Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

The golden days of small ball

A few years ago, The New York Times ran a story about how some young boys were getting “Tommy John” surgery on their so-far uninjured arms.

The hope was that they’d get a little more velocity. In the major leagues, a fastball that’s faster by 1 or 2 miles an hour can mean the difference between being a superstar and a scrub.

Sports at all school levels is taken a lot more seriously now, and while football and basketball gain a lot of the attention because a player can jump from college to the majors, baseball has its share of little games, even at the lowest levels.

I remember playing CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) baseball when I was at Our Lady of Hope (OLH) elementary school in Middle Village, N.Y. Back then, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, everyone took the game a lot less seriously, and the idea of a parent going ballistic over a coach’s decision on who to play or an umpire’s call on a close play was way beyond the realm of reality. This was elementary school baseball, and no one was even thinking about whether they’d make the majors.

I played, and remember that I wanted to be a catcher like the Mets’ Jerry Grote. But I was short, and couldn’t keep the target high enough, so I ended up in that area where the scrubs always seemed to end up: right field. (The other banishment point was derisively called “left out.” Sensitivity training was years away.)

I still remember my first game in OLH’s intramural league. The coaches laid out a diamond in the middle of the giant open field at Juniper Valley Park and the game began with me on the bench. Soon, the catcher for my team hurt his hand, and then I donned the equipment and took my place behind the plate. The pitcher’s repertoire was the fastball, curve ball, slow ball, and the one that reached the plate and was occasionally caught by the catcher.

I tried to emulate my hero Jerry Grote, but like I said I was too short, and the pitcher kept complaining that the target was too low. That was my first and last baseball game wearing “the tools of ignorance.”

In theory, each of us got to play three innings per game and get up to bat once. It’s hardly a surprise that we’d all go up looking for walks so we’d get on base and get to steal, and very few boys actually went up to the plate looking to swing and maybe ground out or pop out, because that would be it for the week. We didn’t know “Play me or trade me,” but some of us thought it.

Coaches would complain, “You’re all going up there looking for walks,” and I think the umpires would expand the strike zone to keep the game going. I remember that there was one game where in my one visit to the plate I made contact, and grounded out to the first baseman.

There was one game where I didn’t get to play, and I went home and cried in my room.

My father would come to the games, and like I said, this was back when your dad didn’t beat you bloody if you screwed up the game. It was a thrill seeing my father watching me play, no matter how ineptly, at least until he fell on his butt dodging a foul ball. Sorry, Dad.

In one of my most memorable games, the coach stuck me in center field, and a miracle happened. Someone actually hit the ball, and hit it right toward me. I ran in, reached out and the ball hit my glove so hard the glove came off, and I ran back to retrieve the ball and throw it into the infield. I was so embarrassed.

Later in my brilliant CYO baseball career I went out for second base and can remember playing that position. I liked it because I had a weak throwing arm, and second base was pretty easy for me when throwing to first.

One thing that annoyed me was that we had to have a lot of chatter during the game to encourage the pitcher. At games, you’d hear the same thing over and over, like a mantra: “C’mon Jimmy babe, c’mon Jimmy babe, fire it in there.” All that chatter left us pretty winded when the ball was finally hit our way.

We used to wear batting helmets that were pretty heavy, and one innovation that was a real joke was the infamous “running helmet.” It was a contraption you wore on your head that covered your ears and the back of your head, but not the top of your head. I remember one kid I played ball with who ended up in the hospital because he was wearing the running helmet while running the bases and got hit in the head with the ball, which drove a part of the helmet into his skull. He survived.

Back then, though, we were still using wooden bats but there was heretical talk about aluminum bats.

It was great to win the game, but just getting to play and having fun was also important. I think about that nowadays when there are baseball academies for elementary school kids and parents get into fistfights over school games. There’s plenty of time to take baseball way too seriously, and I think the best way to mess up kids’ sports is for adults to get involved.


January 4, 2009 - Posted by | The business of sports | , , , , , , , ,

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