And finally we arrive here, the sport in which I have the most time logged, inappropriately sharing a title with a Ty Cobb memoir. Here lie the most struggles, the most triumphs, the most strife. The most wins, the most losses, and probably the most skill.
My parents put me into a hybrid of coach-pitch and tee-ball when I was five or six. You got five cracks at a lobbed toss from a coach and if you failed there, you hit off a tee. In my very first at bat (at least so far as I can remember), I hit a shot down the left field line. I refused to run, believing it foul until the coaches’ yelling finally got through to me. It ended up being a triple and would have been an easy home run were it not for my hesitation. I know I stole a bit of the show that year, hitting three more triples.
My dad worked with me a lot. I don’t think it was every day or even every weekend, but pretty close to it during the baseball season. Because of that, I got good in a hurry. A few years later when I was one of the older kids in the league, I hit four home runs and bunches of doubles and triples. I was, for a moment, a man among boys.
I graduated to a division where the kids pitched to each other. Somewhere along the way I decided I wanted to be a pitcher, and no one seemed to disagree with the notion. Again my father worked with me often, and while the practice time was essetial to my development, I acquired something extra and I’m not sure of the source.
In Little League, and even High School ball, there are kids that pitch, and there are pitchers. The former might be very good, even elite at some levels, but at their core, they lack that something extra, the mentality, the accuracy. To pitch is to be in complete control of the game. There’s nothing else like it in team sports, because unlike goalies, you decide how the action starts. You have to be able to handle this responsibility, to have the drive and the confidence to not only dictate how things are going to be played, but know in a loss the eyes are first going to turn to you. You may succeed for a time without it, but eventually any good kid that pitches loses to a good pitcher.
My large hands and knobby fingers gave me a natural cutter and even more devastating slider at the age of nine. When I was on, I was unhittable. Then we moved to a suburb of Syracuse and I went from being one of the oldest kids in the league to one of the youngest in the next league up. Facing more mature talent, I struggled in every phase of the game. My excellent pitching became merely okay, and my .800 average plummeted to around .250. My confidence dropped along with it.
As I grew up and my body changed, I also lost my most effective pitch, or at least control over it. Sometimes the slider was on, and sometimes it was flat. That sort of thing is devastating for a pitcher, especially one who doesn’t rely on velocity. Luckily as my pitching faded the following year, my hitting picked up, so I was able to focus on my offensive contributions. I thought my pitching days might be behind me.
After that I moved up again, this time to a larger field, again becoming one of the youngest players in the league. Throwing sixty feet to the plate instead of forty six worked in my favor, allowing my pitches to break more, and my lower velocity was troubling to many hitters. I also began developing what would become my most potent weapon, my curve ball.
That team won exactly one game, the very first game of the season by a score of 10-9 when I pitched out of bases loaded jams in both the sixth and seventh innings. The final play of the game was the first in what would become one of my most frustrating skills, a ground ball up the middle that I would field and throw home. Taking away sure base hits with my reflexes would become routine.
I wasn’t an ace at that point, merely an effective pitcher, so rather than getting the bulk of the starts, or even the innings, I was used in spot duty when someone was needed to clean up a mess. A lot of pitchers, even pro pitchers, fear the high pressure innings, but I thrived on them. Baseball is a mercurial sport, and I wanted the ball in my hands as much as possible.
My second year on the big field moved me from juniors to seniors, yet again making me one of the youngest players in the league. I could have stayed down, but I wanted the better competition, and my pitching had continued to develop enough to warrant it.
I was never a flashy player, not many small skinny kids are. I relied on placement and junk, not velocity to pitch. I hit singles as a batter. I wasn’t overly fast, but I had a good nose for stealing bases. I never made mistakes and I thrived in clutch situations. It’s the sort of thing you want on every team, but I was passed over for junior All-Stars that year because of that lack of flashiness. The ignorant juniors coaches, capable of taking as many 14 year olds from seniors as they wanted, only took three, all pitchers. It was frustrating since I had a complete game victory against each of them that season.
