Garry: Hey dad, guess what my team is gonna be called.
Garry: The Yankees
Dad: The Yankees? Sounds like the Civil War.
Garry: Just sounds stupid to me. We could a been the Indians.
Dad: So how did you get to be the Yankees?
Garry: We voted on it. I was the only kid to pick the Indians. The rest of the kids thought I was stupid.
Dad: I’m on your side on this one. Indians is the way to go. Take an Indian over a Yankee any day.
It’s 1950 and the New York Yankees will sweep the Philadelphia Phillies in the 47th World Series. The sweep will be the second of five straight World Championships for the Yanks. Everybody on the planet knows who they are. Except for me and dad.
It’s summer and I’m enrolled in the Lincoln Elementary Bible School program. Baseball is a staple in our activity schedule.
One of the local coaches comes in once a week to extol the virtues of sports and ump a pick-up game for us. He has just announced that we are having a Bible School Championship game in two weeks. He and the bible school volunteers will assign us to teams. From there we get to pick our team names and vie for playing positions.
Credit the vagaries of the voting system for us becoming the Yankees. Credit divine intervention for Miss Baldwin becoming our coach. Miss Baldwin is a college student spending her summer volunteering at our bible school camp. Friendly, lively as any kid, and pretty like a movie star. We all like her but some of us are skeptical of her baseball acumen.
First Team Meeting
Miss Baldwin: Ok team, baseball is a game. You play it for fun. Some of you might be a little nervous about the big game coming up. Maybe afraid you won’t play very well. So I want you to try something for me. I want you to pair up and just start playing catch with your partner. What I want you to think about is this. Every time you catch the ball, your hands get quicker. Every time you throw the ball, your arm gets stronger. Later we’ll have batting practice. Same thing. Every time you swing at the ball, your eye gets sharper. Quick hands, strong arms, sharp eyes. Easy as playing catch.
Harold: But miss Baldwin. What about catching fly balls and running bases.
Miss Baldwin: We’ll get to the fly balls. Meanwhile I’m not too worried about your base running. You’re all fast as jack-rabbits.
Saundra: Miss Baldwin, do I have to throw overhand?
Miss Baldwin: It’s the best way to throw for baseball. I’ll show you how. You’ll get the hang of it.
Saundra: (unconvinced) Then why does the pitcher always throw underhand?
Miss Baldwin: The pitcher has a special job. The pitcher has to give the other team’s batters something to swing at.
Tank: The pitcher is supposed to strike people out. That’s what my dad says.
Miss Baldwin: Your dad is right, and the best way to do that is to try to keep the ball in the strike zone so the batter can swing at it. Nobody swings at a pitch in the dirt or ten feet over his head. (laughter) So, underhand is the best way to do the job. Ok, no more questions, let’s partner up and get those balls flying.
There is a scramble for partners.
Teddy: I don’t have a partner Miss Baldwin.
Miss Baldwin: Well in that case Mr. Teddy, you’ll just have to play catch with me.
“Lucky dog,” I say to myself.
It’s Championship Game day. For some reason known only to herself, Miss Baldwin has picked me to pitch. I can’t decide if she picked me because she actually believed I could do the job, or because she didn’t think I could handle any other position.
Like most of the kids, I was chauffeured to the game by my dad. Unlike most of the kids I did not receive the fatherly pep talk. Dad knowing squat about baseball had something to do with it, but pep talks were always a mom thing. After all, it was mom who signed me up for Bible School and mom who was overjoyed that I was developing an interest in sports.
On her off days from her caretakers job, mom would play catch with me and pitch me batting practice. I had a bat that was already splintered and pitted from swatting rocks and a plastic-laced catchers mitt that provided about as much protection as a woolen mitten. Mom would underhand- loop me a rubber ball that bounced off my glove like a baseball off cement. The same ball that would fly off my bat with the predictability of a home-made rocket. Once in a blue moon it would launch into a long and perfect arc.
Mom: If you want me to keep throwin, you have to chase after the long ones.
Garry: Not very many of those.
Mom: Maybe not but I think you’re getting better.
Looking back, it didn’t take mom long to get the hang of tossing me balls I could hit.
