Like many parents in Fremont, Ohio I have spent many late nights at the park watching my kids play ball. Having my wife be at one game while I was at the other and then switching after three innings so that we could both see our children play are great memories. My kids are now all grown and not playing ball anymore. I miss those times. They went by so quickly. For the past few years, I just drive through the park to get the feeling again. Everytime I do, the memories flood my mind. Often, I am taken back to my playing days… a long time ago…
As a kid, I loved baseball. I would play it as often as I could. Game days were the best. I usually spent most of the day dreaming of playing in the game that night. Back in 1972, the ultimate sin on game day was the fact that we were forbidden to swim. ( Is that still a rule?) So, since I could not swim, I would play out the game in my mind. With my wiffleball and bat in hand, I took my place in my backyard playing out the many different situations of the game. In my mind it was always me that was up to the plate at the crucial time…and like always it was me that delivered the mighty blow to win the game. I would be carried off the field in honor of my athletic feat.
Who of us hasn’t dreamed about the getting the big hit, scoring the basket or catching the pass for a touchdown in the waning seconds of the game to secure the win for your team? I believe that it’s every athletes dream that has ever played the game.
On a hot July day in the little town of Oak Harbor, Ohio something happened that I have never been able to forget. It has been 36 years since this event and it feels like it was yesterday.
Here is what happened…
It was every boy’s dream. We were playing a big game on that hot July day. We were playing the best team in the league. I did not start the game that day. I was charged to sit the bench until it was time for me to get in my required one inning of play. Don’t get me wrong, in my backyard I was always the hero, but in reality I was content to get my one inning and maybe one at-bat.
It was a very close game. We had the lead 4 to 3 in the top of the sixth inning. The coach had no other choice but to put me in the game. I was sent to my usual place in right field and just prayed to God that I would not have a ball hit in my direction. I did not want to be any part of losing the lead. I would just be happy to be able to celebrate with my teammates after the game. Three outs and we would win the game.
The events that caused our lead to dwindle had nothing to do with me. Not a single ball came in my direction. The other team scored two runs in the top of that inning. We now were losing 5 to 4. As I ran to the bench after we got the third out, I looked up and saw my coach looking down at the score book. Then it hit me…I may have to go up and bat!!! I went over and looked at the score book and saw that I was scheduled to be the 5th batter.
“Ok, maybe we can score two runs before I have to get up to bat.” I was hoping in my mind. But fate would have it’s way that day. To my dismay, I was going to have to bat. We had one man on second base and one on third. Two outs and now it’s all up to me. I reached down for the 28″ bat I used and started my way into the batters box. I am sure the sound of my knees knocking in fear could be heard in the stands.
I closed my eyes and reached deep down inside and gathered all the courage I had in my body. “I can hit this guy,” I thought to myself. All I needed to do, was keep my eye on the ball. After all, I had done this a thousand times in my backyard.
Just a hit…a hit would at least tie the game. If I hit it well, maybe I could score both of them and we would win the game.
“Don’t over-swing…just make contact” I told myself.
As I dug my cleats into the dirt, I tried not to show my fear. I also did not want to look too confident. I only wanted to be the hero.
I settle into my standard Johnny Bench batting stance.
(NOTE: I am an Indians fan. I have been my whole life, but back in 1973, there wasn’t a whole lot of players on the Indians squad that young boys would try to emulate. So, just like about every other kid I knew, we took turns trying to look like Joe Morgan or Johnny Bench of the Cincinnati Reds)
First Pitch… here it comes… right down the middle… it’s perfect… I grip the bat harder with my hands and start to swing and I suddenly stop myself.
“STRIKE ONE!!!” the umpire bellowed.
I didn’t want to seem too eager…”Make him pitch to you” I told myself as I stepped out the batters box. I reach down and grab a handful of dirt and rub it into the bat. I would be ready if he threw another pitch like that.
Next Pitch… here it comes… it’s perfect! SWING …
I’m not exactly sure how it happened, my memories begin with the crack of the bat, and the sight of the ball rising high into the crisp blue sky of summer. My mind raced… “It was perfect and I got all of it!” I thought to myself.
Then something happened that had never happened before. I don’t know why I did it but I did…
I put my head down and start to head to first base. I was sure it was gone and I started go into my backyard “home-run trot” around the bases.
As I round first base, I keep my head down and keep on my trot around the bases. Thoughts of being a hero were rushing through my head. I couldn’t wait to hear the cheers from my teammates, coaches and fans. It was exactly how I played it out a few hours before in my backyard.
I reach second base, my teammate is still standing there. I wanted to tell him to run, because I just hit a home run. But the look in his eye told me something was not right. He was looking at me like I was the village idiot. Then suddenly I hear the sharp laughter of the fans, not to mention the cries of laughter from the opposing team.
“What happened? There is NO WAY that they caught the ball,” I thought to myself.
Then it hit me… no, they didn’t catch the ball… it fell well short of the fence and in foul territory!
I stop my trot around the bases, hoping to find a place to disappear. There is no escape from the laughter of the opposing team and the snickers from my own teammates. I pan the crowd to see who exactly saw this and to my dismay…just about everyone.
I look to see my coach just shaking his head…
I really don’t remember the last pitch. Just the umpire yelling out, “STRIKE THREE!!!”
I have told this story over the years with many different endings. Sometimes, it’s another player who does this embarrassing act. I then get to make fun of him. Sometimes it’s me. I usually get a hit to tie the game.
Not often, but sometimes I tell the story as if I hit the home run to win the game. I tell the story with as much conviction as any story I have ever told.
So, maybe it’s not exactly what happened. But that’s the way it should have ended, and that’s the way I like to remember it.
And if dreams and memories sometimes get confused… oh well… that is as it should be, because I believe that every kid deserves to be a hero. Even if that hero may stretch the truth every now and then.