Youth Baseball, Part 3: Baseball’s Amazing Brotherhood

Tanner Boyle:   We lost eighteen to nothin’, and the Athletics are the worst team in the league!

Ahmad Abdul Rahim:   Second worst…

Tanner Boyle:   Sorry, I forgot.

Bad News Bears, 1976

Chapel, or “Chap”, our general manager and coach, was up to bat. He shouldn’t have been up to bat, but he was. He was on the latter half of his 50s and should’ve been eating sunflower seeds in the dugout, spitting calmly as he watched his players play ball. But there he was at the plate in West Philadelphia about to face a pitcher whose parents he probably coached.

Despite the age gap, Chapel had a swagger that was inimitable and carefree. The bat rested calmly on his shoulder and a coy smile spread across his face as the pitcher rocketed the ball towards the catcher’s mitt. There was no chance this old man would be able to connect with the ball at the speed it was flying, and we perceived Chapel to think the same, because his bat was still stoically perched upon his shoulder. But then, shear nanoseconds before the ball crossed the plate, Chap swung his bat around with graceful and utter control and laid down one of the most beautiful bunts I’ve ever seen in my baseball career.

To this day I have never seen a bunt so flawless. It hugged the third base line in perfect harmony between the grass and foul territory as it slowly rolled down the base path. There would be no way that the catcher, pitcher, or third baseman would get there in time. A professional ball player would have fits with that hit, and we were in no way professionals. We were a bunch of 16 to 85 year olds playing “semi-pro” baseball all over the city of Philadelphia, and there was not one person in the league that would’ve been able to get that ball to first before even the slowest runner got there. But that would all depend on if the runner ever got there. And Chap never did.

IMG_1829Immediately after laying said glorious bunt, Chap took off like a kid after an ice cream truck in July, but there was one problem – Chap was approaching sixty years old. He didn’t have his 20, 30, or even 40-year old legs. And so, barely two steps away from home plate, Chap began a slow descent into the same dirt he had ran across so many times before. It was as if the ground was rising to meet the once great and glorious Chapel one last time, except Chap hadn’t gotten the invite. His legs became little more than figureheads as he slid head first towards first base. If he had just been able to get a few more kicks in he might have been able to crawl his way to safety, but as it was, he ate dirt just five feet from home plate.

The entire thing happened in slow motion. Our wild craze for Chap’s bunt transformed into pleaded regard for his elderly safety that gave way to comical sympathy as he dusted himself off. It was difficult not to laugh at the man who had just had such a monumental swing of sentiment. His face had shown the gamut of emotions. From confidence, to anticipation, to excitement, to fear, to frustration, and finally, to shame, as he walked off the field not having even attempted to try for first base.

Playing on the “Bisons”, which then became the “Brotherhood” (I’ll explain later) was never dull. Chap’s bunting disaster IMG_1823was but one spoke on the wheel of amusement that kept us entertained and bewildered those three amazing summers from 2004-2006. We lost almost every game. At the corner of 33rd and Dauphin streets, we were king of the losers, but oh, how we did it in style.

We lost one game because we didn’t have enough players. We didn’t forfeit, no. We lost because we put our 80-year old equipment manager, Nelly, in right field. And then, in a crucial part of the game, when the ball was hit to him, by the time he got his tired legs to the ball, all the runners had circled the bases.

We suffered another defeat one game because of one of our outfielders, Mark. In one remarkable inning, he went for a fly ball and the ball went right through his glove. Turns out Mark was using a “busted glove” as he put it. Then on the very next play, when another ball was hit to him, he knocked his hat off running for it, and decided to go back to get his hat rather than the ball. And none of this compared to the play immediately after that where a ball was hit to his position, but he wasn’t there. He had run in towards the dugout at the precise moment the ball was hit yelling, “My glove’s busted, Coach! My glove’s busted!”

IMG_1826The comedy was not just beholden to the field. Minutes before one of our games, our shortstop (we called him Chew) locked his keys in his car, which wouldn’t have been as big a deal if he hadn’t been in the middle of changing. There he was bumbling around his Pontiac Grand Am in some red and white crusty boxer shorts and our green team jersey that said, ‘Bisons’. That jersey wouldn’t be used for much longer because the next, and final, season of our ill-fated team, Chap changed our team name from the ‘Bisons’ to the ‘Brotherhood’. When I asked him, “Why?” he casually replied, “It’s the Brotherhood, man! The Brotherhood!” I left it there, seeing as how I was one of two white people on the team and didn’t want to come off unsupportive of our new persona. Whatever worked. Well, the name change did work… sort of.

In one of our final games as a team we somehow managed to squeak out a come-from-behind win. It would have been a positive end to a very tumultuous stint with my “Brothers”, if not for one sour moment. In the midst of our team’s celebration of the ONE victory we achieved all season, Pastor Vic, another elderly fella on the team, brought the carousing to a halt. Although some would enjoy this rare time of excitement, Pastor Vic decided to take it in a different direction. Vic was a Latino man with salt and pepper hair who was the pastor of a church, and also the man who had scored the game-winning run, so attention was fully on him. And despite his firm belief in Christ’s forgiveness, in that moment, he was intent on acknowledging the one man who had apparently scorned him… me.

Hold up! Hold up! This man, Dylan, right here, was doubtin’ me. But look! Game winning run baby!!! Game winning run!” Again, “apparently” I had said something to the extent that would lead Pastor Vic to think I thought him unable to run successfully around the bases at his age. I don’t remember. I might have joked nonchalantly about age and ability at some point in the season – I mean, with all the follies and blunders our team had accrued, it was hard not to. But one of these thorns must have stuck in this man’s side to the point where he needed to pause the joyous times and bring on a season of atonement.IMG_1825

Anyway, I don’t think unpleasantly about anything that went on in that season or in any season I played with the Brotherhood OR the Bisons. Just as Chap probably shouldn’t have been up to bat against that young pitcher, and just like many of the players on our team shouldn’t have been on the field, they were, and that’s what made it a true brotherhood. For as we laughed, and cheered, and called each other out for “doubtin’”, we were a team. A team of Bad News Bears who were flawed men, being real, playing a game we all loved… and that game was baseball.

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