Beanery Online Literary Magazine

April 4, 2008

PINCH HITTING

—written by Jim

With the Pittsburgh Pirate’s home opener game, April 7, 2008, it’s time to move our thoughts to baseball…one, two, three strikes you’re out! Visitor writer Jim submitted his story, Pinch Hitting, to the Beanery Online Literary Magazine.

It was a warm and sunny late spring day. I don’t recall for sure, but it was probably the month of May. It was about 6:00 o’clock in the evening, and my teammates and I were milling about, waiting for the game to get under way.

I don’t remember the name of the league, or if it even had a name, but it was composed of five teams. Perhaps it was called the Dunbar Township Little League. Each team was named for a village or coal patch located in the various parts of Dunbar Township (Pa.), which bordered the western boundary of Connellsville, the second largest city in Fayette County, which is just south of here. If you cross the southern border of Fayette County, you’ll be in West Virginia.

The five teams in the league were Trotter, Morrell, Leisenring, Monarch, and Dunbar. My team was Trotter. On this particular evening we would play against Monarch. We were the home team. As I recall, we were always the home team, because the league played all of its games on its only decent Little League field, which was located in Trotter, our village.

(To view photo illustrations click on the following:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/beaneryonlineliterarymagazine/909196805/

http://www.flickr.com/photos/beaneryonlineliterarymagazine/page2/

http://www.flickr.com/photos/beaneryonlineliterarymagazine/page2/ )

It had a dirt infield, which was pretty typical for our area, but it also was relatively level, and the potholes were usually small enough to patch before each game. It had a batting cage to provide some control for unruly foul balls, and it was big enough to accommodate the batter and the opposing team’s catcher. The umpire, however, had to stand behind the pitcher, calling balls and strikes from over the pitcher’s shoulder.

The field also had a home run fence, sort of. It was actually what I think is called a snow fence, which consists of thin slats of wood held horizontally in place with thick wire. The fence was about three and a half to four feet high, and it stretched from the left field foul line to right center field. Then there was about a two-foot gap. The rest of the home run fence, from right center field to the right field foul line was also the outer wall of the Dunbar Township High School football stadium. This corrugated metal barrier was at least six feet high, maybe seven. I recall seeing only one home run hit over that wall. By Little League standards, our left field was probably average in depth, and our center and right fields were respectively deeper.

There were also two additional sections of the same kind of wooden-slatted fence as was in the outfield. These stretched from each back corner of the batting cage to just beyond first base and third base respectively. The areas between the fences and the foul lines were restricted. Only players, coaches, and the team manager were allowed to be in this area. I guess you could say that this was our imaginary dugout. Spectators who didn’t bring lawn chairs could lean against the outside of the fence to watch the game.

We didn’t have any benches, so the players who weren’t actually in the game or were not on deck to bat would usually sit on the ground and lean against the fence. Strategic placement of one’s glove would help prevent grass or dirt stains from appearing in the wrong place, and thus help one to avoid embarrassing comments after the game.

“So, I see by the grass and dirt stains on your pants that you didn’t get to play today.”

Perhaps the best measure of our league’s financial situation was evident in our uniforms. Although all the players had uniforms, each team had a variety of styles. For example, on my team, Trotter, some of the players wore an off-white uniform with a large red letter ‘T’ on the left breast of the shirt. Others on the team had shirts with the word ‘Trotter’ spelled out across the breast. Their shirts and pants were gray with red lettering.

The other teams had a similar mix of styles. You could say that we were ahead of our time in our ability to celebrate diversity. At least every player on each team had matching hats. Ours was dark blue with a red bill and a red letter ‘T’ made of felt glued to the front.

Most of the teams in the league had fifteen to twenty players. Once in a while a team would show up with only eight of its regular players. On those occasions, they would usually be allowed to borrow a player from the other team. I think our team always had enough players show up, because we all lived close enough to walk or ride our bikes to the field. Nearly all of the players on the other teams had to be driven, because they lived too far away.

On this particular day, although it was a great day to play baseball, I was not feeling so hot. In fact, I was sick to my stomach. Just before the game was about to begin, I walked up to Mr. Dillon, our team’s manager, and told him that my stomach was hurting really bad, I felt like I might throw up, and I didn’t think I could play. I told him that I thought it was the Jell-o that I’d had for dessert after supper. As I spoke I rubbed my stomach, and I might have also cried. Mr. Dillon apparently believed me, and he scratched me from the starting line up.

Although I was usually part of the starting line up, I thought it was really no big deal to replace me. I was an okay player, but I wasn’t a star player. I was twelve years old and among the six or seven other twelve year olds on the team. I usually played left field, and I batted sixth or seventh in the batting order. But, even though I was among the older players on the team, this was actually my first year on the team, my only year actually, because you could only play in this league up to age twelve. I had wanted to play the previous year when I was eleven years old, but I had broken my arm just prior to the start of the season, so my mother wouldn’t let me.

