Build it and they will come. The ball park of my youth was a block from my house, next to the town’s public swimming pool and picnic shelters. A hand operated scoreboard, a grounds crew composed of volunteers, small wooden bleachers standing just off of the first and third base lines. I was signed as a walk-on straight out of the third grade, after honing my skills in the bush league of my backyard. Snagging self-propelled fly balls had finally paid off.
The park’s only restrooms were 300 yards from the diamond. Behind the home plate area was a pebbled concrete water fountain, whose rusting faucet provided a refreshing drink of warm water throughout the summer season. I don’t remember any concession stand food because that wasn’t important. What was important was winning.
Other than the simple, concrete dugouts, the only building structure at our stadium was the wooden announcer’s box, located directly behind of home plate. This building would in time become known as “Punky’s Palace”. Punky Reilly was and will always be the area’s number one sports fan. He was a “special” man before there was a politically correct term for “special”. Kids can be cruel and may have occasionally made fun of him, but usually they just flocked around him. A Piped Piper of sports fanatics, his glass was always full. “That Luray team sure was sump’n the other night. Don’t you worry, we’ll get ‘em next time”. The only reason that he’d miss a Central High School game, home or away, was if there were two different sports playing on the same night. During the fourth inning stretch of our Little League games, the kids would all run to the door of Punky’s Palace, excitedly begging for the honor of collecting league donations from the evening’s crowd. He was the only voice that I can remember ever announcing a little league ballgame and is forever honored on a plaque in the high school’s wall of sports trophies.
There were six teams in the league that season of my rookie year. I played center field for the powerhouse Woodstock Lions. Our ball caps and stirrups were a fierce color of yellow and our cleats were dirty Chuck Taylor’s. As young ‘men in the making’, we learned about rules, structure, and how to succeed in life. All from a little leather-covered ball. No ribbons were awarded to anyone. When you lost a contest, you felt bad. You were taught by the coaches how to succeed the next time. Practice, hard work and using your noggin’. There were no team managers named ‘Jim’. I was taught by MR. Danley and COACH Hoover. ‘Yes, SIR’ was the answer to a coach’s instruction. The only doping allegations that season involved a package of Pop Rocks and a bottle of Coca-Cola.
If our pitching rotation was working to our advantage, our ace Greg would be on the mound against any of the stronger teams in our league. Greg had physically sprouted earlier than any other member of our team. He was heads above us in height and in God-given baseball talent. But he wasn’t a chiseled Adonis, but more of a Babe Ruth figure, with boyish charm and chubby cheeks. The black hair emphasized the smile’s white teeth, like film images of Ruth before a game. Relaxed, confident, always talking and cracking jokes as he tossed a ball around with a teammate. But as the contest began, the expressions changed to the teeth-grinding look of a restrained Rottweiler before an organized dog fight. Of his repertoire of pitches, he only used one. That was the fastball. And the deception of his fastball had nothing to do with its velocity, but the location of his pitches. Sure, the ball may have been screaming at 70 mph during the 46 foot reentry flight. But its final destination was the key to his success. Randomly, the ball might embed itself ten feet high into the steel, chain-linked fence or singe the earlobe of a batter, sending him slumping to the safety of the dirt. But more times than not, it popped into the brave, waiting mitt of our catcher. The infield chatter started…”Hey batter, batter, batter…hey batter, batter” As he began his windup, the crowd would collectively hold its breath. Then 0.407 seconds later, they would react with laughter, a shudder of fear or more often than not, a round of applause.
In the position of right outfield, Charlie Brown had Lucy. Abbott & Costello had Nobody. Of course we had a right fielder as well. I shall call him “Phil”. Because his name was Phil. The position of right field on a Little League team was often stereotyped by different characteristics. First off, someone had to field the position, anyone. The least athletically gifted were usually elected by default. Most opposing batters were right handed and bat swinging mechanics sent a majority of fly balls to left or center field. Manning the right field position appeased the parents and added a notch to your athletic resume. But right fielders were often Dreamers, not Followers. Before the crack of the bat, I would have compiled my list of cat-like reactions to the different scenarios that might unfold. If it was a short single over the shortstop’s head, I’m firing the ball home to throw out the runner leaving third. A long fly-out ensures the runner from third will score, so I’m going to second and hold the tagging runner at first. The right fielder was wondering why potato butterflies have black spots on their white wings; why don’t they shoo when you kick at them; why are they out here in right field anyways; don’t see no potatoes around anywhere and no flowers either, except for those dandelions over there by that umpire man.
It was the bottom of the sixth, the final inning of a Little League game. Greg’s standing tall on the mound, protecting our 2-1 lead. There were two outs, with enemy runners on first and third. Coming to bat is one of the weaker batters from the opposing team. Excited screams of encouragement came from the opposing grandstands. “Just make contact, buddy! You’re due…it’s your time!” “Three more strikes Greg, three more strikes! Rockwell couldn’t have painted a scene to match the excitement of just being there. Like Patton out maneuvering Rommel at the battle of El Guettar, Coach Hoover began repositioning his defensive troops, going in for the kill. “Jay, watch the bunt, watch the bunt!!!” Coach hollered “OUTFIELD IN! OUTFIELD IN!” as he frantically motioned arm signals. A passing airplane had caught the attention of Phil. “PHIL, COME IN! FURTHER! COME IN!” “Alright Greg, ONE MORE STRIKEOUT, BABY! ONE MORE! BRING THE HEAT!” After two slightly wild pitches, Greg settled down and delivered back to back fireballs of perfection. The parents were at a point where acting the fool was not a concern; just scream ‘til your lungs hurt. The electricity in the air was so dense, that lightning bolts cracked in the mountains on an otherwise clear day. Greg became a living monument on the mound; a confident grin and nod to the catcher gave the impression that he knew that he was about to become folklore. Coach Hoover calmly turned his head and dispensed of some excess chewing tobacco juice. Before the spit hit the ground, Coach noticed that Phil was standing beside him on the first step of the dugout. To some, “Come In!” is a term used in positioning defensive fielders. To others, it means a quicker end to a really boring game.