Lincoln Elementary School sits atop a long hill that bottoms out at the ball field. Dad parks and shuts off the engine. I’m out of the car before he can apply the emergency brake. As I run down the hill to join my team, I’m smiling at the lightness of my feet, compliments of my new tennis shoes.
My teammates are milling around in front of the Yankees bench. I’m welcomed into the fold with a few “hey Garry’s” and a couple of back pats. In the long moment before Miss Baldwin huddles us up for last minute instructions I check myself for signs of the nervousness she has told us to expect. None so far. I’m too busy comparing my bargain basement mitt with the whale catchers dangling from the skinny arms of my teammates.
Miss Baldwin: Ok Yankees. Quick hands, strong arms, sharp eyes. Run fast and have fun. The coaches flipped a coin and we’re on defense. Soon as the ump checks the lineup cards we can take the field.
I use this time to approach Miss Baldwin with a question.
Garry: Why did you pick me for pitcher?
Miss Baldwin: I was watching you playing catch with Saundra. You were under-handing balls to her that she could catch. Tossing catchable balls and hittable balls are pretty much the same thing. I think you can hit the strike zone often enough to make a fun game.
Garry: My mom does that for me when she pitches me batting practice.
Miss Baldwin: Then just go out there and do it like mom does it
It’s the first inning and all is going smoothly. Nothing but short pop ups and slow grounders. The pop ups are caught and the slow grounders are fielded and delivered to first base just like we practiced.
But now Pauline Pondexter is up. Pauline the Pounder we call her. She has already beaten up half the boys in camp. For some reason I fear I’m next on the Pounder’s list. Like maybe if she didn’t like one of my pitches she would rush the mound and pummel me.
She won’t have to. She has just lined one over my centerfielder’s head and is doing a home run trot that would have done the great Bambino proud
Next batter pops up to me. I’m not surprised that I drop it. Just hell bent to pick it up in time to throw the batter out at first. The baseball Gods are smiling on me because I don’t over-throw first base and the inning is over. Down only one run.
I’m heading to our bench when I catch sight of Dad standing behind the home plate fence. He’s beckoning me. “What the heck?” I say at first. Then “Oh, jeez!” as he goes into a full arm beckon.
Dad: Garry, I been watching you out there. Throwin the ball in the same place all the time.
Garry: That’s what I’m supposed to do.
Dad: Ok, but listen. (He’s grinning like a Cheshire cat.) I got this idea. What you do, see… you step up and swing your arm back. (demonstrating in slow motion) Then swing it forward like you’re gonna throw. But just when they think you’re gonna let fly… you stop dead and just hold onto the ball. They won’t know what to think. (he takes a wide-eyed pause for my reaction)
Garry: That is the stupidest thing I ever heard.
Dad is crestfallen for about three seconds before the grin resurfaces.
Dad: Well what if you do this?
Garry: Dad, I gotta go.
Dad: Wait, you’ll like this one. See, you do everything the same like you been doin except this time you toss it straight up in the air. High as you can. Bet they can’t hit that.
Then I hear Miss Baldwin say, ” Come on Garry. You’re the next batter up.”
As I trot over to grab the lightweight bat she has wisely chosen for me, I realize how close I had come to calling my dad a lunatic to his face.
Miss Baldwin: Let the ball come to you, Garry. Don’t go fishing.
Fishing or no, I pop up the first pitch I see. My teammates don’t fare much better as we quickly collect two outs with nobody on base. Tank is coming to the plate. Tank is bigger than most of us and his bat is almost as big as he is. He stands disdainfully in the batters box until the first pitch, then blam! He wallops one to deep center field. Our bench goes nuts. We are sure it’s a homer. Oddly, Tank doesn’t think so. Otherwise, why isn’t he running?
Pauline the Pounder is why. Tank watches his herculean swat disappear into her glove for out number three.
There is a lull throughout the middle innings as both teams get better on defense and neither team does much hitting. As far as I’m concerned, the only excitement during this period is my mad dash around the bases.
I’m batting in a two-out, nobody on situation. I’m hitless so far but I have been making contact with the ball and haven’t struck out yet. I hit a surprisingly sharp grounder down the first base line and take off. I know nothing about base running, but I figure it’s pretty much like playing tag.