Two years later I was one of the oldest kids in the league again, and the team ace. I dominated with a near-zero ERA and an opposing batting average somewhere around .080. Our assistant coach had a bit of a bone to pick with one of the pompous opposing coaches, telling us our record didn’t matter so long as we beat that team. I’ll never forget the very first pitch of that season, a hanging fastball to the top pick in the draft that got smashed into left-center field for a double. (As soon as he hit it, I thought it was a home run.) When a challenge is thrown, I respond in kind. I found his weakness and exploited it, sending breaking ball after breaking ball his way. By the end of the year all he’d added to that double was a half dozen strikeouts.
In the middle of the season, after winning the first two games against the aforementioned team we had to beat, we found ourselves clinging to a tenuous-looking 10-5 lead. I was in center field when they put runners on first and second with one of their best batters coming up. He hit a ground ball up the middle. The catcher came in front of the plate and held up his glove. The coach sent the runner home. I fielded the ball and performed a textbook crow-hop. The catcher didn’t move, the ball landed in his glove on a rope. The runner was out by twenty steps, the inning was over. The 10-5 score ended up holding. All the coach could do was stand there along the baseline with his hands on his head.
We were expected to roll through the playoffs, but things always get tougher. The first game (there were only four teams) was against the only team that had beaten us in the regular season. They weren’t overly talented, but they matched up against us well with solid defense and a tendency towards close low scoring games. That playoff game was no different as I shouldered the bulk of the innings. I didn’t pitch particularly well, but I made several plays off the mound to get us out of innings, including a sliding catch of a fly ball that stopped me less than a foot from the fence. I remember the opposing team kicking my slide marks out of the dirt as they came out for the next inning.
We ended up playing ‘the team we had to beat’ in the championship, having gone 4-0 against them in the regular season with scores of 8-7, 10-5, 2-0, and 7-0, and the championship looked to be no different with us holding a 5-1 lead most of the game. They brought it to 5-3 in the final inning when I came in with men on first and second to close.
The guy at the plate was a good batter, but he hadn’t been particularly successful against me. My over-confidence got blasted into right center, coming about a foot shy of going over the fence. I got us out of the inning, somewhat shaken and with the score tied 5-5. They were out of pitchers, and while the position player that got the unenviable task of closing was solid, he wasn’t the man for the job. The lead-off batter hit a double and then advanced to third on an error. Then I came up. My plan was just to get the ball in play. I figured we’d either we’d end up scoring, or I’d be able to wreak havoc on the bases with their attention on the lead runner. Instead I punched a single up the middle on the first pitch to end the game.
For years people had insisted I try out for the school baseball team. I had always enjoyed Little League ball, and the high school coaches kind of frowned on that. But with my senior year coming up, I finally relented. They hosted a conditioning stint for interested players five weeks before the tryouts. This worked in my favor, especially when a few of the varsity players began attending. My goal was simple, put each and every one of them to shame in the running. I might not have been in the best shape, but I was in pretty good shape, and I knew I wanted it more.
I busted my ass through conditioning and by the end of it, I knew I had the coaches’ attention. Tryouts were a little hectic, especially since my batting lagged behind just about everyone, but the pitching coach was definitely interested in my abilities.
John Johnstone, former pitcher for the Florida Marlins, Houston Astros, Philadelphia Athletics, and San Francisco Giants and native Central New Yorker. He ran the pitching tryouts, and I could tell he loved my accuracy. Most pitchers can hit a relatively small area. Because it had been such an integral part to my success for so long, when I was on, I could hit a particular stitch in a glove. My hand had also fully matured, and my odd finger lengths gave me a cutter that broke like a slider, a slider that broke like a curve, and a curve that dropped off a table.
Pitching to Johnsone, I could start my curveball in the upper right and end it in the lower left every single time. After I made the team and we began practices, Johnstone noticed that I brought something none of the other pitchers did, a raw athleticism that allowed me to rob hitters on balls up the middle. It was because of this that Johnstone dubbed me ‘El Gato Pequeno,’ or ‘The Little Cat.’
I pitched pretty well for the varsity team as the top reliever, compiling a 2-0 record, a 2.00 ERA (should have been 0.00), and leading the team in fielding percentage. (If I remember right, I pitched 17 innings and had 12 fielding opportunities, all of which went for outs.) Our lineup was loaded so most of the games my job was to sit in the bullpen until it was time to babysit a 15 run victory. The regular season concluded with me no-hitting one of the city teams in my only start and while it’s a nice accomplishment, they probably would have gotten no-hit in tee-ball.
