A few year’s ago, my Dad designed a contraption built of wood to help me with my pitching. It's a 5-foot x 3-foot thin slab of plywood that he mounted with 2x4s to stand straight upright facing me, the pitcher. He cut a rectangular hole out of it to approximate the average little league strike zone. Behind it, he mounted a second smaller thin slab of plywood to stop the strikes. So if my pitch was out of the strike zone, the front slab would stop it, and when I threw a strike through the rectangular hole, the rear slab would and the balls would gather in the space between them for easy retrieval. Ingenious. This is typical of my Dad, he’s half mad genius, half, we’ll you’ll see. But the pitching contraption (I don’t what else to call it) was great.
My Dad loves baseball, especially the Dodgers. For older people, the Brooklyn Dodgers were the Jew’s team (we're Jews) since even though Jews are spread all over New York, there are more in Brooklyn. So the Dodgers represented the Jews. At least until they moved to LA in the ‘50s. To hear him tell it, the Yankees represented the Bronx but also the Italians and Irish. The (now San Francisco) Giants, Manhattan and the W.A.S.P.s and other well-to-do. It was the era of Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax (a Jew) and Joe DiMaggio, baseball’s Golden Age.
We worked on my throwing mechanics. I’m not a big guy, more of a skinny small fry. So we worked a lot on my kick. Like the signature one of the great Dominican, Juan Marichal. Big. Get the leg up, up, up, weight back, then go! The kick wasn’t just showy, it was effective, too. The higher the leg went, the more heat I’d have on the ball.
He also believed my arm needed to be straight up and down, an overhand throwing motion, no side-winding or three-quarters like the pros. Said I was still too young, that it’d save my elbow. I trusted him. We spent hours pitching to that wooden contraption, and I spent many more pitching to it when he wasn’t around, with batters real and imagined. Hours and hours.
Once I got the hang of it, damn if I didn’t end up with one of the best fastballs in the league. Good accuracy and it tailed to the left. That was unusual. Most guys couldn’t touch it. Granted, it helped that the mound the last two years was forty-five feet from home plate.
This year it's fifty-four. My days as a pitcher are over, at least for now. I was there in case of emergency. Because at that distance, I don’t have the zip on the ball I need, and the hitters can crush me like a bug. This year, my Dad’s managing our team, too. The Giants. That’s the name the league gave us.
He has ideas about how to manage that are pretty weird, but he’s not crazy. He didn’t start right in, either, which was smart. We needed time, he wouldn’t have the most receptive audience right off the bat. Bat, ha!
We won our first game by a mile. We knew we would, the Tigers stink.
Let me tell you about the team.
I bat lead off. I have no power but a good on-base percentage. Punch some hits to the opposite field, draw some walks, a good contact hitter. A Pete Rose, if you will. As for pitching, I’m strictly an emergency reliever. I play third now, and I love it.
Nolan Fowler bats second, our first baseman. Tall and rangy, like a vacuum cleaner at first, not many throws get by him, and he can hit, too. His father’s a drunk to the core, with a face that’s a new shade of pink every year, like the Spring Collection at Bloomingdales. But Mr. Fowler comes to every game, and he’s knowledgeable, too, in addition being our biggest supporter. I’ve never seen Nolan’s mother, though. I heard she only gets let out of the house to get groceries. I’m not kidding.
Scott Guinea bats third, pronounced GUY-knee. Short and stocky, like a bowling ball. Every part of him is thick. The meanest kid I ever met. Cruel to the bone. His specialty is giving dead-arms. You’ll be walking down the hall and when you’re not looking, he’ll punch you in the arm just below the outside of your shoulder. If you drop your books, that means your arm went dead, for him, a good one, and he’ll enjoy it, as will his buddies, of course. He might even laugh, but usually he just walks back over to the radiator and sits back down like nothing happened. And this to the people he likes. I don’t want to know what it’s like to be on his bad side. Good shortstop, though and a scary hitter. Nice having on him on our team, except in practice. You don’t want to catch one of his line drives or you won’t feel your hand for a week.
