PLAYIN’ THE BLUES
Last of the ninth and the score is tied, 1-1…two outs. The count was three and two to the worst hitter on the team, our first baseman and…my best friend, Bobby Anderson. What a mess! We had a two-year string of victories, 23 wins and 0 losses, at stake. Heck, we’d already won the league championship but this one was for all the proverbial marbles. No team had ever won all their games two years in a row. This wasn’t a game…this was a war!
We were playing the Reds, a team we’d beat twice during the season by one run each time. To say the least, emotions were running high. They were the pretty-boys of baseball in our town and a bunch of rich kids with awesome looking major league type uniforms, Spaulding baseball cleats and mitts, great equipment and their own group of cute little cheerleaders and they were very good. Boy, I really had a strong dislike for these guys.
We were scrappy kids from the wrong side of the tracks. Poor parents, T-shirt and jeans uniforms with glued on letters, Converse sneakers with holes in them, battered up equipment and baseball mitts that looked like they’d been donated by the Salvation Army.
But, we had three secret weapons nobody else had. We had Coach Purvis, Coach Robb, and Coach Williams. In one short two-week pre-season practice session the previous year, they took a bunch of pre-juvenile delinquents with no experience and turned them into the scourge of Little League baseball in our town and with each game we kept getting better. We weren’t just good…we were unbeatable and we believed it.
Those three coaches would practice us three times a week to everyone else’s once. We thought their wives hated them because they spent more time with us than they did at home. They lived and breathed baseball and if we wanted to play on this team, so did we. We weren’t allowed to talk about losing or how tough the other teams were. Losing wasn’t an option and winning…winning was done in a quiet efficient manner with no bragging or taunting. Coach Purvis would tell us there was never a need to brag about how good we were. If we were good, it would stand on its own for the whole world to see.
Every practice there’d be a bunch of us heaving our guts out. My lungs would burn from the amount of running we had to do. I guess, by today’s standards, some people would consider those coaches a little on the abusive side. They made practice so hard that playing a scheduled game was easy. But more important, they gave us pride, taught us discipline, taught us how to win, and taught us how to play as a team. I wouldn’t trade those summers with those three coaches for anything in this world. They were heroes to twenty-two kids who would’ve never had the chance to play baseball, let alone play it as well as they taught us.
It was a wonder to me that I was still in this game after breaking one of Coach Purvis’s cardinal rules at the end of the last inning.
The Reds had runners on first and second with no outs. A single and a walk had set them up to take the lead in the game. I was playing shortstop and the runner on second was taunting me, big-time, with comments about our uniforms, my Polish/Sicilian heritage and anything else he could think of to rattle me.
The kid at the plate was their heavy hitter and had a count of three balls and no strikes. It looked like Jeff, our pitcher, was going to walk him, but somehow Jeff blew two blazing fastballs past the kid who never took the bat off his shoulders.
His coaches were yelling at him, “Don’t just stand there! Swing!
He was a right-handed batter and as Jeff wound up for his next pitch I noticed the kid shift his feet towards right field a little. As Jeff's pitch left his hand I started to break towards second base and I heard the bat crack as it hit the ball. Jeff ducked and the ball was headed in the low line drive.
I dove making a wild stab at the ball and to my amazement it stuck in the webbing of my mitt. I landed on second base with my face buried in the dirt of Stolley Field, catching the runner who was on his way to third, too far off the bag to get back. It was a great double play.
Scrambling to my feet and stumbling backwards, I heard Bobby Anderson yelling, “Throw it to me, Ronnie! Throw it to me!”
That’s when I noticed the runner from first had reached to within ten feet of me. They all must’ve thought the ball had gotten by me.
My heart pounded as I feebly lobbed the ball over the runner who was in a frantic scramble back to first base to the waiting, sure-handed, Bobby Anderson. The ball looked like it was in slow motion as it gently slid through Bobby’s mitt and chest and hit the ground. He quickly picked it up but was off the bag and never saw the runner as the kid hit him like a football linebacker knocking him flat on his butt. Somehow he held onto the ball. I heard the umpire yell, “Triple play! Side out!”
