I played thousands of baseball games when I was a kid. It is what boys of my generation did – almost every day of summer – all day long until it got dark – and on weekends in fall and spring when the weather permitted. I’m sure today’s young boys would find that hard to believe.
But, hey, what else was there to do? There were no video games back then. Until I was in my teens there wasn’t even television. And neither football nor basketball had anywhere near the appeal to us that they have to today’s kids.
I loved the game. I tried so hard. I so wanted to excel at it. I would have gladly traded many of the A’s I earned in the classroom for superior baseball skills. But, sadly, I was only a mediocre player. Truth be told, on the range of mediocrity I fell closer to the bottom than the top. That is not to say I was a spazz. When choosing up sides I was never the last chosen. But I was rarely among the first three picked for each side either.
First of all, I lacked speed and strength. My body was built for distance, not the dash. And it wasn’t until I was a senior in high school that I reached my ultimate five foot nine height and had filled out at 140 pounds. I was a runt.
I was a decent fielder – pretty good at catching fly balls and line drives, and fielding grounders. But I had what is called a scatter arm. If I was just playing catch I had no difficulty making the ball end up where I intended it to go. But playing in the infield, fielding a ground ball, I needed to make a quick and accurate throw to the first baseman to get the batter. About two thirds of the time I would get it there. But all too often my throw would sail over the head of the first baseman – or veer far to his right or left forcing him to leave the base to catch it or miss it altogether. Unacceptable! 😦 Consequently, I ended up playing in the outfield most often. Out there I never attempted to throw a runner out trying to advance a base. God only knows where the ball would have ended up – maybe in another county! I would lob the ball to an infielder and let hm worry about catching runners.
I also had my problems batting. I was not an easy out – I did get lots of hits, but being small, skinny and weak I was just a singles hitter. Also, my bat speed was slow. I’m sure I started my swing in time but I would almost always make contact late, causing the ball to go foul or stay fair to the right. My hits would almost always be grounders between the first and second basemen or little loopers just over their heads. The only time I would get extra bases would be when the ball would go into the gap between the right and center fielders and they would have to chase it.
On occasion I would hit to center field, but only rarely would I hit to left field where one would expect me as a right handed hitter to hit most of the time. I tried all kinds of batting stances. I tried choking up on the bat. I even tried starting with the bat held high hoping that gravity would help speed up my bat – but all to no avail.
But one day, in one at bat – just one time, never to be repeated, I had an experience I had only dreamed of. And I remember it today with a clarity as if it had occurred only yesterday.
It happened when I was 15. It was a Sunday and our regular playground was closed. So, as we usually did on Sunday, a group of us kids in the neighborhood went to a nearby elementary school to play on their field. There were usually enough other kids who showed up so we we would have enough to field two full teams.
The field was behind the school surrounded by an eight foot high chain link fence. The distance to the fence in left field was shorter than in right because the school, a three story brick building was directly behind the fence, separated by maybe 15 or 20 feet of grass. All the windows on that side of the building were covered with metal grill-work as protection from batted balls – a possible but rare event.
I was at bat for the second or third time in the middle innings. In my mind’s eye I can still see the first pitch I got. It seemed to be just floating towards me straight as an arrow, waist high – I swear it looked as big as a cantaloupe. I instantly had that super feeling you get when you see a fat pitch coming – I could visualize a hard line drive over the second baseman’s head as I started my swing.
CRACK!! That fantastic sound that only happens when you make solid contact on the sweet part of the bat – where you know the ball is going to go a long way!
I was dumbfounded, frozen in place, my mouth open and eyes bulging, as I watched the ball leaving my bat. It was no line drive to right – it was an absolute rocket to straightaway left field, climbing at an amazing speed! No doubt about it, it was going over the fence!
Now I don’t hit rockets! And I certainly don’t hit to left field! This was surreal! It was still climbing as it went over the fence and I thought Oh My God – it might even hit the school! But it didn’t. It didn’t reach the top of its arc and start downward until it had sailed over the school, and obviously landed on the roof!
I had hit home runs before, but always the kind where I had to race frantically around the bases, my teammates yelling for me to keep going all the way to the plate, and me praying I could beat the throw from the outfield. This was the first real and legitimate over-the-fence home run of my life. It turned out to be the only one.
The sad thing is that I didn’t get to have the thrill of a leisurely home run trot around the bases. The ball that I had just planted on the roof of the school was the only ball we had that day. The game was over! 😥