Tommy Gallinelli bats clean-up, he’s our best player. He’s the son of a gardener, or landscape architect. Tommy’s stocky and strong, an olive-skinned second generation Italian. Sicilian, I think. He’s the only guy Scott won’t mess with, they’re friends. Tommy’s tough. When he screws up at home, his Dad has no hesitation to get out the belt. He’s our pitcher, much stronger than me. I’m not jealous, it’s a relief. I’m glad he’s on our team, I wouldn’t want to face him.
We’ll meet the rest of the guys later. Next practice, after we beat the Tigers, we go through some basic fielding drills, my dad standing at home plate hitting hard grounders to the infield and towering flies to the outfield. After each play, we throw it into to our catcher, the best in the league, lisping Todd Barr. “Shho, coach, shtart with the shame drill as lasht week?” My dad likes practice crisp. He expects everyone to know their job, “Hit the cut-off man, no, the cut-off man! You see him there? Yes, him! That way we can make the play at second or third. See?” After forty-five minutes, my Dad says, “Ok, bring it in, bring it in.” And we head over. “Take a knee,” he says so we do. “Who wants uniforms?” he asks.
No one raises their hand. No one in the league has uniforms. No one in the league has ever had uniforms.
“What do you mean, uniforms?”
“You know, matching shirts that say ‘Giants’ on them.”
No hands. My dad thinks for a second. “And candy before every game. For energy.”
Cautiously, a couple kids start to raise their hands. Definitely not me and not Scott Guinea, our toughest kid, either. He’s looking around, like the rest, seeing if someone else makes a move. Another hand goes up. Then another. Then Scott. Then everyone, so I raise my hand, too. “Ok, here’s the catch.”
People look around, like I knew it.
“I’m going to have some new ideas about how to coach you guys that are going to really help you. You have to agree now that you’ll do all of them. If I ask you, you have to do it. If you do, you get the uniforms. If you don’t I’ll take them back. That’s the deal.”
Scott speaks up. “Like what?”
“Things to practice, things to think about. Nothing bad. You’ll see. Do you want the uniforms or not?”
The guys seem to want the uniforms. Scott says, “And the candy.”
“Yup.” So it’s settled. “Ok, that’s practice. Giants on three, one, two, three…”
We have one last practice before our second game, against the Dodgers. It’s on the big green fields of Harbor Island in Mamaroneck, NY where we also play our games. I'm twelve years old and in 6th grade, it’s 1974.
A lot of my friends are on the Dodgers. Robert Dryden, Mark Greenfield, guys I hang out with at school.
When we played them last year, I was pitching. I remember when Robert came up to bat in the second inning. He was and still is the Dodgers’ best hitter, so I knew I had to bring my best stuff. When it’s one on one with your friends, especially when they’re as good as Robert, the stakes are just higher, they just are. I remember that first pitch like it was yesterday.
He’s their clean-up hitter. I’m the best pitcher in the league. We’re the two of the best teams in the league. It’s a showdown.
He steps into the batter’s box, taps the plate a couple times with his bat for balance and then stands in, ultra-aggressive, crowding the plate so much that his ribs are completely over it. I turn to the umpire behind me who’s calling balls and strikes and ask, can he do that? Put his body over the plate like that?
The ump says he can, so I ask if I throw a ball that’s a strike and it hits him in the ribs, will you call it a strike or will you give him first base? He says don’t worry, if it’s a strike, it’s a strike, I’ll call it.
I narrow my eyes and look at Robert. What kind of mind-game are you trying to play here, my friend?
He looks back, steely.
I rear back, kick my leg high in the air and let loose with everything I’ve got. In a second that feels like ten, I see it all. The ball zooming toward the plate. The laces of the ball spinning slightly to the left. The ball heading right toward the exact spot I’d hoped it would, to the inch. Chest high, inside corner. The thud as it catches Robert square in the ribs. Robert closing his eyes in pain, dropping his bat to the ground. The ball falling to the ground, rolling to a stop in front of him in the dirt. Robert opening his eyes, looking at me like he wants to murder me. The ump yelling “Take your base!” Me wheeling to the ump in outrage. “But you said…” The ump shaking his head, looking to Robert, pointing to first base emphatically. Me feeling as sure as anything in my life it was a strike. But realizing it’s no use. That the ump is a dirty liar. That he knows as well as I do. That I have a good, hard fastball and that in a split second, his pity for Robert’s ribcage short-circuited the truth. Life is not fair.
