|LIFE AS A LOSER #4: IMBICILE IN THE OUTFIELD.|
|By Will Leitch|
When I was 6 years old, my father, a somewhat talented athlete as a teen before joining the Air Force, decided his bookish son - the one who had been chided by teachers for reading Mom, the Wolfman and Me during recess - needed to start playing baseball, if just to get him off the damn couch.
In my small Midwestern hometown, 5- to 7-year-olds were herded into something called tee-ball, where you attempted to hit the stationary ball off a piece of black plastic, and since you couldn't strike out, you were going to sit there, with scoffing parents and mean-ass kids staring intently, until you just hit the friggin' thing, for Christ's sake. For kids like me, for whom a baseball was that thing the other kids threw at you while you were studying Judy Blume, this was a long and laborious process. In the field, a coach once had to run out and remind me to face the batter and, for the love of God, please quit chewing on my glove.
In retrospect, I realize how difficult it must have been for my proud father, an electrician and a man's man who certainly received countless ribbings from other men's men whose sons didn't run to third base when they finally hit the ball. By the time his son at last earned a base hit and then walked to the dugout because he was so used to being thrown out, the stoic Bryan Leitch had reached his boiling point. (Mr. Leitch explains, "I just figured you were going to turn out gay, which would be fine, as long as you could hit the cutoff man.").
As a last-ditch effort, my father dragged me away from my Bugs Bunny cartoon one Saturday morning and drove me to Busch Stadium where his beloved Cardinals were facing the then-potent Montreal Expos. Keith Hernandez hit a home run, Willie McGee stole three bases, and Ozzie Smith made one of his gravity-defying double plays. It was breathtaking. To my dad's amazement, I was hooked.
Next thing he knew, I was memorizing Johnny Mize's 1943 statistics, sneaking a radio into my room at night to listen to Jack Buck and showing a newfound vigor in my tee-ball league. Years passed, and I discovered movies and alcohol, but my passion for baseball never waned. It got to the point where I tried out for the freshman football team to get in shape for baseball tryouts though I eventually had to quit because I was failing biology because I was too afraid of wasps to do the bug collection.
By my junior year, I had made the varsity baseball team at my adopted position: catcher. Well, a more accurate description would be to say my adopted position was scorekeeper and the guy put in right field in 14-3 blowouts. I excelled at both, particularly scorekeeping, where I inspired the wonder of my more adrenally enhanced teammates who were constantly amazed by my ability to figure out that if you were batting 3-for-8, your average was .375. ("Dude, man, if they ever have a draft for scorekeepers, you'll go in the first round!")
I dealt with such indignities with aplomb, mainly because April was rapidly approaching. For the first time in the history of Mattoon High School, the varsity baseball team was traveling to Busch Stadium to play an exhibition with county rival Charleston before a Cardinals-Phillies game. I was returning to the genesis of my love affair with America's pastime, and, best of all, his hand forced by public sentiment, coach Jackley was going to let everyone play, even the schleps with the pencils. (I'd slugged a whopping 2-for-6 in 18 games coming in).
Little bit about Mark Jackley. He was a young man, just older than 30, a gym teacher who wore sweat pants everywhere, presumably even at his own wedding - to a plastic blonde whose presence never failed to stir the loins of Mattoon's finest power hitters. He'd happened to take over the team as Mattoon's greatest class of baseball players was passing through. My class had won the eighth-grade state championship, though I'd been cut from the team after I'd dropped two pop-ups at an unfamiliar second base. Jackley, however, had decided this team's success (we were 16-2 going into Busch) was a measure of his own genius as coach, something he never failed to remind us of. He was the type of guy who, when going out to comfort a struggling pitcher, would say, "Jeez, they're really killing you out here. What's wrong with you?" He was a vain, pathetic little twerp, and he was openly mocked and generally reviled by his players. But his team won, so our small, baseball-mad town saw him as a bit of a savior.