I blow by first base hauling hard for second. The right fielder throws behind me and the ensuing throw sails over the second baseman’s head. I’m flat-out flying to third with serious intentions for home. Safe. Not gonna be “it” today. As I round third I catch Miss Baldwin out of the corner of my eye. She looks really excited. Charging home I’m savoring my victory. Nobody can lay a glove on me. King of the schoolyard!
I don’t know where the ball came from but I’m twenty feet from home plate when I hear it plop into the catchers mitt. As the catcher steps out to protect the plate, Miss Baldwin’s words rush into my head. “Nobody can outrun the ball, so just get it where it goes.” But I’ve already crossed the Rubicon. I don’t know how to slide and my patented schoolyard dodge to avoid the tag at the plate fails. Out three.
Miss Baldwin is trotting back to the bench. She is smiling and shaking her head.
Miss Baldwin: Hey, jack-rabbit Garry. You’re too fast for your own good. You were supposed to stop at third when I gave you the hold-up sign.
Garry: So that’s what you were all excited about.
Now it’s the bottom of the last inning. Game tied. Bases loaded. Two outs. Pauline the Pounder is the next batter. As she settles into the batter’s box, I do something I never dared do before. I look directly into the Pounder’s face. Mouth turned hard down. Eyes wide and cold. Nostrils flaring. I’m sure I know what she’s thinking. “I’m gonna drive this ball down your throat.”
Something snaps in me. My fear of Pauline the batter and Pauline the intimidator has turned into defiance. I want to defeat her somehow. But with what? A slow pitch in the strike zone?
The count goes to three balls and two strikes. Even her two strikes are formidable. One a towering pop up that lands behind the home plate fence. The other a screaming line drive just foul of the left field line.
The moment of truth. I’m motionless on the mound. I hear the umpire say, “Ok pitcher, let’s play ball.” Like any kid in a pickle, I look for the nearest parent. I don’t see dad in the crowd behind home plate. But curiously I do see him in my mind’s eye. And hear him, too. “…this time you toss it straight up in the air. High as you can. Bet they can’t hit that.”
I’m suddenly struck by an irresistible impulse to do something totally unexpected. I step into the throw harder, dip down further, and heave it heavenward with all my might. I watch the ball on its upward arc, much higher than I had any reason to expect. But as it plummets to earth I’m watching Pauline.
She appears momentarily dumbfounded, but even before the ball thumps to ground, she is looking my way. Neither of us realize that the ball has landed a foot from Pauline in foul territory.
Pauline: You jack-ass. Whatta ya think you’re doin?
Umpire: Watch your language, batter. That’s ball four. And that’s the ballgame.
The Dodgers go wild and swarm Pauline. She ignores them, still staring at me. I stare back. I have thwarted the Pounder’s desire to go out in a blaze of glory, and she knows I did it on purpose. I don’t think she will come after me in front of all these people, but I don’t care. I’m one of Miss Baldwin’s jackrabbits and she could never catch me anyway.
Some of the Yanks wear hang-dog expressions, but most just seem eager to get onto the next thing in their kid lives.
Miss Baldwin: I know you’re anxious to get with your families and friends. I just want you to know how proud I am of everyone of you. You did everything I taught you and you did your very best.
Saundra: It was fun Miss Baldwin. I didn’t think it would be. Thank you for coaching us.
Dad is beaming all the way back up the hill to our car. The joy of a co-conspirator. We had actually pulled off his cockamamie idea.
Dad: That was some throw, Garry. I didn’t know you could throw so high.
Garry: It was high, wasn’t it.
Dad: Why didn’t the girl swing?
Garry: She’s not stupid. And who cares anyway.
We are home now, eating supper.
Dad: I tell you Zoe, you shoulda seen it. Garry just dipped real low and slung the dang thing so high you would a thought it would never come down.
Mom: Well why on earth did he do that?
Mom: Garry, what made you do such a thing?
Mom: If you asked me, you should have pitched it like you were supposed to.
The boys are smiling down into their plates. We know mom just doesn’t get it, but we also know mom always has the last word.