Tuesday, August 12, 2008

My Grand Slam

I was born in 1957. Growing up in the early sixties I was an avid baseball fan just like pretty much everyone else, collecting baseball cards, following the teams and the stats, watching probably every World Series starting in about 1962 or 1963, and when they came to Atlanta, watching the Braves home games on TV.

Back then kids learned how to play sports in the neighborhood. I had older brothers and there were older kids all up and down the street. We played baseball in the street, in the backyard, in a field near the church, pretty much anywhere we could. I had baseball in my veins.

There was no travel ball then, no tee ball, no coaches pitch. There was no place to play baseball except Little League. So that’s where everyone, good and bad, played baseball.

I was a scrappy and competitive kid and simply loved – loved – playing baseball. The field was on the same property as my grammar school (Satchel Ford Elementary), about a mile from my house, and I generally rode my bike to and from practice.

Our little league was for kids 10-12 more or less. I played for “Custom Cleaners.” They had won the championship the year before I started, and did again my first year. We had cool green uniforms with the old fashioned baseball pants and striped baseball socks.

We played six inning games, one during the week and one on Saturday, with no time clock, so sometimes we would be at the field a long time.

Our best player was Larry Chavis, probably the best all around athlete I knew growing up. Larry was our # 1 pitcher and best hitter, and I was the #2 pitcher. When Larry pitched I usually played short stop and when I pitched he played first. Larry was also a buddy of mine. His dad was the coach. I know people who have bad memories of coaches, but Mr. Chavis was as good a coach as I can imagine ever having. He was a very kind and decent man, yet was committed to our being a good team, and he played to win. When I think back, the image I have of him merges a little with that of Andy Griffith. Imagine someone with Andy Griffith’s demeanor hitting ground balls and pop flies, running double plays and such until the team got it perfect, or until it got too dark to play. In those days the parents waited, period.

Our second year we weren’t terribly good. We had lost a ton of players and were “rebuilding.” I did manage to throw a no hitter that year against one of the best teams (check out the box score). That was cool.

I was young for my grade so my third year of Little League I was in seventh grade as was Larry. The owner of Custom Cleaners, Mr. Allday, assisted as coach, and his son Greg was the catcher and some time pitcher. I think five people from our team made all-stars my third year, Larry, Greg, Bob Dreher, Clint Freeman, and myself.

You can see a team picture here. That’s Mr. Chavis back right, Mr. Allday back left, Clint Freeman back middle, Larry between Clint and Mr. Chavis, me between Clint and Mr. Allday. Debbie Carawan was the bat girl.

One very cool aside: our primary umpire was Kirby Higby. Most of the adults just called him “Higby.” He had been a major league pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He even won a World Series game, I think in the 1948 World Series. He wrote a book called “A High Hard One” that is still in print. I have an autographed copy of the first edition. Sometimes, since Mr. Higby had been a pitcher, he would call a game from behind the pitcher’s mound. He talked to the pitcher the whole game, giving advice or just talking turkey. It was super. He was really opposed to young pitchers throwing junk and was ahead of his time in that regard. I couldn’t throw a decent curveball to save my life, but I did have a screwball that I would use on occasion and he would razz me about it. This was also back in the day when parents felt free to express their opinions about umpire calls. It made the games, well, colorful!

The way things worked in our league the season was divided into two halves of nine games each. The winner of the first half would play the winner of the second half in a two out of three game playoff for the league championship. As I remember we won the second half and Garber’s Shoes won the first half, so we met in the playoff.

My third year a kid named Clint Freeman moved into town. He ended up on our team and became the catcher. Clint was a stud. In those days you could run over the catcher, but few people wanted to try to run over Clint. One time, in going after a little pop foul, he ran headfirst with his head into the 2 by 6 cross beam of the dugout - and he broke the beam. Yes, he kept playing. Clint was a lefty. He could smoke the ball. He threw it back to me faster than I pitched it to him!

Toward the end of the season, Larry and Greg and I starting talking to the coach about trying out Clint at pitcher. I mean, nobody could have hit his heat. He pitched in a couple of games and did OK.

Anyway, we won the first game of the playoffs, with Larry pitching. I don’t remember the details of that game. I do remember the second.

Coach Chavis decided to start Clint pitching. We were home team so Garber’s batted first. Clint didn’t have any control that day and walked the first four or five batters. Mr. Chavis eventually pulled him and put me in.

Now in those days Little League was a big deal, and there were a couple of hundred people at the game, all around the field, even up in the trees past the outfield.

Well, they ended up scoring five runs in the bottom of the first. It was kind of deflating to say the least. Then we came up to bat.

They were pitching George Lee that day. George was a big guy, and a lefty, and he wasn’t my best friend. I was not a really great hitter and had spent half the season in a slump, but I had been hitting well the last five or six games. And for some reason I could see George’s pitches better than I could see most.

I batted fifth. When I came up to bat the bases were loaded and there was one out. I dug in and really wanted to get a hit or a walk. Now, it is pertinent to this story to know that at no time in my life, in practice, in a game, hitting around for fun, whatever, at no time had I ever hit any ball over the fence. Ever. I could throw it over the fence but I couldn’t hit it over the fence! I was a singles hitter and a really good base runner and loved to steal. But I had no power.

So I came up. I suspect George was glad to see me and not Larry or any of three or four other of our other batters right then with the bases loaded. "Easy out” I heard from their dugout. I can’t remember the count for sure, maybe 2-1. George had a big looping windup. In came the ball. Now the ball just seemed big to me that day. I swung hard and I hit it hard, but definitely got under the ball too much. From the feel of the ball off the wooden bat, it seemed like a high pop fly to me, so my first reaction was frustration. Still, I was well coached and started running. That ball went as high as any ball I had ever hit and it just seemed to drift deeper and deeper into left center. The left fielder and right fielder were converging on the ball as I was rounding first. Even in these short periods of time a lot of things happen. I could hear my mother screaming “go ball go” and other people yelling at the ball. Both of their outfielders had reached the fence and were reaching out with their gloves for the ball when it fell just out of their reach, over the fence.

I had hit a home run! No, a grand slam! I will never ever forget the feeling of running those bases. Fans of our team were screaming and my mom was going nuts. I was smiling ear to ear. I touched home plate and got the congrats of all my teammates, and when I went into the dugout Mr. Chavis kissed me right on the cheek. He was so happy, not just for me, but also because he wanted to win the game. We all did.

We scored nine runs that inning and won the game like 29 to 9 or something outrageous like that. I went 3 for 5, had a grand slam, and was the winning pitcher. It was my best sports moment ever. I close my eyes and I can still hear the noise and see the ball dropping over the fence.

My dad was a nut. He knew pretty much all the families and kids, and at one point one of their batters, Cam Creps, was in the on deck circle and he and my dad were talking trash to each other. Cam said he bet he would hit a home run. My dad never saw a bet he didn’t want to make, so right on the spot he bet Cam five dollars that he would not hit a homerun. Cam was pretty motivated. He hit the first pitch over the fence! Thanks Dad!

It was a great day.


Anonymous said...

hi joel. I'm Ernie McGrew and I played for Sunshine Laundry about the same time you played for our arch rival, Custom Cleaners. I was just watching the Braves on TV tonight and was reminded of our old umpire, kirby Higby. When I googled him, your site came up. Sure brought back some great childhood memories. ernie915@gmail dot com

Anonymous said...

Your comment about parents made me laugh. I think it was Yogi Berra who said something like "Little League baseball is good for parents; it keeps them off the streets.

Congrats on the grand slam! That is surely a memory for the ages.