The only cool thing was that afterward, Robert never had the slightest hard feeling about it. All part of the game. I love baseball.
The next practice, my Dad shows up with the shirts, each in its own plastic wrapping. Black with Orange block letters, G-I-A-N-T-S in a gentle curve across the front. Nothing on the back, no sponsor, like Bail Bonds in The Bad News Bears. Tatum O’Neal, she’s -- well, I like her. A lot, sue me.
I have to admit, the shirts look good. No one tries them on. They’re for games only. No one says anything, either, but I can tell it’s unanimous, everyone digs the shirts. No other team has anything like them. We’ll be intimidating, not just good but serious.
Still, when Saturday rolls around and it’s finally time to put on my shirt on, I don’t want to give it too much credit. We’ve got a game to go play, the Dodgers, no less. I grab my bat and glove, and we hop in my Dad’s convertible. My Mom wishes us good luck. We get to Harbor Island, and as we get out, my Dad fishes around the trunk for a paper grocery bag.
We take the field first for warm up, infield drills, my Dad at the plate with a bat, hitting one to each of us. We each field it and get in to Todd, our catcher. No one wants to be the first to misplay a ball. The uniforms are having an effect, upping the ante. We want to look good. No muffs, a nice clean warm up. We head to the sideline and my Dad pulls out his grocery bag.
He starts tossing out full size Snickers bars. I’m impressed with the choice. “Here, it will give you energy.”
Everyone catches their Snickers casually, like no big deal, but I can tell they’re liking the new program. Everyone chows down and dutifully throws the wrapper in the trash basket by the water fountain. Doug French, our agile four-eyed second baseman (his twin brother Jeff, who looks nothing like him, plays for the Dodgers) is the last to finish. My Dad says, “Giants, over here, huddle up. Get in a circle.”
He says ok, now everyone hold hands, we’re going to do an exercise.
I look around, see the looks on the faces. Like, did he just say what I think he said?
Because if so, the answer’s no. As in no way.
“Jesus Christ, grow up.”
No movement. A Mexican stand-off.
I’m cringing. No matter what, I’m going to take a lot of shit at school on Monday.
I wonder who else’s Dad could manage the team. What about Tommy Amatullo’s dad from last year? We did great with him. We won the big Dodger game where I beaned Robert. We only lost once all year, to the Mustangs who never lose. Because half their team has gotten held back a grade. Or two grades, we don’t know. Because unlike every other team in the league, they’re not even from our school. Which is fine but they’re older, so it’s unfair. We’re all supposed to be in the sixth grade and they have huge muscles and a guy with a moustache for Christmas sake.
“Hey, we have a deal.”
Silence. Across the circle, I see Nolan Fowler, still a little chocolate on his lip. Everyone’s looking out of the corner of their eyes to Scott Guinea. Everyone except me, I’m making a detailed study of my pant leg, the grass, the dirt underneath the grass, trying to see through the dirt to China, imagining men and women in big straw hats carrying a long stick across their shoulders with baskets full of rice hanging from either side of the sticks as they tiptoe through the rice paddies. Then, eyes still down, I feel Scott relent, holding each of his hands out to the side. Without words, he seems to be saying a deal’s a deal. We can take off our shirts. But when we ate the Snickers, we agreed, so what are we going to do?
I look up. The guys on either side of Scott take his hand. One by one, everyone starts joining hands.
I can’t see how everyone else is doing it, because I’m focused on my own situation.
On my right, Tommy Gallinelli. I’m not putting my hands out first. He puts his out. I take it. Warm, soft, meaty. Not much fuss from him. Maybe because he’s Italian. They’re supposed to be more affectionate, I think.
On my left, Nolan Fowler’s hand, dry skin and long, bony fingers, cold. He must have poor circulation. He lays his hand out, palm up, I place mine on top but don’t clasp, he doesn’t clasp, either. It’s fine, we’ll get by.
The circle is complete.
The other team, parents, the umpire and passers by aren’t exactly obvious. But everyone, and I mean everyone is looking at us, thinking “What the…?” We must be a sight to see.
“Ok, now close your eyes.”
We look to Scott again. He thinks for a second. He closes his, as if to say, we’re in this far, let’s just get through it. We all close our eyes. It’s actually better because you don’t see everyone staring at you.