I was about to make the biggest mistake of my Little League career. Ah, crowd adulation! How I loved it!
Turning towards the bleachers I saw my proud mother and all the other parents of my teammates jumping up and down and screaming. It was a glorious moment. I couldn’t resist. I stood erect, blew on my fingers, brushed them across my chest, pulled my cap off and took a huge bow.
Now, I know that palls in comparison with the antics of Dion Sanders or the bizarre behavior of Dennis Rodman, but to Coach Purvis it was a hangin’ offense and that became vividly clear as I heard a loud voice from the direction of our dugout yell, “Karch! Get your skinny butt in here! Get over here!”
I ran to the sidelines to the waiting, red faced, Coach Purvis. He took my arm, squatted down and got right in my face, grabbing my other arm, shaking all sixty-five pounds of me. “What do you think your doing? What have I told you about that kind of behavior?”
I was so stunned I couldn’t speak.
He glared at me and said, “You’re up! Get your headgear on and stand there at the plate and take four pitches. Don’t even think of swinging!”
I wasn’t about to ask why he didn’t want one of his best hitters to take a swing. I might’ve been a little cocky but I wasn’t stupid so I walked to the plate, stood there with the bat on my shoulders and took four straight pitches, all balls, and walked to first base.
I thought I was going to get a breather standing there on first but the pitcher wound up and threw it wild, into the dirt. The ball went to the backstop and I took off like a shot for second base. The catcher never made a play and I was in standing up.
Coach Purvis’ decision was beginning to make sense. I could see the self-confidence of the Reds players slowly dissolving. They were rattled.
Our next batter struck out and the next one fouled out to the first baseman giving the Reds of glimmer of hope.
So there I was, stranded on second base and all 23 wins meant absolutely nothing without number 24.
Coach Williams, the third base coach, had given me the hit and run sign. I was ready to do whatever it took to make it happen.
The third baseman was standing right on the bag leaving a huge gaping hole between him and the shortstop. My best friend, Bobby Anderson, certainly wasn’t a threat for a big hit so they had their outfield pulled in just a few feet behind the infield.
“C’mon Bobby! You can hit this guy! Big stick! Big stick, buddy! Come on man! Just get it out of the infield on the ground! Bobby! Concentrate! If you don’t hit that ball I’m gonna get you! C’mon on now!”
I was frantic and could feel my eleven-year old heart slamming against my chest and my voice was getting hoarse.
The yelling and taunting from the opposing team was just as loud and daunting. There was new life in them. It was difficult to tell whether the Reds or my threat was having the greater effect on Bobby. However, it was evident Bobby Anderson was close to wetting his pants from the pressure the situation.
After blowing two scorching fastballs past Bobby for strikes, the pitcher slowly wound up and let go with another one. I could see the ball was about two feet higher than the strike zone. God only knows what Bobby saw as he took a sloppy swing from over his head. He looked like a tennis player swiping at a high bouncer. My heart was in my throat as the ball dribbled off the tip of the bat. It was worse than a squibber. This mighty hit wasn’t going to make it past the pitcher between the mound and third base.
I was off and running as hard as I could towards third. The third baseman was crouched and waiting for a throw. Whatever Bobby lacked in batting skills he made up for in speed as a base-runner and he owed it all to me because I used to chase him around like a crazed Dingo after barn cat. By the time the pitcher got to the ball he had no play on Bobby at first and had to turn to try and get me at third.
I heard all my teammates, coaches and parents in the bleachers yelling, “Slide! Slide!”
Darn right I was going to slide...just like all my big league heroes would do it. About four feet from the bag I got airborne, diving head first. As my fingers touched the bag I could see through the dust the third baseman jump high. The ball sailed over his out stretched mitt and disappeared under the bleachers.
