I Signed Up For This?
Ordinarily, nothing could have torn me away from the Saturday morning cartoons. This particular Saturday morning was unique. This Saturday morning was the time to sign up for JAA baseball.
There were dozens of dads and sons gathered in a lobby at the school when Dad and I arrived, most of them in a line that led to a table where a few adults were taking names and money. We patiently waited as the line dwindled down until it was finally our turn. I looked around for any of my classmates while Dad filled out the paperwork. Rod and his dad walked in about that time. We eagerly waved to each other.
Dad spent a few extra minutes at the table talking to some guy who had a mustache and was wearing glasses. I had no clue who this guy was, though he seemed to be the one in charge. He glanced over at me and smiled. Normally, I would have taken a step back to put Dad between us, but he was a friendly enough guy. The two of them talked a bit more before Dad nodded and signed a separate piece of paper. Dad shook the guy’s hand then told me it was time to go home.
“Did you see any of your friends in there?” Dad asked as we walked back to his car.
“I saw Rod.”
“You saw Rod, huh? That it?”
“Yeah,” I said with some disappointment. “I thought Tom was going to play.”
“He is. I saw his name on the list. He and his dad must have come in earlier.”
A few weeks later, Dad told us he had a JAA meeting to attend after dinner. When he came home from the meeting he had a large envelope. Its contents included a baseball rule book, a few pages of JAA rules and regulations, and a team roster and schedule. He read the team roster and schedule first.
He read aloud: “Instructional League… second and third graders….” He mumbled a few things to himself.
“Huh, this should make you happy,” he said as he looked at me across the kitchen table.
“What?” I asked.
“Tom is on the team and his dad will be assistant coach.”
I shouted my delight that Tom and I were going to be on the same team. After I calmed down a bit, I asked Dad if Tom’s dad was the assistant, who was the coach.
“I am,” he answered. “You said maybe I could teach you. I’m going to teach you.”
I shouted out with even more delight at the tremendous news.
A few weeks later, Dad held our team’s first practice. A few days prior to the practice he brought home a tiny vinyl baseball glove for me. I had given that tiny baseball glove that could barely hold a baseball no thought or concern until I saw the much nicer gloves that most of the other boys were using at practice.
We had several practices before our season opener. Dad started us on the most basic fundamentals of the game, spending entire practices on how to throw and catch the ball, how to bat, and how to run the bases. We’d line up in two lines to throw the ball back and forth to get used to the motion of throwing and simply catching the darn thing.
It took me several practices to quit being afraid of a thrown ball. Noticing that Tom was already adept at catching a ball, I finally grew a pair and stood in there to watch the ball hit my glove. Then I watched as the ball fell to the ground. It was progress!
Dad worked with me in the backyard nearly every night after dinner in an effort to improve my level of play. I was steadily getting better but still dropped or completely missed most of his throws. He encouraged me to use two hands to catch the ball. It helped a little with a softly tossed ball. A batted ball was something else entirely.
My hitting? Well, my hitting wasn’t any better. After going through the process of trying to catch the stupid ball, I applied the same attitude and made myself stand in the batter’s box to hit it. There were many more swings and misses than there were of me making any contact. Any contact was usually a foul ball or a softly hit ball in the infield.
When the season began, I found myself sitting on the bench with a couple other boys. Tom was made a pitcher and played the infield. Any playing time I got was in the outfield where fewer balls were hit and was limited to an inning or two.
Our team… well, it was not good. We had won but one game during the first eight of our fourteen games. The season dragged on. I, myself, was showing no signs of improvement in the field nor at the plate. I was ready to quit but had made that stupid promise to keep playing. The season couldn’t end soon enough. I actually dreaded when it was my time to go to bat or play in the field. Dad’s mantra for us to repeat when we were on defense was “Hit the ball to me. Hit the ball to me.” My mantra was “Hit the ball somewhere else.” I hated this game.
Our team, the Dodgers, found ourselves playing our next-to-last game against the only team worse than we were, the only team in the league left without a win. Our two teams were locked in a back and forth game that they were determined to win. We Dodgers held a one-run lead going into the bottom half of the last inning.
Unfortunately for the Dodgers and our fans, I had to go in on defense. Dad put me in right centerfield to decrease the risk I posed to our chances of winning.
The inning progressed to the point where the other team had runners on first and second with one out. One of their best hitters was at the plate to bat. Dad and Tom’s dad shouted out instructions to us from the dugout. Their last bit of instruction was, “Outfielders! Back each other up!”
Back me up, you mean, I thought.
The new hitter wasted no time at all and swung at the first pitch he saw. The crack of the ball on bat sounded solid. The ball flew up in an arc… headed directly at me. Everyone present knew what to expect.
The opposing third base coach shouted “Run, run, run” to his base runners.
The opposing team’s parents let out a huge cheer.
The Dodger’s parents let out a collective groan.
Through all of that clutter I heard the one voice that believed in me. It was Dad shouting at me, “Keep your eye on it! You’ve got this!”
The ball came streaking down towards me. I kept my eye on it all the way down to my glove… and my stomach. I let out a loud “OOF!” as the wind was nearly knocked out of me. I looked at the ground around me to see where the ball had landed. It wasn’t there. It was safely tucked between that tiny vinyl baseball glove and my belly.
I caught it! I actually caught it! I held the ball up to show everyone that I had caught it. No one was more surprised than I was.
The umpire held up a thumb to signal the second out.
The hitter jumped up and down and kicked at the dirt in anger.
The third base coach was shouting at his base runners, “Go back! Go back!”
The other team’s parents had gone silent with disbelief.
The Dodger’s parents were wildly cheering with disbelief.
Through all of that clutter I heard Dad shouting at me again. “Get the ball to second!”
In my excitement I reared back and hurled the ball as hard as I could to second base where Tom was covering the bag.
The ball soared over Tom’s head.
The runner who had been on first rounded second to get back to first in time to avoid a force out.
The runner who had been on second stopped just short of what would have been the tying run. He scrambled back around third to avoid an out at second.
Our pitcher had been backing up the play at second. He caught my overthrow and got the ball to Tom at second base in time to complete the double play and end the game.
We won our second game of the season!
Tom and our teammates surrounded me as I ran in towards the dugout. They were slapping my back, punching me in the shoulder, and yelling what a great catch I had made. Dad and Tom’s dad exited the dugout to get us to line up to shake hands with the other team.
The players on the other team were not happy with me. They grudgingly told us “Good game” one-by-one. The two coaches were last in line. They each gave me a solid handshake with a smile. “Nice catch, kid.”
“Thanks!” I said enthusiastically.
We ran back to our dugout where Dad rubbed the top of my head. “How’d that feel?” he asked with a grin.
“Good!” I said. “Mostly good,” I added as I rubbed my still-sore stomach.
Fun Fact: The team that didn’t win a game all season? Yeah, they went on to sweep through the playoffs and won the league championship. Go figure.