“Ok, I want you each to see yourselves at the plate. You know what their pitcher looks like. Look at him. Ok? Everyone got an image?
No one speaks. I sneak a glance. No one else is sneaking glances, they all have their eyes fully closed. A few are nodding yes. I close my eyes and nod along with them.
“Ok, as the pitcher begins his wind-up, I want you to take it down into super slow motion. Seconds are going by this slow, one……. two…… three.”
There are pauses between words.
“The pitcher’s arm goes back… back… back.”
“You can start to see the white of the ball as he takes it back. He takes it all the way back.”
“He starts his arm and body forward… forward… forward. You see the ball more clearly as he starts to come toward the plate. You see the laces on it.”
“Finally, he re-leases the ball from his hand, and now I want you to slow this down even more. As it leaves the pitcher’s hand, it’s not the regular size of a baseball anymore. See that it’s bigger than a normal ball.”
I steal another glance. My Dad is behind me now so I take a longer look at each person. Everyone’s eyes are closed. No one’s making a fuss.
“Now as the ball is slowly still traveling to the plate, I want you to also pay attention to your breath. Breath slowly. Long deep breaths. You’re alert, you’re feeling the anticipation of the ball arriving. But you’re relaxed. This is all in a day’s work. No big deal.”
“And now, slowly, you feel the weight on your back foot. You start to rock your weight back a little more. Your eyes never leave the ball. You see the each individual lace. You can read the label. What does it say?
No one says anything.
“What does it say?”
I say, “Spalding.”
“That’s right, Spalding.”
I can feel what everyone’s thinking: “Stupid fucking kiss ass.”
“See the logo clearly as you start your swing. The ball is even bigger now, it’s the size of a grapefruit! But even though it’s big, you keep your eye on it. You don’t ever take your eyes off it. Ever. And keeping things very slow, now start your swing forward. See and feel yourself connecting with the ball. Right on that label. Solid. Crack.”
“Feel the vibration in your hands, then how it shoots up each arm and through your body. Follow through fully and completely. Still in slow motion, keep watching ball, sailing through the air. See where the ball goes. It doesn’t have to be a home run, just see where it goes. Naturally. But make it solid. A solid hit. Everyone see it?
No one says anything.
I peak again, everyone’s eyes are still closed. They’re all nodding. I close my eyes and nod, too.
“See yourself running the bases, strong and fast and landing where you’d naturally land.”
My Dad waits a few seconds.
“Ok? Ok. That’s it, let’s go.”
We open our eyes and let go hands. Wow, mine are sweaty. Tommy’s are even sweatier. Even Nolan’s are warm, though still bony and sharp. We’re all squinting in the sunlight. I have no idea how long that took. A minute, two, three, five?
No one is looking at us any more. I guess they got bored.
“Ok, listen up. Here’s today’s batting order: Lead off...”
I’m not sure the uniforms are helping. I’m not sure the visualizing is helping. We’re fighting for our lives. We get men on base and strand them. We hit the ball hard but right to them, as if they know where we’re going to hit it before we do. We’re making base-running errors. Our center-fielder, squeaky clean, athletic Paul Auletta saves our ass twice, first with a three run triple in the fourth. Then again with his defense in the fifth. They have runners on first and third with two out and on a single to center, Paul throws out the guy at second on a force play. Their guy was supposed to run on anything since there were two out, but he must have been confused, because he was tagging up and didn’t get to second on time. It’s the type of heads-up play Paul makes all the time, that’s why he’s our center fielder. That run would have tied the game.
We’re still up 3-2 in the bottom of the seventh, or what we call last licks. The Dodgers are at bat. Tommy’s pitched well all game. But they have guys at first and second, they’re threatening again. Tommy strikes out Frank Fabian, and they’re down to their last out.
Next up, Peter Strunsky, a good hitter. He takes a couple pitches high and outside, he seems to be looking for a walk. But the third pitch is right down the middle and Strunsky swings and connects. The crowd cheers. It’s a pop-up over Doug’s head. Doug ranges back desperately but fast as he is, he has no chance. Our right fielder, glamour boy Tony Mancini (the Italian Stallion) charges hard as does Paul Auletta from center, but neither can get there in time. It lands with a plop in the wet grass, barely bouncing. A bloop single. The crowd erupts.
