Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Put Me In, Coach

Used to be that if I wanted to get away from the bad news that seems to pervade American life – y’know, the shootings and the natural disasters and the general political scumbaggery – I’d go pick up the Boston Globe sports section and immerse myself in the box scores. At least there, at least half the local sports teams could provide me with a winning narrative at least half the time, give or take the Patriots.

Used to be”, I think, ended probably around the same time that Reggie Lewis died. Which is to say that for the last twenty years or so, I’ve been well aware that Keith and Dan (or whomever)’s “Sportscenter” commentaries were about scores and contract squabbles in equal measures.

If only it were only that simple, lately. The sports world is now shot through with *news* stories, and not inspiring ones, either. Lance Armstrong and his voided Tour de France victories. A high school in Texas building a sixty-million-dollar football stadium (grotesquerie #1), and then discovering that the thing was built with support structures that can’t safely support all the fans they needed to accommodate (grotesquerie #2), even as they were laying off dozens of teachers. Speaking of grotesqueries: ancient zillionaire Donald Sterling, and not merely his backward racist utterances but the fact that the beliefs laid bare by those utterances are indeed entirely relevant because they governed his dealings with the people he held economic sway over, both the millionaire athletes and the minimum-wage apartment dwellers, and what in the living hell is he saying now for the love of heaven please stop and quit while you’re behind?

Kind of a relief to read the stories that have to do with actual competition.  The Ranger skater on a breakaway barrels into the Canadien goalie and the resulting pileup yields a knee injury that takes the goalie out of the rest of the seven-game series. Predictably, the Canadien faithful (and the head coach) conclude that the feet-first trajectory of the New York forward had to have contained intent to injure, and just as predictably, the Ranger faithful tell the Canadien faithful what they can do with their aggrieved fainting spell.

(And this Bruin fan, unaccustomed as he is to rooting for the Rangers, is doing so because the Habs sent his beloved black-and-gold skaters to the golf course for the summer, and is therefore ill-equipped to objectively judge whether he’s looking at “intent to injure” or “intent to score while careening”. Although, look, kids, it was a breakaway. Stuff moves fast, grown men fall down. It’s hockey. Quit yer whining and get on the plane to Manhattan.)

But man, the great wealth of sports world stories that deflate the natural optimism. So imagine my delight at witnessing a sports story that ends well and seems to redeem past injustices.

At the age of about nine, I lost one in the lights.

It was my final season in a four-year career in the heady world of Little League baseball. As I remember it, the team I was on wore uniforms very similar to those of successful major leaguers; and that was about where the similarity ended. Our team lost about once a game, on average.

Over the course of my tour in the Littles, I had found most of my defensive success in the infield. I could fire across the diamond from third with accuracy. I actually was part of a decent double-play combination at age eight. My single inning as a catcher featured a runner barreling home from third, and after the throw arrived from right field, I blocked the plate firmly, and when the umpire asked if I was still holding the ball, I showed it to him (and subsequently begged my coach to move me anywhere else on the field please and thank you).

As a pitcher, I was fine until I hit my first batter. Got him square in the bicep, and after that my inside-pitch location just went all to heck.

So, one night during my tenth year on Earth, the coach sent me out to centerfield.

The scene was movie-grade. It was a night game, under the lights. Somehow, everything looked more pro-baseball. The aluminum bats twinkled. We could imagine far more fans in the stands than were actually sitting on those little tiny bleachers on the third-base line, because it would have been tougher to see the ones that were sitting further up under the nonexistent upper deck anyhow. There were no cornfields around the warning track; in fact, there wasn’t even a warning track, just more grass and eventually the infield on the far corner of the complex. But it was okay.  We were in the majors.  (Of our town, anyway.)

I trotted out to center. Traded a few long tosses with my friend in right field. Bent over to pick a few blades of grass; the usual major-league groundskeeping. The first batter hit a slow roller to second, and I dutifully moved to back him up. You never know; nine-year-olds will occasionally let one through.

PING.

I saw the swing, heard the sound of metal hitting baseball, and observed that the baseball was going not to left or to right but straight over the mound, high, and toward me. I took a couple of involuntary steps backward – it had been a pretty loud PING – and looked up.

And my whole field of vision turned violently purple.

At no time had we held practices at night. A crucial error. During the day, there’s only one Sun, and you know where it is, so you know instinctively where not to look. At night, as it turns out, there are at least four suns, two to your left and two to your right, and if you look at any of them, your eyes’ chances of recovering in time to find that incoming artillery dial down to fractions of percentage points.

Couldn’t find the ball. At all.

Which wouldn’t have been so bad had I not known that it was hard, and moving fast, and undoubtedly headed for my braincase. I’d been hit by pitches before, and only at eight-year-old-pitcher speeds. This had the potential to get me good.

In spite of the part of my brain that wanted to look like a dashing sports superstar, the part of my brain that had a little common sense won out. I put my two forearms straight over my head. Protection trumps derring-do. It wasn’t flight, but my instincts told me not to fight with fifty miles an hour worth of cork, rubber and horsehide.

More than a little embarrassing, though, when the ball hit the ground a complete twenty yards in front of me.

I would like to think that I recall picking that ball up and firing a sizzling strike to the third baseman to cut down the runner who was trying to stretch a double into a triple, but it was about forty years ago and honestly I don’t remember. I was so mad that in that moment I probably could used the piqued energy to briefly become the Dwight Evans who used to take a ball that had rattled around in Fenway’s right-field corner and throw it in a physics-defying, nearly-flat parabola directly to Rico Petrocelli at third who then would apply the sweep tag, and none of this one-hopper crap, oh no indeed, and you, dear runner, will take a seat in your dugout and consider the foolishness of trying to run on my arm because you are more out than a guy who can’t find his house keys at two o’clock in the morning in the dead of winter.

No, I probably slunk back to my spot in center and vowed to be perfect the rest of the night.

I’m pretty sure that only I remember that little vignette, now.

Fast-forward four decades or so, to the middle of last week. I stopped off, on the way to a choir rehearsal, to watch my seven-point-nine-year-old nephew and his Little League team do their thing. He was decked out in a Dodger blue t-shirt and cap that in fact read “Dodgers” and “LA” respectively. I sat on the blanket that his mom had laid out on the grass, in foul territory beyond third base, and noted that at least one thing in this country hasn’t changed in all this time. As the sun began to approach the tree line on the other side of the field, kids were working on baseball skills. Coaches’ barked instructions were followed with instant enthusiasm. Running and throwing (and sometimes catching) drills were happening. Number One Nephew was running and throwing with utter second-grade abandon. (Throwing a good deal more accurately than most of his mates, it seemed to me, ten yards ahead into an eight-foot-square net, though that could be Uncle Bias talking.) And, as always happens when a group of three or more kids gather to play ball, one of them and then another one made a two-handed chuck of their fielder’s gloves high in the air. And might have lost them in the lights, if they’d been turned on yet.

Okay, I thought to myself, smiling goofily. The extended Hammerton bloodline has reclaimed that field. Because Number One Nephew was making it happen on the very same ballfield wherein my Centerfield Moment had occurred. For my money, the Curse is Reversed.

And not a contract squabble or a banned-substance suspension in sight.

Okay.

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May 20, 2014 - Posted by | baseball, family, sports | , , ,

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