I don’t think about it much anymore, as it all took place long ago, enough so that the memories are likely at considerable odds with the facts, as my youth (as my children are wont to remind me) took place in a time before color photography, an epoch when the basketballs still had laces. In my teens I operated in something of an Il Purgatorio of athleticism—good enough to make the team, but lousy enough to generally embarrass myself between the lines. I played baseball in a more-or-less organized fashion until after my one year in Legion ball where I failed to hit my weight (no mean feat at the time, as my weight nowhere nearly approached the Mendoza Line) and I was DH’d for more often than not. No matter: I had found out earlier—much earlier—that my days as a ballplayer were very much numbered, indeed.
When I was in my mid-teens, I’d played in a league which encompassed the city of Binghamton, the remainder of Broome County and its more-or-less immediate environs (it may have Babe Ruth ball, or Connie Mack or Pony League or something else named after Watson or Endicott-Johnson, as we were beholden to them in all things.) We played in a wide variety of locales and ballparks of equally varying quality. When we played other teams from Binghamton proper, we’d usually luck into a nice surface (Binghamton just beginning to fray around the edges, the first rumblings of layoffs at E-J and IBM barely audible in the difference) at one of the city-maintained fields on the East Side, and once we played at what was left of Johnson Field, the old Binghamton Triplets stadium where Whitey Ford and Moose Skowron and Marvelous Marv Throneberry had plied their trade. If we played on the road, the diamonds were less uniform in quality; I remember one field just across the state line into Pennsylvania where the demarcation for a ball being out of play was where the swamp began (on one occasion there, a snake of considerable size worked its way into a bat bag, and, yes, hilarity ensued) and there was another field in a small village out in Chemung County which was bordered by a county highway in left and a cemetery in right which provided some unusual dimensions—two hundred feet down the line in left, about five hundred to the power alley, eight hundred feet to straight-away center, and about three-quarters of a mile to right field. I also remember one occasion where, after a two-hour drive punctuated with a Tolstoy-volume novel’s worth of goddamn woodchucks and sonofabitchin’ useless maps uttered by my father, we played in John McGraw’s birthplace of Truxton (I remember there was a statue of McGraw in what passed for the middle of town, located on a hairpin turn which must have placed the obelisk at constant and considerable risk, and I also remember the Truxton team had only jersey tops, supplemented with jeans or sweats, and their third baseman actually snuck a smoke on the bench between innings.) I was, in those days, primarily a first baseman, ostensibly because I was tall, though mostly due to having range roughly a legal-size sheet of paper to either side and an arm that was uncertain at best. I was a .300 hitter, but that was due more to hitting against guys with Peggy Lee fastballs—you know, “Is that all there is?”—than any particular ability on my part. At that time, I figured that while I was no threat to the memory of Aaron or Clemente, maybe I could play college ball and, well, you never know, right? I was, however, to find out that, in some cases, you do know, and receive that knowledge with an awful finality.
My comeuppance came on a July early evening of a day all sunburn and humidity, one of those days where an Upstate summer feels it needs to make up for lost time. We were playing on some middle school field which was, as they tend to be in the cruel geography of rural school districts, a full mile slog from the parking lot. Most of the particulars of the game are lost to me now—I’m fairly sure we won the game, and I think I had a solid day (two-for-four, two-for five perhaps), and I remember a couple of at-bats I’d chased the centerfielder back where he’d to make a couple of pretty fair running catches (when my younger brother played on the same field, I’d paced off the balls I’d hit. Turns out they were two-hundred and seventy feet, maybe; the shots of my youth were lazy fly outs in The Show)—but one at-bat stuck with me, will always stick with me. It was late in the game, the sixth inning (we only played seven in those days, a blessing on sweltering evenings like the one in question) I think, and we were already up a couple of runs. My spot was due in the order, with the bases juiced, when the coach of the other team called time and went to the mound. Hey, Pat! He barked in the direction of foul territory on the third base side (I hadn’t even noticed anyone had been throwing on the side) and an Eddie Gaedel-esque figure with a huge and unruly blonde mop somewhat contained by his cap trotted to the mound. As I watched this kid warm up (I thought that maybe he was the coach’s ten-year old put into the game as a favor or present or something) I had visions of a bases-clearing jack; the kid didn’t have much stuff, even by the standards of our league. The other team’s catcher was a wise-ass with Ron-Howard-as-Opie issue red hair and voluminous freckles, and before I stepped into the box, I said Red, I should send your coach a thank-you card. Awful nice of him to save this twinkie for me. He’d spit through his mask, and grumbled Jes’ get in the box and hit, ya four-eyed praying mantis. The pitch sequence is as clear as ever in my mind today: first pitch pulled deep but well foul, second pitch eye-high and outside, third pitch in on a hop, fourth pitch just missing the front shoe-top, fifth pitch pulled even deeper and more foul than the first. With bags and count both full, I was contemplating how many RBIs I would finish the game with in my head. The lollipop-league refugee on the mound came set, and let fly, so to speak, with a lazy, almost half-hearted toss which was bill-of-the-cap high, so obviously ball four that I let my hands drop to my waist.
And then something awful happened. The ball, which was spinning oddly, furiously (I say this in retrospect, as it fully escaped notice at the time) suddenly bit air just in front of the plate, and dropped like a sparrow clipped by a thrown rock. I might have had time to recover, maybe foul the pitch off, if shock hadn’t set in. I simply dropped my head in disbelief as the umpire rung me up. I looked up briefly, and turned back toward him and said I may want to consider a different career path now, eh, Ump? He chuckled softly, and replied Keep those grades up, son. Move along, now.
The rest of that season is more or less a blur to me, save the constant insistence of my teammates that the moppet who struck me out was actually a girl (this is, of course, demonstrably untrue—gender integration eventually came to our league, but not until some years later, when my aforementioned younger brother was playing. One of the teams he played against had a female third baseman; he’d ripped a vicious one-hopper off of her shin, hard enough to roll into left for a double, and when he moved to third on a wild pitch, he worked up all of the chivalry he could muster and grunted So I’m guessing you won’t be wearing a dress for a while, huh?) I have, from time to time, wondered what happened to the other protagonists in my own little Bildungsroman (well, not all of them, as I heard later that the red-haired catcher became Red the Bookie, and that he did a couple of stretches of state time.) I wonder if that umpire is still among the living; I’d like to ask him how many other mediocre hitters he’d offered sage reflections on life lessons to, and then I’d take him aside and tell him gently You know, Blue, that pitch was high.