The Dodgers’ Mike Pinchbeck takes off from second even before the ball lands. There he goes, one of the fastest Dodgers, racing toward third at top speed. He’s waved home by their third base coach and takes a wide turn, skidding, going too fast to cut it any sharper. The crowd is standing and yelling, “Go! Go! Go!”
I run down the line toward home to get behind Todd, the catcher, in case the throw gets by him. Scott moves from shortstop to cover third, just as we’ve been taught.
Tony comes up throwing, an overhand strike to Todd, who’d shed his helmet and mask on contact. Tony stumbles after releasing the ball, almost falling on his face from the forward momentum of his throw, which looks strong, like it will reach home on the fly, if slightly to the first base side. The ump scampers in from the pitcher’s mound to get a closer view.
Todd shifts a step to his right, catches the ball and then his right hand covers to keep it firmly in place in his mitt. Textbook. Pinchbeck dives head first for home to tie the game. Todd dives to his left to make the tag, touches Pinchbeck with his glove, then rolls over on his back, banging the back of his head hard against the ground. The ball does not come loose, he’s still got two hands on it.
It’s close. From behind the plate, I have as a good a view as anyone, and I can’t tell. Pinchbeck rolls over to see what the call is.
The ump takes a moment to make sure of himself, then cocks his thumb – “You’re out!!!”
The Dodgers go crazy. What!!! Are you joking!!! That wasn’t even close!!! He was safe by a mile!!! Their coach tries to hold them back.
I look at Tommy, who cracks a smile. We won. Still undefeated. Tony Mancini comes trotting in to accept the accolades. Scott comes up behind him and gives him a dead-arm in celebration. Tony laughs as his arm goes limp.
In the melee, my Dad calls the whole team over, “Ok, on three.”
“Two, four, six, eight, who do we appreciate, Dodgers, Dodgers, yay!!!”
The Dodgers line up, and we exchange handshakes. There’s still dust in the air from the play at the plate. Michael Pinchbeck has a hole in the knee of his jeans and his knee and elbow are bleeding. As we shake hands, each Dodger stares daggers, as if to say, “You know this is total bullshit.”
We offer a low key “good game, good game,” suppressing our joy. Because who knows, maybe Mike Pinchbeck was safe.
After the big win over the Dodgers, the pre-game ritual becomes our routine, against the Cardinals, Braves, Pirates and Yankees. We get there early to take the field first for warm-ups. We run it in and get our candy bars, though my Dad switches it up each week, Mars, Mounds (even though he knows I hate coconut), Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, etc. Not even I know what’s coming. Then we get in the circle and hold hands and close our eyes as my Dad takes us through some imagery of hitting and fielding and breathing while the general public stares at us and laughs.
But as the season progresses week by week, no team comes as close to beating us as the Dodgers did. That was the turning point. Our team batting average rises over .300 and Tommy becomes a dominant pitcher. Maybe my Dad is not just a mad scientist after all. Maybe he’s ahead of his time. Maybe he has seen the future and we’re just not ready for it yet. The facts speak for themselves, we’re on a roll.
I even pitch the last inning in two of the next three games. I give up a run in one and two in the other, but we’re way ahead when I get in and knowing that Scott’s not a bad second reliever right behind me if I struggle, I relax and get the job done both times. It’s fun. Winning is fun.
Toward the end of the second to last game, against the Yankees, we notice some of the Mustangs starting to show up early, their game goes on after ours on Field 3. They would never admit it, they’d say their just showing up to play their game, just like any other. But they’re scouting for our season-ending showdown. We take it as a compliment. We finish strong. We’re putting on a show. We’ve got a swagger going, with our uniforms and our undefeated record. We were undefeated going into the Mustangs game last year, too, but this year’s different. We’re more confident, the chemistry feels right. Tommy’s a tough pitcher. Our defense is solid. Everyone’s hitting the ball, we have no weak links.
True -- no one has ever beaten the Mustangs -- but this year, we’ve got our best chance yet. We used to be scared of them, and we still are. But they should be a scared of us, too.