In retrospect, I must confess I was a mediocre player. In the outfield I could usually catch the ball if it was hit close enough to where I was standing. If a short pop fly was hit in my direction, I would take a few steps toward it and wait for it to land, my goal being to keep the ball from getting past me and rolling all the way to the fence. This task was made somewhat more difficult by my fear that the ball would hit a stone or clump of grass and bounce up and hit me in the face.

If the ball was hit over my head, I would run toward it as best I could, but it would usually get there before me, and then all I could do was run and grab the ball off the ground and throw it back to the infield to try to limit the batter to a single or a double. If a runner was already on base I would throw the ball to the third baseman, who would then relay the ball to the catcher to try to prevent a score.

Of course, there were many variations of this theme. I recall one occasion when the ball was hit over my head. I just stood there and watched it clear the fence by a few inches for a home run. Perhaps if I’d gone after the ball, I may have been able to catch it before it went over the fence. But, my fear of the embarrassment of trying and failing was like glue on the bottoms of my shoes that held me firmly in place. Our team’s shortstop, one of the best players on the team, let me know right away that he disagreed with my assessment of the situation by shouting angrily at me, “You could have caught that” Then, he turned away and kicked the infield dirt in disgust.

My batting skills were equally as advanced as my fielding ability. If a pitch was slow enough and in just the right place, down the middle of the plate and waist high, I could swing the bat and sometimes actually hit the ball. I did manage to get on base a few times. Sometimes a runner would be on first, and I’d hit the ball to the left side of the infield. The shortstop or third baseman would then throw to second to get the force out, and I’d sometimes be able to beat the ensuing throw to first to prevent a double play. In my mind, I would consider this a hit.

Based on my method of calculation, my batting average at this particular point in the season was around three hundred. The coach on our team, who kept track of such things, apparently used a different kind of math. According to him, my average was something like point-zero something or other. I have to admit that his figures were probably more accurate than mine. I seem to remember that he did eventually go to college as a math major. Besides, my usual technique of just standing at the plate and hoping for a walk often resulted in a strike out. I guess it’s kind of like what they say about the lottery: “You have to play to win.”

So on this particular day, after talking to Mr. Dillon, I went over to the fence and sat down on my glove. As I grimaced and rubbed my stomach, one of the other players asked me what was the matter. I said something to the effect that I didn’t feel good, and then I lowered my head and closed my eyes. I just didn’t want to talk about it.

The reason I didn’t want to talk about it was that it wasn’t the Jell-o that was making me sick, it was the other team’s pitcher. I was afraid of him. I had batted against him in previous games, and I’d done miserably. He was that team’s best pitcher, perhaps the best pitcher in the league. He could throw the ball fast and with accuracy.

But, what made things worse for me was that he was a left-handed pitcher, and I batted left-handed. When he threw the ball, it looked to me as though it was coming right at me, not at the plate. It was a truly terrifying experience. And, on this particular day, I just did not want to face him. I was scared, so I pretended to be sick.

I also did not want to face Uncle Eddie, my dad’s younger brother. He and his family were visiting from Florida, and he and some of his family and some of my family had come to watch the game. Our volunteer umpire was unable to come to the game that day, and Uncle Eddie, asked if he could fill in, said yes.

Uncle Eddie’s son, Joey, was my age, and he also played Little League in his town in Florida. He was a very good player. In fact, he’d been chosen to play in his league’s all-star game. I think his batting average was something like five hundred. As Joey and I were swapping baseball stories on the afternoon prior to this particular game, he said something to the effect that his dad, Uncle Eddie, was very critical, and that no matter how well Joey played, Uncle Eddie was never satisfied.

I don’t know if Uncle Eddie really was overly critical, or whether I misunderstood what Joey was telling me. Nonetheless, what was going through my little twelve-year-old head prior to this particular game was: “Oh no! Mean Uncle Eddie is the umpire. He’s not satisfied with Joey, who is a really good player. What will he think of me?”

So I really had no choice other than to pretend to be sick. It was a matter of survival. If I tried to bat against this pitcher, I’d most likely die at the plate, because I wouldn’t be able to buy a hit off of him. Or, I would literally die by getting hit in the head by a left-handed fastball. And worst of all, I’d die of humiliation when Uncle Eddie saw what a lousy player I was. I did what I had to do.

So, the game starts with our team in the field, the opposing team at bat. I don’t recollect anything memorable happening in that first half-inning. Our team eventually got the three necessary outs, and it was our turn to bat. As the other team took the field, I realized that I’d made a mistake. The pitcher that I feared was not on the mound. The team’s other pitcher was there. He didn’t throw the ball very hard, and he was right-handed. I suddenly began to feel a lot better. It was a miracle.

After a couple innings Mr. Dillon asked me how I felt, and I said, “I think I’m feeling a little better.” When it was our turn to bat again, the boy who had replaced me in left field was due up to bat, and Mr. Dillon had me pinch-hit for him. I put on a batting helmet, picked up one of the smaller bats and took a few practice swings. I looked out at the pitcher’s mound and noticed that the other team had made a pitching change.

Oh, my God! It was him! He was throwing warm up pitches. With each whiz-thunk, my illness returned. Now I really did feel sick. This time it was in my legs. My knees felt like jelly. When he finished warming up, I stepped into the batting cage and assumed my usual batting stance at the plate. Then, I turned to face my executioners.

