By Paul Espinoza
I was 12 years old that summer, as I approached home plate to take my last turn at bat for my final Little League season. My team was behind by only one run and we had a runner on second base. As usual, a hush fell over the stands behind our dugout. Actually it was not quite a hush; it was more of a groan. A groan that said to me, "Here comes a certain out. He won't even connect with the pitch."
I glanced over my shoulder at our team manager, but his eyes were fixed on the roster, as if he could somehow change my name in the line-up, substituting another that would equate to a game tying hit, or better, a game winning home run. Unfortunately, for him, he had to let me bat. It was my turn and I had not had a plate appearance yet in that game.
"What's the use," I thought, "win or lose, we still end up in third place." But, there I was, at the end of the Little League season, determined to prove to them all that I could hit the ball.
If I was lucky, I got to play four innings in a game, in left field. More often than not, I only saw two innings, and those were spent far, far away from any possibility of error, out in Little League No-Man's Land - otherwise known as right field. Right field; synonymous with Mars or Timbuktu. If you were not quite able to catch every ball that came your way, the safest place to put you was in right field, where the ball was seldom hit.
It always struck me odd that even though I had not missed a single ball that came my way or dropped a single fly, I was still stuck out there more than I cared to be. But, after all, I was one of those players who "filled out the roster". In other words, I had not played Little League before that summer and I was too old to return to the team the next year, so why should the manager bother working too hard on my skills. He had younger boys that would pay off in the next couple of years.
Even with my slightly better than average skill in the field, at the plate I was an entirely different player. I was deathly afraid of that white bullet that flew at me at what I guessed to be at least a thousand miles an hour. Occasionally I stuck out my bat and, if I was lucky, the ball hit it. And if I had a little more luck, I actually made it to first base.
The real reason that I had made it onto the team in the first place, was because of my little brother, who had two more years to play. He made the team, so they thought they had better stick me in there too. They always kept brothers together.
Now here I was, with two out in the bottom of the sixth inning and a man (actually a little boy) on second base. It was up to me to keep the rally alive!
"If you can't drive in the run, well ... then ... you damn sure better not get out!" Wonderful words of encouragement from the manager who tried to soften the comment by mumbling the last few words. I knew it was no joke to him. He spent the majority of practice time with either the hot shots or with the younger guys who would be with the team for another year or two. Guys like me were just the extra filler, a piece of fat that had to be taken along with the choice cut of meat ... and there were a couple of us.
We had all come down to the baseball diamond some months earlier with high hopes of becoming Little League legends. We took our obligatory swings and fielded some sloppily hit balls and this told the team managers all they needed to know about us. You had a few chances to hit or miss a pitch at the plate and a couple of stabs at fly balls in the field. With this rigorous and in-depth try-out, your Little League future was computed by frustrated ex-high school or college athletes who never made it into the professional level of sports. But here, in the summer heat of a Little League field, they played out their "lost" fantasies with us pre-teen boys, who were playing out our own fanciful scenarios.
Earlier in that game I had been acting out just such a scenario, oblivious of the real surroundings; hearing the murmur of the crowd, smelling the grass, but seeing only myself and the imaginary fly ball coming my way. We had just taken the field and while the pitcher threw his allotted warm up pitches before the first batter, I was leaping and frolicking in left field, imagining myself just barely catching a hard hit line drive and robbing the batter of a home run. In that particular inning the first batter was one of the 12 year olds, playing his last Little League season, but already a legend in the eyes of the rest of us. He hit extremely well, fielded perfectly, was a fast runner and he could even pitch! He always made the all-star team and he was the one they counted on to get more than just a base hit.
As I jumped about in left field, pretending to snag the most difficult of catches, the boy's father approached the fence. He looked at me with pity and just a touch of embarrassment.
"Why don't you wait for a real ball to come your way?" he asked, chuckling at his little joke, as he turned back towards the bleachers.
Suddenly I realized how ridiculous I must have looked, hopping and jumping about, scooping up invisible baseballs. I imagined everyone in the stands at that moment was laughing and pointing at the ludicrous antics of the buffoon in left field. I did what any self-conscious, embarrassed 12 year old would do at such a point, I looked down at my shoes, poking around at the grass with my toe, in search of some unseen, but important, object.
These are just the type of wonderful, confidence building comments that a lot of us seemed to get from helpful, interested parents. I don't know if they ever understood that most of us just wanted to get out there for a couple of hours on a summer day, swing a bat, smell the grass, hopefully win the game and finish off with a well deserved hot dog and soda.
As it turned out, the all-star did hit the ball my way that inning, a long drive that would have been a certain double, if not a triple. It sailed into the corner of left field, right up to the fence. And this is one of the moments of my short live baseball career that I will always treasure.
