Jon Sindell tells how a savvy tip from an old–school baseball man yields fruit two dozen years later.
Baseball is the game of great moments. The game–saving catch. The majestic home run. Every player performs in the spotlight, and each run–scoring play or run–saving play is crucial to the outcome. Great moments, to a player, are lifetime gifts.
My great moment was twenty–six years in the making.
The story starts when I’m eleven years old, a baseball–loving little leaguer whose manager, Mr. Blake, not only resembles the “nice guys finish last” icon Leo Durocher, but seems equally savvy in the ways of baseball. One day during practice, Mr. Blake’s wizened eyes gleam as he teaches us a play worthy of Durocher. Setting his glove down before an imaginary base, Mr. Blake tells his son to demonstrate a special sliding technique. Since Mr. Blake has the ball, Mike is sure to be out. But instead of sliding into the tag, Mike goes airborne feet first, draws his rear foot back and kicks at the glove, dislodging the ball.
“Cool!” we all think. And we immediately forget it, because we sure as heck know that none of us is ever going to pull off that play.
Fast–forward twenty–six years … past ages eleven through fifteen, when baseball gives me not just joy, but my very identity … past the tragic moment of teen pique when I quit the high school team in tenth grade and destroy an essential part of myself … past ages thirty–one through thirty–six, when the godsend known as Men’s Senior Baseball gives me and thousands of other men over thirty a second baseball life.
Now let’s set the stage for the main event — for all the baseball world’s a stage, and all the players merely … players.
I’m thirty–seven, and have enjoyed five fun seasons of Men’s Senior Baseball. Pitching for the Giants of San Francisco — we wear replica SF Giants unis, and I’ve signed an autograph in a gas station at midnight to please a cashier who thinks I’m a real Giant — I’ve reclaimed some of the joy, and some of the brio, I lost at fifteen. I’ve enjoyed success, too. I’m not a big star — I’ve been an All–Star twice, but I’m still a cut below some of the former high school stars and college and ex–minor league players who dominate the league — and we’re coming off a down season. Our new manager pushes me towards the door.
I hem, I haw, I storm, I stew — but at last I decide to enter the draft of the newly formed B League. I show up at the draft to announce my decision, and the Stars of Marin make me the first draft pick in the history of the league — soothing salve for a bruised ego.
It’s my first game with the Stars, and we face a tough team on a bright summer day. It’s late, the game’s close, and I’m on second when the batter tops one softly towards third. The third–baseman charges, and I race towards third —- “race” is relative, for I’m slow — and I round the bag on cat–burglar feet as he slings it to first. Just in case the throw is wild.
The throw is wild. It eludes the first–baseman and rattles against the fence, and I charge towards home.
The throw beats me badly, and the catcher awaits. Desperately I seek inspiration.
I find Mr. Blake.
The catcher has lowered himself to one knee and has set the mitt down in front of the plate. I leap feet–first and draw back my rear foot — and as I come down, I kick at the mitt. I smack it hard, and the ball bounces free. I touch the plate with a critical run.
The catcher’s enraged. He tosses his mask and looms over me with murderous eyes and bulging veins. But I leap to my feet and go straight Hulk on him, clenching my fists and shouting “Yeeeeeeah!” He’s transfixed because, first, defeat’s paralyzing, and, second, he sees that I’m pumped, and, third, I didn’t hurt him, I just kicked his mitt. So I run to our dugout and slap ten raised palms and yell to my teammates: “That’s the way to score a run, boys!” Corny, I’ll admit, but at the moment, so right and so true.
Years have passed since, and I’ve considered whether The Play was clean. It felt clean at the time. After all, I’d learned it from a true baseball man, and a man’s man at that. And I supposed it was legal, since I wasn’t called out — the mitt, after all, was blocking the plate. And my ecstatic new teammates certainly approved.
Perhaps the ethics could be debated.
But what can’t be debated is that for one shining moment, center stage, in the spotlight, I was dashing and daring, a Grade C amalgam of Jackie Robinson and Indiana Jones.
I thank the baseball gods for that, and their priest and my mentor, the great Mr. Blake.
—Photo Wally Gobetz/Flickr
Also by Jon Sindell: Mr. Blake, My First Man of Baseball
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