As the first pitch came, I forced myself not to lean back. The pitch was high, and Uncle Eddie yelled, “Ball one!” The next pitch was over the plate, and Uncle Eddie yelled, “Strike!”

When the third pitch came across the plate, I swung, and a miracle happened. My swinging bat actually made contact with the ball. The ball flew off the bat and headed straight back toward the pitcher and Uncle Eddie. The pitcher stabbed at the ball with his glove and missed, and Uncle Eddie had to duck to get out of the way. The ball whizzed past them and flew over second base and into center field. As I ran to first base, I saw Mr. Dillon pointing toward second base, and he was yelling, “Go, go, go!” I rounded first and ended up at second base with a stand-up double, my first-ever extra base hit!

I could see and hear my teammates and the spectators behind them cheering and clapping. I’d never made it to second base on my own before this, and it really felt great. The spell was broken. I was forced into a situation from which I couldn’t escape. I had to face something that I greatly feared, and it turned out okay. Was it luck or did God smile upon this little boy?

At my next at bat I got another hit. This time I hit the ball on the ground between first and second base and into right field. It got past the right fielder, and I ended up with my first-ever triple. I could see and hear the cheers again. Being at third base, I was close enough to see my sister, Elaine, standing at the fence behind my teammates, and I heard her yell, “Way to go, Jimmy! Yay!” Or something like that.

A little while earlier, when I hit that double, and again when I hit the triple, I felt thrill to a degree that I’d never felt before. But when I saw Elaine cheering for me, I felt something even more unfamiliar, a different kind of feeling, a better kind of feeling.
I’m sure that, at the time, I had no thoughts of trying to define my experience. I was just, as they say, enjoying the moment. Yet, as I look back, I do have a desire to define it, to name it. And still, I cannot. What was that feeling? Or, was it more than a feeling? Perhaps, I could just call it unspeakable joy, and let it go at that. But, if I do that, I have to put it in a mental category of things that are indefinable, one of life’s mysteries. And when I do that, because of my particular faith, my particular way of trying to come to grips with what things mean, I have to ask, “Is it love? Is it God?” To me, these two words are synonymous.

As I look back on my experiences at the ball game that day, I recall one other thing about that moment on third base. Up until that moment when I was standing on third base, and I saw and heard my sister, I didn’t know that she was even at the game. So, in addition to the sudden change from being overwhelmed with feelings of fear and dread to the thrill of victory, there was also the element of surprise, a sort of added bonus.

Is it possible that, in the simple act of a thirteen-year-old girl spontaneously cheering her little brother’s good fortune, that God was somehow present? Could it be said that Elaine’s response was an act of love, and that my experience of and appreciation of her action a completion of some kind of circuit between us?

Could it be possible that this whole series of seemingly random events was actually God’s subtle way of teaching me a lesson, a lesson that I finally learned now, forty-three years later? When I tried to avoid facing my fears of that pitcher and my uncle, did God play a trick on me by having the less intimidating pitcher start the game? And then I walked right into the trap. Except it wasn’t really a trap. It was an opportunity. I was forced into a situation that I really didn’t want to be in so that I could learn to be less afraid. Perhaps, after that second hit when I ended up on third base, maybe it was God saying to me, through my sister, “See, I told you it would be okay.”

If this was a lesson from God, I wonder why it took me so long to learn it. Or, maybe I did learn it, but just didn’t realize that I had. For the rest of that baseball season, I did have much more confidence in myself. I was certainly less afraid of that particular pitcher. I swung at the ball more, and I got a few more hits. In fact, at times I got a little too cocky. I recall another game sometime later in the season. The score was close, and I was on deck. I was discussing strategy with my shortstop friend, the one who had yelled at me for not running after the fly ball. I told him I was going to punch the ball at a particular place to increase the likelihood that I would get on base. And my friend said, “Aw geez, just try to hit the ball will ya?”

The lesson on fear has presented itself to me many times, even to this day. Sometimes it presents itself as fear, sometimes as anxiety or worry, and sometimes it comes as a difficult situation. Sometimes I heed the lesson and face the particular fear, anxiety or worry, and sometimes I avoid it. Sometimes I see only a problem, and sometimes I see an opportunity.

The lesson on love and God also presents itself over and over. Sometimes it comes as a gift, a surprise like the one I got from my sister that sunny spring day. Sometimes it presents itself more cunningly, such as in the form of a person that I have difficulty getting along with. Sometimes I’m able to rise to the opportunity to learn and grow, and sometimes I miss it.

I do know that many more opportunities to learn will keep coming my way. As they arrive I hope I will be able to put to use the words of the Dalai Lama: “Never give up,” and of Jesus: “Therefore, I tell you, do not worry.”

May it be so.

NOTE: The Pittsburgh Alleghenys joined the National League in 1887, playing and winning their first game 6-2 over the Chicago White Stockings. The nickname Pirates was hung on the club in 1891 after they were accused of hijacking a player under contract to the Philadelphia Athletics. Trivia from: http://www.baseball-almanac.com/teams/pirates.shtml

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