Tuesday, May 8, 2012

If You Can't Be Good, Be Lucky

The title of this post is a favorite saying of my brother's. I like it--it applies to a number of circumstances.

We spent some time last summer with long-time friends who have a nice house on Cape Cod, in a part of the peninsula that hasn’t been developed. It’s a relaxing and entertaining place to be.

I am a huge baseball fan, and I had heard for years about the Cape Cod Baseball League, which is an NCAA college level organization which has sent a disproportionate number of players to the majors. One evening, we caught a game between the Brewster Whitecaps and the Falmouth Commodores. It was a beautiful night, and because it was a college game, there was no admission charge. People drew up portable chairs around the perimeter of the outfield of a beautiful little park.
I thought it was baseball as it should be.

I also thought back to my own undistinguished career in baseball,  which ended when I was twelve. My basic problem was that I was afraid of the ball. I thought this was a reasonable attitude to have since a baseball hurts a lot when it hits you. As a right-handed batter, I consistently hit to right field, which meant I was swinging late. There was so much to think about during an at-bat. Do I want to hit this pitch? Will this pitch hit me? What should I do? Duck and cover? Scream and run? So much to think about…

Because I was not very good at the sport, although I loved it, I ended up twelve years old in the minor leagues. Most of the twelve-year-olds were in the majors, but for some reason, the coaches decided to put all the uncoordinated twelve-year-olds on one minor league team. Because we were uncoordinated, we didn’t play very well but, because we were bigger than the rest of the kids in the league, we could win enough games to make it worthwhile. I remember one game we won 63-0. Our coaches kept telling us to make outs to end the spectacle but we kept merrily hitting and running around the bases. I pitched that game—not that I was any good--but asked to be taken out in the fifth. I felt too sorry for the opposing team who cried their way through the last couple of innings. As a result, they couldn’t see well enough to hit anything. It was pitiful.

Anyhow, we ended up in the playoff game for the championship—one game, winner takes all. Larry, our third baseman, had the most athletic ability of any of us. He could field anything hit to him and make an accurate throw to first, which made him a rarity on the team. He used a big black bat that was his personal stick: no one dared touch it. He occasionally banged the ball off the fence but never hit a home run. He also struck out a lot.

I remember one situation well. I was playing shortstop and we were behind 3-0 in the top of the sixth (the last inning for Little League games). The other team had loaded the bases with no outs and it looked like they were going to increase their lead. The hitter smacked a sizzling line drive straight at Larry. He caught the ball, stepped on third to double the runner who had taken off at the crack of the bat and reached over to tag the player coming from second who apparently ran at the sound of the bat and didn't look to see that Larry had the ball.

There was a stunned silence. “Unassisted triple play,” my coach said with total admiration in his voice.

 So we were up, but still three runs behind. Larry came to bat with the bases loaded and two out. I was on deck.

He swung at the first pitch and missed. He swung at the second pitch with the same result. He stepped out of the box and wiped his eyes. C’mon, Lar, don’t tear up now, I thought. I was ambivalent about getting to bat. If Larry made an out, the game would be over and we would lose. If he didn’t, I would be up and the thought of all that pressure made me feel queasy.

The third pitch came in to Larry and he whipped the big black bat around. Crack! It was the sweet pure sound of bat meeting ball cleanly. We all watched, frozen, even the runners who should have been running, as the ball sailed high through the air and dived into the deepening twilight beyond the fence. I could hear my coach screaming above the tumult, “Grand slam home run! Grand slam home run!” We had won the championship.

I played a few more games after that, but never managed to swing at pitches at the right time. I don't know what happened to Larry or the rest of the team. Somewhere I have a team picture, a collection of eleven gangly, goofy-looking kids tagged as losers who ended up winning it all. And I know it wasn't because we were any good: we were just extraordinarily lucky.

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