I got my big moment in our first playoff game. We’d raced out to a seven or eight run lead, but our starter had faltered and the opposition had pulled to within two runs. It was probably the worst I’ve ever pitched. I did literally nothing right. My accuracy was so off, I put a pitch-out right down the middle of the plate scaring the hell out of our catcher. Still, I gave up no hits, stranded the runners on second and third and got us out of the inning.
School ball gave me an increased sense of confidence as I began my first year in the ‘Big League’ division for 17 and 18 year olds. Once again, I was one of the youngest kids in the league, but with an entire season of varsity ball right behind me, I was the unquestioned team ace, and on most nights the only one willing to pitch. When I went into the game, I expected to win, and for the most part we did, cruising to an 11-6 record, in which I was 9-1.
There was one game early on when a team, the eventual regular season league champion, beat us something like 12-1. I pitched in the tail end of that game, when the score was already lost. They had a good time of it and obviously didn’t feel like we belonged on the same field as them. That pissed me right off. I made sure I got the start the next time we played them and combined with another pitcher for a 2-0 shutout.
Our first playoff match-up was against a scrappy team from the neighboring district that had played us close each time. We were down 3-1 early and their ace had us fairly demoralized until a hit and some timely base-running found me on third. Most players would only be willing to do what I did on a left handed pitcher. I am not most players. I studied the pitcher’s feet carefully as he went into his windup. The only way he could make a move to third in that stance was stepping back with his right foot. As soon as I saw the left move, I took off for home, hoping that he either didn’t shorten his windup, or the ensuing chaos caused a wild pitch. I don’t think he realized I was going until late, when he landed awkwardly and pulled the pitch outside. My foot slid in underneath the tag by a noticeable margin, but the umpire wasn’t paying attention and called me out. Still, the damage had been done, and the pitcher only lasted one more inning. We cruised to a 9-3 win.
We ended up meeting the team that had beaten us 12-1 in the playoffs in the semi-final round before the championship game. I got that start too with our coach (my dad) sacrificing my championship eligibility for a better chance of getting there. They were eager to avenge their 2-0 loss and I was still pissed about our first matchup. With all the conditioning that school ball had afforded me, and the tutelage of the former pro Johnstone, I had better command of my stuff than I ever had. I almost never threw a straight pitch, relying on my cutter as my default, and tailoring my arm motion and curveball to my needs. Did I want a large break, a small break, a sinker, a side to side pitch? I could do it all. The best was in the absence of a change-up, I would let the pitch deliberately roll off my fingers in a high breaking arc that came in at around 50 mph and was nearly impossible to hit.
It wasn’t until a ball whistled over my head in the fifth inning that I realized, “oh they finally hit one out of the infield,” completely missing the significance of my broken no-hitter. I ended up giving up three hits and no earned runs in a 9-1 romp. Unfortunately, we ran out of firepower in the championship, dropping a close 4-0 decision in which I played shortstop and made or assisted on six of the eighteen putouts. That would be the last good year of baseball.
I returned as the ace the following year, but with a team of new younger players that didn’t have the dedication or maturity. We were constantly forfeiting games when people didn’t show, and when they did they were disinterested or hungover. I got no run support and without the varsity conditioning, I wasn’t as sharp and couldn’t win games by myself. We ended up with two wins, one coming playing spoiler in the playoffs. With no other pitchers having shown, it was me or nothing. I ended up throwing 156 pitches on a 100 degree day, and made 12 of the 21 outs on my own (2 runners picked off, 2 fly outs, two ground outs, and six strikeouts), giving up no earned runs and escaping with a 10-5 win.
I had a few coaches that recommended I play college ball, or at least try to, at Clarkson University. I think the expectation was that I would, but I just didn’t see the point in devoting an obscene amount of time to play in Division III for a sport that I wasn’t in love with. With little fanfare, I announced my retirement on my LiveJournal. (Remember those?)
I often wonder what would have happened if I had the passion for baseball that I have for hockey. The egotist in me likes to believe that I would have had a shot at turning pro, that if I had the drive to live in the weight room and work on my velocity, I could at least have made a living as a spot reliever. There are certainly guys in the big leagues right now whose measurables aren’t far above mine. But the truth is probably closer to a pauper’s life, bouncing around various minor league teams, some good, some not so good. That’s a life I’m not sorry to have given up.