Monday, October 29, 2012

No. 584 – Dreams

Performer: Fleetwood Mac
Songwriter: Stevie Nicks
Original Release: Rumours
Year: 1977
Definitive Version: Live, 1980

Of the four home runs I hit in little league baseball, the third one—in 1978 after I finally succumbed to the hype surrounding Rumours and found that it was a pretty excellent album after all—was easily the highlight of my little league years.

After I had had an excellent year in 1976, I was certain I was on my way to the majors. The next step was to make the Hastings Junior High team the following spring.

As I mentioned, I was a boisterous 12-year-old when I entered junior high. At that time, I had supreme confidence that I would succeed, and I suppose I made it known beyond the bounds of decency. So, naturally, the other kids had to knock me down at least 40 pegs through their mockery.

One crew was particularly relentless. And it wasn’t just my baseball playing that was the target but also my appearance (I was going through puberty at a very early age), clothes and grade-school antics, made known by an insider, which were potentially embarrassing to a junior-high boy.

Pretty soon, not only had I been cowed into silence, but I also was so intimidated by the taunts that I didn’t even try out for the Hastings team that spring. I didn’t care to embarrass myself by trying and failing, so I didn’t even try—an unfortunate life lesson. Of course, it’s ALWAYS better to try and fail than to not try at all, because you can’t succeed if you don’t try.

I had a brutal season in 1977, tumbling into a hitting slump that lasted almost all spring. (We played until July 4.) I finally broke out of it at the end of the year and made the league all-star team as the result of an injury, so it wasn’t all bad.

By 1978, my confidence was somewhat restored, although still not enough to try out for the Hastings team. I had a good year, and I was fortunate to play for a great team—the Hoosiers. Early that year, I had been moved to center field so another kid could play first, and I anchored the outfield with running catches and throwing out runners on the basepaths (twice, a rarity in this league). We roared through the 12-team Big 10, losing two games, because, well, you can’t win them all.

The second to last game of the regular season was against the Boilermakers, and it was a showdown. The Boilermakers also were 12-2 entering the game, and the winner would clinch the division and the first-round bye in the double-elimination tournament that would decide the champion. A lot was on the line.

We had our best pitcher going, and pitching for the Boilermakers was J.B. Shank. What you need to know about J.B. Shank was he was part of the crew that had made my life miserable the previous year.

When our teams met, I was intimidated again—not because of the situation, but because Shank, who played on the Hastings team, was a good pitcher who threw hard. Any hard thrower was intimidating to a (soon to be) 14 year old. I was nervous the first time up, and my nerves seemingly were justified when the first pitch nailed me in the left side.

Looking back, of course, Shank wasn’t trying to hit me. He didn’t respect me enough to send anything like a message, and—more important—it was a big game. No one wants to intentionally put someone on base if he doesn’t have to. It was a pitch that got away.

However, a funny thing happened: It cured me of my nervousness. Getting hit with the baseball is a scary thing, because you know how much it’s going to hurt. Well, the worst had happened—I got hit—and I lived to tell the tale. It stung, sure, but it wasn’t so bad.

I still was a bit skittish the next time up, but I popped one into center field that went for a double due to the outfielders playing me deep. Hey, maybe I CAN hit this guy.

The third time I came up, I was so loose that I walked to the plate without a batting helmet. Sheesh! I went from being afraid of being hit to being so unconcerned (or distracted) that I hadn’t noticed I wasn’t wearing a helmet. After sheepishly donning the protective headgear, I stepped to the plate with no nerves at all—despite the fact that it was the fifth inning of a seven-inning game, the score was tied 3-3 and two were on with two out.

Believe it or not, I don’t remember the count—I want to say it was 2-1—but I’ll never forget the sound and feeling when the ball hit the bat and I saw it rocket off to left field. As I rounded first, all I could think was, “Oh my God.” And I must have said that out loud, because the first base coach said, “just keep running.”

I whirled around the bases, the head coach gave me the pinwheel sign at third, and then the catcher started to step away from home plate, which indicated no throw was coming.

I believe most people, if they look back on their life, could identify several moments that were perfect moments, where everything lined up just right and they wouldn’t change a thing for all the money in the world. Sometimes, if you’re really lucky, you realize the perfect moment as it’s happening.

When I saw the catcher move out of the way, it hit me like a cool breeze on a 100-degree day: I was going to hit a tie-breaking home run … in the most important game of the season … against the guy who had made my life miserable in seventh grade … while his girlfriend watched from the sidelines.

In my day, we didn’t show others up on the athletic field. It’s not that it wasn’t condoned; it just wasn’t even a consideration. But as I reached home, I slowed up and leaped into the air to make a double-foot plant on home plate and yelled “YEAAAAHHHHH!!” at the top of my lungs as my team mobbed me. We now led 6-3.

In the sixth inning, I saved the day by making a catch against one of their biggest hitters, also with two on. It was a fairly routine play, because I had him positioned correctly. But it was big, because I was playing so deep that I was nearly in the outfield of the game the next diamond over. If I had played more shallow, the game would’ve been tied.

In our half of the sixth we got another run, and I started to worry anew: It was getting close to me batting again, and I didn’t want to bat again. The home run was so perfect that anything else—even another hit—in another at bat would’ve spoiled it. Fortunately I didn’t bat again. And when we shut down the Boilers in the seventh, we wrapped up the best record in the league and the first-round bye in a 7-3 win.

And neither J.B. Shank nor any of his cronies ever made fun of me again.

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