After the game is the annual team family picnic. Attendance is good, befitting our status as one of the only two undefeated teams in the league. My Mom comes with my sister Susie and our dogs. Tommy Gallinelli’s Mom and Dad are there. Scott Guinea’s. It’s funny to see these guys with their parents. Still tough! You see where they get it from.
Almost everyone’s parents are there along with brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews and dogs. True to form, Nolan Fowler’s Mom doesn’t make it, though. Under the weather. What’s that code for?
Over the course of the picnic, we sneak glances at the Mustangs game. They’re slaughtering the Tigers. It ain’t pretty. But who cares, they’re the Tigers. They stink.
My Giants uniform has been washed, ironed and sits atop all the other shirts in my drawer. It’s folded crisply, by my Mom who knows it’s not just another shirt. I pick out which jeans and socks and underwear I’m going to wear with it, and lay my clothes out for the morning. As I lay in bed in the dark, I do some extra visualizing. Who knows if it will help, but it can’t hurt. I see my self fielding hot ground balls with calm, making plays going to my left, cutting in front of Scott at short, as a third baseman’s supposed to do. Making plays going to my right toward the line, like the Orioles’ Brooks Robinson, gunning the runner down as I rifle it to Nolan at first. Snap! Right into his glove, chest high.
I drift into sleep and wake up to a bright, sunny morning. I’m excited to suit up for an historic day, the day we take down the Mustangs.
My Dad and I arrive at Harbor Island, some of the guys are already there. We’re all more nervous than usual. But hopefully, so are they. They know we’re undefeated. They know we only had one close game. They know Tommy Gallinelli and Scott Guinea are two guys you don’t want to mess with.
As they gather, we check them out. They don’t seem nervous, but they don’t seem calm, either. Damn, it’s hard to tell. But cocky, they’re not.
We take the field first and complete an error-free warm-up. We may be a little nervous, but the execution is still there. We’re not thrown.
We bring it in, and my Dad tosses out Snickers bars, ending the season where we started. I love Snickers, it’s my favorite.
We circle up, and my Dad takes us the now familiar journey inwards. He’s a little hopped up, too, but he’s keeping it together like the rest of us.
As we finish the visualizations, my Dad says ok, like it’s time to open our eyes. But for the first time this year, after we drop hands and open our eyes, he keeps talking, making a speech. To calm us down or pump us up, I don’t know. He’s getting carried away with his Vince Lombardi routine. He’s seen too many sports movies. But I get it, he’s pumped, too.
“Guys, I know we’ve been waiting for this opportunity all year, for two or three years, really. I know how much this means to you. It means a lot to me, too. But it means more to you, I know.”
The team is receptive, a pep talk, unnecessary but not unwelcome. It seems fitting, as this is not just the Mustangs but also the last game of the year.
“Last night, I had a dream. I don’t know, maybe it was a dream, maybe it was a premonition. I just know that the game we’re about to play was already being played while I was sleeping, I shit you not.”
We like hearing him cursing.
“And we won the game. Yup. For the first time in history, we beat the Mustangs. We got ‘em. It was a hell of a fight, but we won it. Knocked them off their perch. Became king of the hill. League champs.”
Everyone is pumped. Maybe it’s an omen, maybe not, but it’s fuel on the fire. We cannot be more ready to go out and kick their mustachioed asses.
“And you know, there was something funny about the dream or whatever you want to call it, something I didn’t see coming. That really surprised me… “
He’s got everyone’s attention as he unveils just how, in his dream or premonition or whatever you want to call it, we managed to do it.
“… Barry was our starting pitcher...”
I can’t speak for what other people might have been thinking because the sound of my name caused my brain to start short-circuiting.
“I know, it sounds crazy. He’s only pitched a couple innings all year. And Tommy’s pitched his heart out. Tommy’s the reason we’re here, playing for the Championship. There is no doubt: he’s our ace and our most valuable player.”
I look around at the other guys on the team, they look as confused as I am, in disbelief about where this is going.
“As your coach, I have hunches, and sometimes, I have to act on these hunches. This is one of those times.”
I look at Tommy, his eyes are like swirling hypnosis circles in a cartoon, he’s short-circuiting, too, unable to process what just hit him.
“Barry’s going to start the game. We’ve still got Tommy if we need him. But Barry’s going to start. Tommy, you’re playing third. Ok, Giants on three: one, two, three, Giants!