And coach Jackley had no use for me. He'd once flat-out told me that I was on his team because a friend of his was close with the coach of my scholastic bowl team and thought it would be "good for me" to hang around. If there was anyone on the team causing him to quiver about the Everybody Plays philosophy, it was his pet scorekeeper, the guy who once sheepishly informed him that this was a poor time to intentionally walk the opposition's best hitter, considering the bases were loaded.
Oh boy, was I going to show coach Jackley. Like all bench-dwellers, when I was finally given my chance to shine, I was going to prove everyone wrong. My teammates, constantly startled by my encyclopedic knowledge of former Cardinal Dane Iorg's on-base percentage with two outs against lefthander pitchers in the fourth inning surprised me by rallying around me in my quest for Busch Stadium glory. One even remarked to the local paper, "He's the biggest Cardinal fan we know. We really want him to get a hit."
We entered the stadium through the players' gate - "Hey, check it out, Pedro Guerrero's car!" - and walked onto the then-Astroturf field. Glancing at the lineup card, I noticed I was batting 14th - desperate times called for desperate measures - and playing right field in the third and sixth innings. After waving to my family and my girlfriend in the stands, I, filled with awe, trotted out to right field in the bottom of the third, with Mattoon ahead 3-0.
It had rained the night before, so much so that many panicked players feared the game might be cancelled. We played on, but the field was still wet, something I irrationally blame for what was about to happen. With two out, a runner on second, and a sandy-haired corn-fed kid at the plate, our pitcher threw an outside fastball that was lifted into, of all places, right field. A lifelong catcher, I'd never felt quite at home in the outfield, but I nonetheless camped comfortably under this lazy fly.
CUT TO: The night before the game, 11 p.m., Central Standard Time. Thanks to a defective air conditioner in our hotel, the embattled warriors were sweating profusely and unable to sleep. Coach Jackley stormed angrily into our room and grumbled that we were switching hotels because this goddamned place couldn't get its collective shit together. We hurriedly gathered our things, and, as I realized while dressing for the game the next morning, my cleats had been lost in the transition. That left me with my sneakers for the game.
Tennis shoes and a wet field. Unlike Michelle, my belle, these are words that don't go together well. I glided - OK, glided is what pros do; I shambled - to the left about half a step, but that step wasn't there. My right shoe gave way, and next thing I knew, I was lying on wet turf with my sneaker sitting next to me and the ball far, far, beyond me. A teammate later told me coach Jackley, upon witnessing this spectacle, spat something that rhymed with "Boo clucking sidiot."
My one shoe and I sprinted to the wall, where I grabbed the ball and fired it back toward the infield - yes, dad, I hit the cutoff man - but the sandy-haired kid had long since crossed the plate. In the next day's paper, the late, beloved local sports editor listed his hit as a home run and didn't even mention my spill, God bless his soul. At least the sandy-haired kid can tell his grandkids he hit a home run in Busch Stadium and have the proof to back it up. In the stands, my father tried to save me - and himself - more shame. When a parent sitting next to him witnessed this horrific spectacle, he asked, "Yikes, who is that out there?"
"Um, I think it's that Alexander kid," my dad mercifully answered.
Actually, I ended up getting two hits and an RBI, and we won the game handily. But the die had been cast with coach Jackley. I batted just once more the rest of the season, and once he even bitterly kept score himself, as if I treasured the duty.
The next season, we played again at Busch Stadium, but I was too disillusioned at that point to expect much of a shot at redemption. In the fifth inning, when we were down by two runs, I came up with runners on first and third and two out. Jackley gave me the take sign on the first pitch, a beauty right down the middle that allowed our runner to steal second. I fouled the second pitch straight back, and the Charleston pitcher reared back to fire what was probably the best curveball of his life, and I struck out. We ended up losing, and I batted only twice the rest of the season.
After that second game, my dad and best friend came down to the field to offer their condolences. When my father left, carefully avoiding the other fathers, my friend's dad came down to offer me a bit of baseball expertise. "Bad time to strike out, Will."
Yeah, thanks. Jerk.