “especially into a swinging bat. You must have misread the sign.” The remaining games disproved that theory. More than once we saw the same “surprise” tactic.
Our second year, we were among the early sign-ups so we wouldn’t end up on a leftover team with another kamikaze coach. Losses still far exceeded wins that year, but the plaques gratefully given to the coaches summed up our feelings. “It matters not if you win or lose,” they read, “thank you for teaching us to play the game.”
Jimmy’s final season, we were familiar with the scuffed bleachers and the sight of our son’s mouth stuffed with so much bubble gum I feared his jaws would surely unhinge. The entire team was always infected with the first-play-of-the-game jitters. They all chewed, jaws working with a drooling frenzy to manipulate their too-large wads into controllable masses. When our bubble gum brigade successfully eliminated its first batter, tensions dissipated and tiny bubbles were replaced by big pink baseball replicas. I can still picture our pitcher winding up and sucking in the last of a huge bubble that nearly obliterated his face.
Our coach declared after our preseason game, “These boys are awesome! No team should beat us!” His prophecy was only partially accurate. We were not unbeatable, but indeed, the boys were awesome. My thesaurus suggests that awesome means astonishing, dreadful, alarming, disquieting, and perturbing — all apt descriptions of the team.
Tom was our utility outfielder, most reliable pitcher and chick magnet. Spending more than half of many games in the dugout did not deter his cheering section. However, I didn’t share their confidence the day he came to bat with runners on first and second and two outs. Tom grounded sharply to deep right field. As the outfielder hurriedly threw toward the infield, I turned my attention to our boys crossing the plate. When the parents from the opposing side rose with a roar, I heard what sounded like, “Yer out!”
At first base, Tom was turning dejectedly toward the dug-out. He had waited at the plate to revel in the wonder of his hit before running to first. It was a moment too long, and his glory was short-lived.
I can’t remember what a boy named Bill did to cause his dad to roll eyes and moan repeatedly, but one day his exasperation peaked and he asked his son, “How would you like it if the paramedics had to come and remove my boot from your rear?” The team adopted that phrase as its favorite punch line to dispel gloomy moments or help teammates recover their composure after errors.
Seeing Chris opposing us in right field was quite a surprise one evening. He’d always seemed naively intent on his own self-destruction. We noticed him sprawled on the outfield grass. No balls or players were near him, yet obviously he had taken a bad tumble. After the game, our son explained, “Chris had dirt in his cleats so he backed up to the chain link fence to knock them clean. His cleats got caught on the fence and he dumped himself.” He had a fetish about clean cleats. His on-deck warm-up swings were punctuated with attempts to knock the bat against his shoes to loosen the dirt. Invariably he’d miss and bang his ankle.
But that day, he hobbled to the plate and drove in the winning run.
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