If there has even been a less enthusiastic Giants cheer, I’ve never heard it.
I’m in shock. We’re all in shock. But right now, I’m a separate entity. The rest of the team is looking at me like I had something to do with this. No one comes near me, they talk amongst themselves.
I walk over to Tommy and tell him I think my Dad is crazy and that this is ridiculous. That I don’t want to pitch. That he’s a way better pitcher than me. Tommy gets it, my father is nuts. I say the obvious, that he just wants glory for his son like any Dad and he probably did have a dream but who cares, why did have to act on it.
Tommy puts his hand on my shoulder. “You’ve got to go out there and give it all you’ve got. You’re a good pitcher, you pitched them pretty well last year. We got a few bad breaks, that’s all. Your arm’s gotten stronger all season from playing third. You can do it. Maybe he’s right. Anyway, we’re a team, we win together and if we don’t win, then we lose together. So be it.”
It’s the nicest Tommy ever been to me, before or since. I’ll never forget it.
As Tommy walks away, out of the corner of my eye, amidst the grumbling and disbelief, I see Scott Guinea take off his glove and slam it to the ground like he’d body slam a fourth grader. It hits the ground hard, bam! kicking up a cloud of dust. “Fucking bullshit,” loud enough for everyone, including my Dad to hear. Scott looks at my Dad challenging him to bust him for swearing. My Dad looks back at him but lets it pass.
We’re the home team, and the ump comes over telling us to take the field. I take the mound and start warming up with Todd, our catcher. I’ve got a knot in my stomach. Man, fifty-four feet feels like sixty-four. Those pituitary cases on the Mustangs are going to have all day to read my ball.
The ump yells “Batter up!”
The Mustangs lead-off hitter is big and strong. I remember him. We had a good battle last year, I got him out a couple times but then he really cracked one deep into gap, it was either a triple or a homer, I can’t recall. I just remember it was the kind of shot that rocks your confidence as a pitcher, the second it leaves his bat. You watch it sail and sail like a pro golfer driving off a tee. And then it rolls and rolls, and you watch your outfielder losing the chase, adding insult to agony.
I need to pitch him carefully. I may not be the power pitcher I was at forty-five feet anymore, but I still have brains and decent control. My teammates are chatting it up, “C’mon Barry, you got this. I even hear Scott – “No batter, no batter, no batter, swing, batter, batter.”
That feels good. It’s game time, and they aren’t taking my Dad’s idiotic decision out on me. What a bunch of guys. What a team, no wonder we’re in the title game.
If I can just get ahead in the count, maybe I can get into his head. Toy with him a little. I pitch the first one just outside, seeing if I can get him to chase one. But he doesn’t take the bait. I walk him on four pitches. The lead-off hitter’s on. Exactly what we don’t need.
With a runner on, I can’t pitch scared. I’m here, there’s no turning back, I have to go after it. My first pitch to the next guy, I rear back and fire. I can tell it’s going to be a strike the second it leaves my hand. It looks a little too close to the middle of the plate and doesn’t seem to have much action on it. He strides forward swinging with everything he’s got. I brace myself for the worst. He fouls it up into the cage, hard, and it bounces around like a pinball, except it’s a live baseball and could literally kill someone.
Once it comes to a stop, Todd scoops it up and tosses it back. I catch it, take a deep breath and walk around for a second to gather myself. Ok, just what I wanted, I’m ahead in the count. I have to dig in and keep going after him. I go for the inside corner. He barely connects, chipping the ball up in the air near the third base line. Tommy and I both run for it. It looks like it might go foul, but it doesn’t. Tommy gets there before I do but he has no play at first. A cheap single. First and second and nobody out.
The third guy up is their superstar, their pitcher, their best hitter, the MVP of the league. He went three for four against me last year, I’m pretty sure. He had my number. Moving the mound back nine feet isn’t likely to help my cause, either. The guys keep up the chatter, trying to give me confidence. After all, we’re still tied at zero. We’ve got a play at any base. A strike out and a pop up then we’re an out away. Their pitcher may be bigger, but he had to move back nine feet, just like I do. Gives us more time to see his ball, too. And we’ve shown all year we can hit. But first things first. I throw the first pitch outside hoping he’ll chase it, but he’s on to that from the instant I throw it. He doesn’t even sniff.