I trotted backwards, with no effort or tenseness, stuck out my glove hand, heard the smack and felt the sting. When I pulled in my glove, there sat the baseball, nestled snugly in my mitt. It was a spectacular catch, reaching across my right shoulder, as I scampered backwards and stole what was easily an extra base hit from Mr. Hot Shot himself!
This was always difficult for me to understand. How was it that I could, on occasion, make such amazing catches (like another time when I ran full out from left field to snag up a blooper, inches from the grass, that had just cleared the short stops mitt). Why, then, could I not consistently perform such dazzling feats of athletic prowess? Especially when I had a bat in my hands.
But on that particular summer day, the last game of the Little League season, I approached the plate with a mixture of uncertainty and determination. I was uncertain if I could possibly hit the ball, but I was determined to go down swinging or smack a long one.
As I stood at home plate I could picture the ball sailing out over the fence between center and left field, while the two outfielders stood there, open mouthed, watching it zoom by out of their reach, as the crowd behind me roared. It was a glorious feeling.
"Strike one!" the umpire called and I realized I had swung without even seeing the ball.
"C'mon," came a voice from the bleachers, "You can do it!" It was more of a hopeful plea than a statement of confidence. But the owner of the voice was at least on my side.
I settled in to the batter's box ready for the next pitch. And when it came I closed my eyes and swung with all my might. Unfortunately, the ball had already reached the catcher's mitt before I took my swing.
"Strike two, " cried the ump and the catcher only chuckled.
"What a spazz," he said.
I backed out of the batters box as the bustling in the stands told me that several parents and onlookers were already moving away from their seats, certain that the game was over. One pitch stood between me and destiny, and I was more determined than ever to prove that I was no rank amateur.
I stepped into the batters box and pictured Mickey Mantle facing Don Drysdale. I knew who would win this battle, what the outcome would be. I had spent many an hour in my back yard pretending to be Mickey Mantle, sending the baseball for a long ride out of Yankee Stadium.
This time I kept my eyes on the ball and swung just as it reached the plate. I felt the dull shudder run up my arms from the bat as wood connected with cowhide. The ball shot past the first baseman, took a hop and bounced over the fence. It was a fantastic feeling, a glorious moment in my baseball career, a moment, in fact, that would go down with other game saving hits and would be remembered as the fabled "Hit of the summer!" My euphoria, however, was short lived as the umpire called "Foul ball!"
From the bleachers came the familiar calls of "That's getting a piece of it," and "Now straighten it out."
We must have heard those worn out phrases a hundred times during the course of each and every summer. And we always groaned a bit when someone would call out, then elbow the fellow next to him, as if he had just created a new catch phrase for the game of baseball.
I planted my feet once again near home plate and took a couple of swings, preparing mentally for the next pitch, the one that would make me a hero. The pitch came my way. I didn't close my eyes this time, that is not until I was into my swing. I heard a sharp crack. At the same time I toppled over, carried by the force of my powerful swing. As I hit the ground I felt a swelling within me, certain that I had given that ball a long overdue ride. They would all begin to cheer momentarily and I could already feel the slaps on my back from my teammates as I crossed home plate!
"Strike three! You're out!"
The words rang in my ear as I lay on the ground.
"No, it's not fair," I thought. Now I had to stand up and make the long, desolate walk back to the dugout, accompanied by the groans and glares of parents and my teammates.
"You lost the game for us," came a call from the dugout.
"What a spazz," said the catcher, as he walked away to the visitor's side of the field.
I picked myself up, dusted off my uniform and, dragging the bat behind me, shoulders slumped and head down, I shuffled back to the dug out. Nobody said much. They were all getting ready to run off for their after-game treat and then head home for dinner.
A couple of the team stars did manage some awkward comments, "Nice try" and "Better luck next time".
"Try looking at the ball when you swing." This last one got them all laughing and they slapped each other on the back as they walked off the field. What team spirit; what camaraderie!
"So much for my big day at the diamond," I thought, as I headed for my bicycle. No doubt, half way home, exhilarated by the freedom of movement I always felt when I was flying down the street on my bike, the painful memory of my last at bat would start to fade and I would stop feeling sorry for myself. But at that moment, outside the baseball diamond, on my last day of Little League, I wanted nothing more than to get as far away from there as fast as I could.
As I pushed up the kick stand with the inside of my left foot and swung my right leg over the bicycle, a voice from behind me said, "Hey son."
I turned around and there was the father of the "All-Star". He had a friendly smile on his face as he pointed a finger my way and exclaimed,
"That was one helluva catch!"
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