To say I had no athletic ability as a boy is a huge understatement.
Actually, my lack of talent was more ocular than kinetic. You have to be able to see the ball before you can hit it. Most kids have two good eyes, but I was blessed with four – thanks to those mini magnifying glasses the eye doctor managed to squeeze into a pair of Clark Kent frames that were so heavy they made my head tilt forward when I put them on each morning.
You can understand why I was always the last kid picked when we chose teams to play softball. Each time I hoped I would be picked before one of the four tomboy girls in the lineup, but each time the final refrain was always the same. “Okay, I’ll take George” the super athletic team captain would say with a drawn-out moan.
You’d think I might have been content to be the water boy or to have made some excuse like needing to stay in from recess to study my spelling words, which surely would have been a better use of my time. But I was determined to be one of the guys, so as our team took to the field, without instruction, I always headed to my usual assignment – remote right field where the ball was seldom hit.
Actually, I was pretty good at catching the ball if it was hit high enough for me to spot it in time to position my glove directly in front of my face, hoping the ball would land in it instead of between my four eyes. Broken black frames held together with white surgical tape was not very becoming.
I always batted ninth, of course, right behind our pitcher – a girl. “Easy out,” the other team’s catcher would shout when I came to the plate.
Her mercy was unsolicited but out of the kindness of her heart, Ann, the other team’s pitcher, would almost always take a few steps toward home plate when I came to bat. Eyeing me with the same compassion (or maybe it was pity) you would’ve expected her to have for a 4-year-old lifting a bat to his shoulder for the first time, Ann would lean forward, and with her best slow motion move, throw a soft pitch over the center of the plate – chest high like a feather descending from the sky. The blurred motion of her arm coming toward me was the cue to unleash my erratic swing. Suffice it to say, there was a reason why my nickname was the “piñata kid.” “Strike one,” the umpire would shout. Strikes two and three would always follow, seldom interrupted by a ball or foul tip.
But then one sunny afternoon in the spring of 1960, after four long years of swishing the air and wandering around in right field, it happened. Instead of taking three steps in front of the mound, Ann walked halfway to home plate. “You can do it George,” she said as she lofted her best feather-ball toward home plate.
All I can say is Opthalmitis surely was looking down on me that day because for one amazing moment my four eyes focused as one and miraculously synchronized with the swing of my bat. “Bam,” the ball ricocheted off the bat and sailed over the head of the right fielder, who, as was his custom, was swapping jokes with the first baseman while I was at the plate. What should have been an easy out turned into a single, as the second baseman retrieved the ball and through it back to the pitcher, too late to make a play at first.
It was now the top of the batting order for our team, which meant that I might get to run the bases for the first time in a real game. And run I did, as Ken slapped a double to deep center, advancing me to third. Dick was up next and I was anxious to race for home and score the first run of my life. But I took a cautious lead as I squinted at the blurry form on the pitcher’s mound. Ann had shown mercy to help me get a hit, but I knew she would pick me off third if given the chance. There was no way she was going to let me score a run if she could help it.
Unlike the feather-ball pitch Ann had thrown to me, she reared back and threw Dick her best high heat. “Crack,” the ball flew off Dick’s bat toward the first baseman, and just as quickly I flew for home. “Slide, slide,” the guys – and two girls – on our bench were shouting. The first baseman had the ball and was throwing it to the catcher. It was going to be a close play at home.
I’d never had to run the bases before, let alone slide, but I dropped to my left side three feet before hitting home plate and plowed the dust with my right foot. “Safe!”
I had done it – boy had I done it. The problem, you see, is that home plate was, for some diabolical reason, a cinderblock that had been buried – all but the top lip.
The loud cracking, splintering noise everyone heard was not a bat hitting a ball. It was my ankle bones disintegrating as my right foot slammed into the lip of the cinderblock. I quickly crawled to the edge of the backstop, putting on my best face and wincing to hold back the tears.
Recess ended and Ken and Dick made a seat with their arms to carry me into the schoolhouse. Ann and three other girls encircled me like a host of angelic nurses, asking if there was anything they could do to help make me more comfortable.
“No, I’ll be all right,” I said. It was a nice moment because I had found my glasses and had an eye for each of them.
In short order Mom and Dad took me to the hospital where the doctor set my ankle, which included inserting a four inch pin deep into the bones to hold them together. I loafed and healed at home for the rest of the school year and never touched a softball again, that is, not until my son turned four and lifted a bat to his shoulder for the first time.
George Brown is a freelance writer. He lives in Jackson Township.