Youth Baseball, Part 2: A Big Man in a Little League

‘We are the Champions’ from Queen’s Greatest Hits album was shouting as boisterously as if Freddy Mercury himself was ringing in our inaugural baseball game. It was the first CD I ever bought and it was well worth it. We weren’t playing the song because of Queen’s rapturous melodies or hardcore guitar riffs. We were playing ‘We are the Champions’ because it was true, we were champs. Little league champs. And it was all because of me.

RedGreatestHitsQuennalbumcoverThe season prior, our team, the Cubs, stormed through the regular season, blowing out our opponents. We cruised past the quarterfinals and into the semis where we would play the Reds – the one team who had beat us more than once during the regular season. They had one player by the name of “Clean-Up Chris” who could clean the leather right off the ball. With his help, and some scrappy play from his teammates, the game was exactly what we thought it would be… a battle.

The two teams’ scores remained close the entire game. We’d score a run, and they’d score the next inning. We’d score two, they’d score two. That was until we pulled ahead by one run with the bottom of the 5th inning left to play. This may not seem noteworthy, but it was, considering little league only plays five innings. Their first batter struck out swinging. One out. The next batter grounded to second. Two outs. Things were looking good, but that was when our pitcher unraveled.

The following batter he walked on four straight pitches. The one after that singled to right. And the next batter was hit by a pitch. We were up by one run and the bases were loaded, and like all the good dramas of life play out, “Clean-Up Chris” was stepping to the plate. Suddenly, it was if the field was empty except for him and me. He was Goliath to my David. China to my Tibet. The Swiss to my Jamaican Bobsled team. This giant manboy was standing about 30 feet from my little body, which was quiveringly stationed at 3rd base. And worse still, the ball was heading my way at an incredible speed.

My entire baseball career flashed past my eyes…

IMG_1805When I graduated from tee ball at a young age, I took my game to a whole new level in the next age group. It wasn’t the oldest league at the Olney Midget Teen League ballpark, but it was still highly competitive. It was there I perfected my fielding skills, improved my batting average, and learned how to cheer on my teammates through song with pre-pubescent versions of ‘Midnight Train to Georgia’. Gladys Knight & the Pips must have been baseball fans because that tune got the people going. But despite our revelry, it wasn’t long until my age forced my free agency, and I was sent to the “Big Leagues”.

The Big Leagues at OMTL was the oldest division. It was in a prime spot in the park and got the most notoriety. The play was fierce and the parents fiercer. I remember many a curly fry spewed from the mouth IMG_1820of an enraged father. What really made it fun to watch was that the boys (and occasionally girls) were physically developed enough to hit Home Runs. Signs littered the outfield fence, quoting “Careful: Flying Balls”, which was unfortunate for some because the outfield was also where the concession stand was located.

Lucky for me, I never had to worry about Home Runs, mainly due to my size. I easily avoided Home Runs hit by others as they sailed over my head. And I never had to worry about hitting anyone with a ball because the farthest any of the balls came off my bat was the one time when the shortstop accidentally punted the ball into right field – I scored a triple on that one. I was easily the teeniest player on the team, and quite possibly the smallest 11 year old in all of Philadelphia, but none of that mattered that fateful season.

I had played second base for my entire little league career, but during my first season with the Cubs, the coach put me at third base. It proved to be one of the best decisions of the season, as I was lights out in that corner of the baseball diamond. His decision also turned out to be the deciding factor in our semifinal playoff game against the Reds.

Back to the ball game.

So there I was at third base. Bases loaded, “Clean-Up Chris” at bat, and lil’ Dyl staring at a ball screaming towards the gap between Shortstop and Third Base. The next 8 seconds seemed to slow down immeasurably as each piece of the puzzle came into place.

If the ball got through the gap, two runs would score and our season would be over. So I lurched my petite frame to the side, as if shoved off the gangplank of a pirate ship, and simultaneously flailed my disproportionately gigantic glove at the ball. There was a smack and a thud, and I hit the ground.

I had somehow managed to snatch the speedy bouncing sphere, but had wound up on my back in the process. As I peered out into the blue summertime sky, I couldn’t imagine how something so peaceful and serene could exist at the same time that we were faced with such dire circumstances. It seemed out of place. But then something obstructed my view. The shortstop, my teammate Andy, was standing above me in chaotic bewilderment. The look on his face was crazed and frantic as his gaze shot from the runner heading home, to me on the ground, to “Clean-Up Chris” rumbling to first base. As he stood over me, I had a stroke of genius.

There was no time for me to get up and throw to first. And the remaining runners had already had too much of a jump to have any chance of getting them out. And finally, if I stood up and held the runners where they were, the bases would’ve still been loaded and we would’ve had a tie game on our hands. I hate ties. So in that moment of clarity, I darted the ball into Andy’s unprepared arms. It took Andy a split second to realize what I had just done, but then it dawned on him my brilliant plan.

Andy, who was a whole head taller and a whole milk jug stronger than I, laced the ball to first base with all the force he could muster. The ball was thrown so hard it traveled back in time. The slap of the mitt was the only thing you could hear throughout the entire park. Drinks were left un-slurped. Pizza un-devoured. And cheers were silenced. It felt like we had just entered a black hole, void of time and space. But this all ended with the call, “OUT!”

IMG_1813The hard-hitting, slow-running Chris had missed being safe by inches. The final out was called and the game was over. We had won. As we ran off the field, my teammates slapping Andy and I on the back, we were floating. The next game, the Championship, was easily won. It would have taken Babe Ruth and the New York Yanks themselves to stop our momentum. The trophies were raised and the Sparkling Cider was uncorked, and boy oh boy did we party.

The kudos rolled in and I just couldn’t help but think. The little man who’d spent the greater part of his baseball career being more little than anything else had stepped up when his team needed him and had finally become the Big Man. I don’t know whether it was the cider spray or the abundance of emotions, but that summer night, my eyes were moist.

In my next and final year at OMTL, we lost in the championship game. But I wasn’t sad. In the outfield, one of the winning team’s smallest players was showering his fellow teammates with bubbly; immersed in the same joy I had felt the year before. And albeit hard to miss out on back-to-back championships, I was glad that a wee little man like that had the chance to celebrate in a big way.