My Career in Baseball
I was a baseball player for four years. I spent two years in the minors, then retired for a year. Then I made a comeback, and played two years in the majors. It was all over before I was thirteen years old.
Where I grew up every boy played baseball. We didn't have T-ball, and Nerf-ball, and Peewee Ball, and Softball. Everyone played fast-pitch baseball with a hard ball and a wooden bat. And we never wore a helmet except when at bat, and then only if an adult made us. Even then, it wasn't cool to wear a helmet after you hit the ball. After connecting with the ball, it was cool to throw off your helmet before running towards first base. It was even cooler if the helmet somehow flew off your head as you raced towards first. I know these things not so much from personal experience; but by having spent a lot of time observing from the bench.
Most kids* started out in the Minor Little League when they were eight years old. Every spring there were tryouts for the Majors. The best players got picked for the Majors when they were nine. Almost everyone else made the Majors when they were ten. Ten-year-olds still in the Minors were always the clods and dorks. It could be said that I retired in my tenth year because I was afraid that I'd still be stuck in the Minors. But I'm not going to say it. I wasn't afraid I'd be stuck in the Minors - I knew it! I was one of the worst ballplayers in the Minor League. The only ones worse than me were the right-fielders who forgot they were playing ball. They would get busy doing something else, and forget to come in when their team went to bat.
"Where's your right-fielder?" an umpire once called.
"He went to the bathroom!" came the call from center field.
I always paid attention to the game. But I could not throw the ball, catch the ball, or hit the ball. I wasn't very fast either. What I was good at was chasing balls, especially home runs. I kept my eye on the ball, and if it was hit way past me, I could run and get it, and somehow get it to a kid who was strong enough to throw it back to the infield. I never closed my eyes when I swung either. I always kept my eye on the ball, and watched as my bat missed it.
I was also pretty good at getting walks, after someone showed me how to crouch when at bat. Because I was so short, if I did a good crouch, my strike zone was only about six inches. So I got on base occasionally, but I was so slow that I usually got picked off.
What I really excelled at chatter: "Hey batter batter, Hey batter batter, Hey! Hey, your mother wears army boots! Hey! You swing like an old lady! Hey! What d'ya want, peaches and cream on a cherry pie?! Hey batter batter!" Since I usually played right field (because that is where the ball is hit least often), my chatter was not very effective, but I got a lot of practice. Occasionally, for strategic reasons, the coach decided that I might do less damage at second base, and then I had a chance to put my chatter to good use.
So in my tenth year (of age, third year of baseball) I decided that baseball was stupid, and I could do without it. I would stay home and play Bach on the piano. And knock down little rubber guys with marbles.
But the truth was, I missed baseball. And I missed all my friends. So when I was eleven, I tried out Little League again, and by some miracle, I made the Majors! It could have been that the coach felt sorry for me. Or maybe he wanted another bad player to make Roy Stevens feel better. Stevens Excavating Co. was the team's sponsor, so Roy had to be on the team. He was very fat, and slow, and an even worse player than I was. But I prefer to think that the coach saw that I had potential, and that my chatter could rattle the opposition.
I played two uneventful seasons in the Majors, then went back to classical music. Thirteen-year-olds had to start playing the Babe Ruth League, and that was only for serious ballplayers.
The high point of my baseball career happened during my very first season in the Minors, when I was only eight years old. I didn't even know the crouch yet. I was such a terrible player that I would not have played much that season, but for the fact that teams often did not have enough players. And if one team was short a player, the opposing team would give them an "extra" player so the game could be played. Guess who was the Designated Extra Player on our team? Consequently, when I did get a chance to play, it was as often on the opponent's team as my own.
Our team was actually pretty good for a bunch of runts and dorks, mainly because we had Bruce. Bruce was about six feet tall and was our star pitcher. He could throw the ball pretty damn fast, and it scared the hell out of most batters, especially since Bruce was not very accurate. Most often the batter would swing in self-defense, and strike out.
So it came to pass that my team was tied for first place with the Reds. And we were scheduled to play each other the last game of the season. All twelve of our players were ready and fired up for the championship game. Since only nine players can be on the field, and any substitutions would be made from numbers 10 and 11, I had resigned myself to warming the bench and practicing my chatter.
Then I saw the two coaches talking, and pretty soon they came over to me. Somehow, only eight Reds had shown up, so I was picked to play in the Big Game, as a Red! I hustled out to right field, and stood there doing nothing. I didn't even try my chatter. Somehow it seemed wrong to be razzing my own team.
Along about the fifth inning, I was watching butterflies when I heard some yelling from the infield. I looked up and saw a ball coming straight at my head! I ducked down and covered my face with my glove. Whack!! Wah!! I was down on the ground, screaming "I'm hurt! I'm hurt!" Then I noticed that everyone else was screaming too, so I must have been hurt badly! I slowly got up, expecting broken bones and squirting blood. The ball was embedded in my mitt! That was the third out, retiring the side with two men left on base. No runs scored. The score remained tied 2-2, with one and a half innings to go. (Little League games were six innings long.)
The Reds all laughed and clapped me on the back. Then they were struck out 1 - 2 - 3 by Big Bruce. Our coach hadn't started Bruce until the third inning, so he was fresh and full of fire, and ready to go into extra innings if needed. The Reds were getting tired, and Bruce was going to wear them out eventually.
Top of the sixth. My team is at bat. The Reds shifted their outfielders so that the center-fielder could cover right field also. I had had my lucky catch, and they were taking no chances. The first batter got a base hit. But then the Reds held tight and retired the next three batters.
Bottom of the sixth and last inning. Bruce is pitching fast and wild. The first two Red Batters go down swinging, relieved to get out of there alive. The next batter hung in there and got a walk. Bruce's next pitch hit the fourth batter squarely on the arm. The kid was down on the ground screaming his head off, his mother was yelling "You're a monster!" at Bruce, and the right-fielder was hollering, "What happened?!" Finally, it was decided that the kid was OK, and he shuffled down to first base, still sobbing, with a big welt growing on his arm.
Two on, two out, score tied 2-2. And someone called my name.
"Hayward, you're up!"
What!!? I've got to face The Bruce?! He just hit a kid! Shouldn't he be out of the game or something? The players on both teams were all laughing, except for Bruce, who was sneering at me. I stood at the plate, trying to hold up the bat, my knees shaking. I was such a loser that Bruce deemed me unworthy of his fastball; so he lobbed a baby pitch, along with a sneer, in my general direction. I closed my eyes and swung wildly, trying to make it all go away. And somehow I whacked that ball right into the hole between center and right field (right where the center-fielder would have been had I been playing right field). Both outfielders ran after the ball, while the runner on second scored easily. Chaos erupted! The Reds won the pennant!! The hurt kid made it across the plate, too, in all the commotion. Actually, I never made it to first base. When everybody started yelling, I just stood there wondering if I had gotten hurt again. The next thing I knew, Bruce was chasing me off the field. But I was soon saved by a swarm of friendly Reds.
I played on the Reds team the next year. My old team didn't want me back. But I never hit the ball or caught the ball again. I'd had my moment in the sun.
*When I say "kids", I mean "boys". In these pre-liberated times all boys played baseball, and all girls did not. Girls wore dresses, and stayed in the stands, and cheered.