I try to come inside, but it’s too far inside. He isn’t the least bit scared of my ball. That’s not good, either.
I try to throw my sinker and he golfs it straight up into the screen, foul ball. Todd covers his head, bracing for impact, even though he has a helmet on. It misses him. Two and one. But I miss with the next two pitches and walk the bases loaded.
I look at my Dad who nods to me like “hang in there, you can do this.” It doesn’t help at all. I’m alone out here. My teammates keep up the chatter but it isn’t working any more, either. I feel my confidence slipping.
Now, their clean-up hitter. Without a base free, I have no choice but to go after him. I just try to keep the ball down, try to get a ground ball. He cracks the first pitch, a ground ball to Scott at shortstop, a medium speed grounder, perfect. Not too hot to handle, but fast enough to make it not too close a play at first with a decent throw. Scott bends down and something happens that hasn’t happened all year. The ball rolls straight through his legs into left-center-field.
I highly doubt Scott did it on purpose, in anger at my Dad, but it seems inescapable that the line-up change did play a role. Of this I have no doubt.
Scott never lets a ball like that get by him. Ever.
Our center-fielder Paul Auletta charges the ball. The Mustangs third base coach windmills his arms signaling the runner to try to score from second. Paul’s overshoots the cut-off man throwing directly to the plate but it sails over Todd’s head and into the metal backstop. Another run scores as Todd locates the ball, and the runners advance to second and third, no one out.
If you’re just thinking about the scorecard, you would score that E6, error on the shortstop. You would also score it E8 for Paul’s errant throw adding a run and a base. No earned runs against me. But how do you score an error on a Coach who had a selfish dream that his under-sized son could pitch the Giants to victory against the Mustangs?
I walk the next guy intentionally so we have the force at home. With the bases loaded again, I have no choice but to pitch straight up to their number six guy, who laces a sharp single up the middle scoring two more, it’s 4-0. No one out, top of the first.
I look to my Dad to give me the hook. By now, even he knows he blew it. He probably also knows the last patch of ground on God’s green earth I want to occupy for one more second of existence is this lump of dirt called the pitcher’s mound. He shows me mercy, walking out onto the field, pointing toward third, “Tommy, alright let’s go. Barry you take third.”
Scott looks at me still mad, thinking I had something to do with it. His error only makes him want to believe that more. I would prefer the bench, but I also want to stand with my team. I have my pride. And as bad as I feel, it’s been too good a year to hang my head in shame. We didn’t blow this game. He did. A season, down the drain. Unbelievable.
We lose 8-0.
After the game, my Dad gathers us around and states the obvious, that he screwed up, royally. He apologizes. He says he knows they think it was favoritism and just because I was his son, but that that wasn’t it. Their looks say, seriously, you’re going to keep up with the bullshit? No one is having it. He doesn’t fight to make them. He takes it on the chin, as he should.
So this year ends just like last year and the year before that, with two differences. This year, we actually had a chance. And my Dad was the Coach.
Maybe he helped us find that championship form. Maybe it would have happened anyway if Mr. Amatullo from last year had been Coach. Maybe the visualization worked. Maybe it was all just a bunch of mumbo jumbo. I love my Dad, I really do. But putting me in that position was the most humiliating experience of my life, and he did that.
That was my last year of little league, and now I’m in high school. Baseball isn’t my life any more. I haven’t grown enough to pitch again, and the mound in high school is back to sixty feet, six inches. I got up on the mound the other day just to see what it felt like. The plate was far, far away, confirming what I already know. My days as a pitcher are long gone. And the infield is so big, I wouldn’t be a good hitter any more, either. Getting it out of the infield takes what used to be a home run in little league. What were hits in little league are now ground-outs in high school. The game grew, and I didn’t.
For a long time, my Giants uniform sat in my shirt drawer, staring at me as an option to wear just for fun, an opportunity I never availed myself of. I finally chucked it into the goodwill bin last year, hoping someone might give it a fresh start.
As for the pitching contraption, it still sits where it always has, out in the front yard. You can’t miss it. But three years of rain and snow and summer sun have softened its edges and sapped the wood’s natural color, leaving it weathered and grey.