I stood up quickly and saw the umpire running up the line waving his arms in a safe motion and then he waved me home on the past ball.
Panting, I brushed the dirt from the front of my uniform and looked at the disappointed...no, the crushed third baseman and said, "Nice try. At least your uniform’s still clean."
"Yeah, right, you jerk!" he growled, throwing his mitt at me, wide right by two feet.
“Ain’t it fun,” I laughed, turning towards home plate and doing my best imitation Babe Ruth shuffle to the waiting arms of my crazed teammates and catching a glimpse of Coach Purvis scowling at me with one of his I’m warning you looks.
The Blues had done it again. We had another perfect 12 and 0 season. All the coaches were hugging and shaking hands with each other and with the proud parents.
As I was hoisted up on joyous shoulders, I caught a glimpse of Bobby. Our eyes locked. He had a look of confusion on his face, not knowing whether he’d done right or wrong. I struggled to get down and ran up to him, stopping about a foot in front of him.
Bobby was about fifteen pounds heavier than me and when you’re eleven years old that’s like fifty when you’re an adult. He could’ve really hurt me if he ever got mad, but I had this intimidation thing going on him.
"What the heck were you swinging at? That ball was way over your head!"
"Ronnie, don’t get mad, please!" he replied frantically. "You told me to put in on the ground."
"You’re a heart attack you know that! You’re a heart attack waitin’ to happen! I’m going to give you to the count of three to get going and when I catch you and I’m going to make you eat grass!"
Before I finished talking, never mind the three-count, Bobby was off like a shot up the first baseline and headed for right field. I was right behind him, yelling all the way, "I’m gonna get you!"
It wasn’t a matter of whether I would get him so much as when I’d get him. He was fast but I was faster. I finally caught him between center field and left field with a flying tackle and spun him over on his back. He saw the fistful of grass in my hand and pleaded, "Please Ronnie! Please don’t make me eat that!"
I looked at him a second, threw the grass down and fell on top of him, hugging him and said, "I love you Bobby! I love you! We did it! We did it again! The Blues are number 1! Let’s go lard-butt! Free sundaes at Friendly’s!"
I jumped up stretching my arm out to give Bobby a hand up. With arms over each other’s shoulders we walked slowly back towards the bedlam still going on around the dugout.
Bobby nudged me and said, "Hey, look! I think Coach Purvis wants you."
I looked up and saw Coach motioning to me with his finger to come to him. He didn’t look too happy.
"Opps! Looks like I’ll be doing five laps around the field before I get to Friendly’s."
"For what? We won! This was our last game."
"Doesn’t matter, Bobby. I broke ‘the rule’…twice."
"I’ll wait for you," Bobby said, sympathetically.
"Naw, its all right. Coach’ll run with me. I’m his best reason to exercise and you know how he hates to run alone."
Coach Purvis and I only did one very quiet lap. He was either too tired, too excited, or maybe he thought the moment should just stand on its own. I don’t know. He never said. The only thing he said to me after one lap was, "Let’s go to Friendly's and get that sundae. You really earned it today, Ronnie."
* * *
For the next seven years Bobby and I were tighter than two brothers until my family moved to Florida and we slowly lost touch.
In 1965, I received a box in the mail. Inside was an old dried out first baseman’s mitt. Inside the mitt was a Ted Williams baseball card and a note from Bobby Anderson’s mother telling me he had been killed in a skirmish somewhere in Viet Nam and that she wanted me to have Bobby’s two most important possessions. I wept.
I miss my brother. I miss my coaches. I miss my team and I miss all those dog days of summer in the fifties at Stolley Field and Greenwood Park when the worst nightmare of every Little League team in my home town was knowing, on one of those hot summer afternoons, they’d be playin’ the Blues.
Dedicated to all the kids who play Little League Baseball and to all the Coaches like I had, who teach them to play the game with dignity and passion.