Baseball fan Floyd Sullivan’s email submission to Baseballisms.com reprinted with permission.
A Friend of Baseballisms, Floyd Sullivan, is the author of Waiting for the Cubs. Floyd graciously submits this true story from his days as a youth baseball coach. We would like to take this opportunity to thank Floyd for all of his contributions to the Baseballisms community and look forward to many more stories about his devotion to the game he loves. You can find Floyd on Facebook.
No one saw him arrive at the field. He stared at us from the sidewalk that separates the lakeside park from busy Sheridan Road on Chicago’s far North Side. At first I thought he was too old to play on our tee ball team, and so paid little attention to him. He stood a head taller than the other kids, and I had my hands full with a dozen or so third and fourth graders running wild around the dirt diamond.
After about ten minutes of letting the team kick up a cloud of infield dust, I called for them to gather at the chain link backstop. The tall boy now stood on the grass, a few feet closer to the first base dugout. I noticed that he held a mitt close to his left side, and his long, curly, sandy blond hair stuck out in all directions from under a brand new Cub hat that was a little too big and so rested just above his eyes and behind his ears. He wore a crisp, maroon Loyola University sweat shirt, blue jeans so spotless they looked dry cleaned, and a pair of top-of-the-line Nike athletic shoes, charcoal gray without a hint of mud.
“Okay,” I shouted, “settle down. Let’s see who’s here and who’s late.” I checked names against the roster supplied by the Chicago Park District. The tall boy watched. Each team member answered “Here!” when I called his name, except two. I repeated those names and tried to keep my eye on the tall boy, who had edged a few feet closer. But he still showed no sign that one of the names was his.
One more time. I bellowed the two names so they could be heard across the street. The tall boy’s right arm moved slightly. I took a couple of steps toward him and asked, “Are you one of the two kids I’m missing here?”
He nodded once, his chin dipping just slightly toward his chest.
“Come on over and join the team.”
He approached but stopped a few steps from the group. Up close, his hair, face and hands looked as fresh and unsoiled as his new clothes. Someone had gotten him all ready for something, but that someone was nowhere to be seen.
“Now that all but one of us is here,” I said, “I’d like to welcome you all to the Indians.”
“Indians?” said one of the kids. “Why can’t we be the Cubs?”
“Why can’t we be the Sox?” asked another.
“Sorry, fellas,” I replied. “Those names were taken.”
“How come you didn’t take one of them?” asked a short boy who stood right in front of me, his feet spread and his arms crossed.
Great, I thought. A punk with attitude. I wanted to reply, “All the good players were taken, too!” but let it drop.
It was true, though. We had moved to the Edgewater/Rogers Park area a couple of years before and so had trouble finding the right dates, the right park and the right field house for signing up our son Steve for his first year of organized baseball. We were lucky to get him on a team at all as registration had formally closed a few days before we stood in front of the Park District official who handled the baseball leagues, Steve and three of his friends from the block looking on with hopeful young faces.
“Well,” he said, pushing a faded Sox hat to the back of his almost bald head, “you’re in luck. See, we got a bunch of kids that wasn’t quite enough for a team. Now with these four, we have enough for a sixth team, which is what we was looking for all along.” He smiled.
“That’s great,” I replied.
“So I can contact all these parents that’ve been waiting to hear if we had space for their kids. They’re gonna be very happy.”
“Glad to hear it.”
“By the way, you ever coach tee ball?” he asked as he completed a set of official Park District forms.
“Ever play organized baseball?”
“Ever coach any sport at all?”
He looked up at me and frowned. “Well, we got the players for that sixth team but we got no coaches. The other five teams are all set, but we can’t let these kids of yours play without a manager, can we? How about it?”
“Will I have to manage the team alone?”
“No no no. Not at all. I’ll give you this roster with phone numbers and you can call the other parents and ask for help when you let them know their kids are on a team. Shouldn’t be a problem.”
I soon learned that “The other five teams are all set” meant that team number six, the Indians, would be made up of latecomers like us, and kids no one else wanted. After an hour of practice I figured we had maybe four kids who could actually throw, catch and swing a bat, two who were almost too small to hold a bat, a few who looked athletic enough to pick up the rudiments of the game, the tall boy who I was sure never played baseball before in his life, and a boy named Quentin who had no mitt.
“I forgot it,” he mumbled that first afternoon, staring at his well-worn Keds high tops. His socks didn’t quite match, and I wasn’t sure if his frayed khakis were dirt gray or tan-turned-dirt gray. He wore no cap.
“No problem,” I said. “You can borrow mine today. It’s probably a little too big for you, but better than nothing.”
Quentin smiled, took my mitt, shoved his hand into it, keeping his index finger on the outside, and pounded the pocket. A good sign, I thought. Even if he didn’t own a mitt, maybe he knew how to use one.
On the way home that evening Steve’s mom suggested that we stop at the Venture on Peterson Avenue and pick up a new mitt for the family, one that would be available for team members who might, from time to time, forget their own. To this day, twenty years later, we call that mitt the “Quentin mitt.”
The Park District rules dictated that no score would be tallied during tee ball league games. The kids were on the field to learn the game, sportsmanship and teamwork – not win or lose. Parents and some coaches embraced this philosophy. For instance, our assistant manager Linda, the mother of one of the littler players, told me on the first day that she believed each boy should play every position. I agreed in principle.
After basic throwing, catching and hitting drills one afternoon before our schedule began, we divided the team in two for a practice game. We didn’t keep score, but as we packed up to leave for the day, I overheard two of the kids talking.
“We killed ‘em.”
“Yeah. I think it was, like, twelve to four.”
“Yeah. That’s what I got, too.”
So much for the purity of the game.
A week later we arrived at the park for our first league game. I remembered from my little league years that the best kids played third, first, shortstop, catcher, left and center field. The littlest guys played second so they wouldn’t have to throw the ball too far, and players who couldn’t catch or throw played right field because nobody hit the ball to right field.
Since batters hit off a tee in our league, the pitcher’s position would also be played by either a little kid, or someone who didn’t field too well. Likewise, the catcher didn’t need to catch, so we would play someone there who wouldn’t be challenged too often.
Steve played first. His friend Ben was at third and Ben’s little brother Danny, who was small but skilled, covered the right side of the infield at second base.
The tall boy played right. After a week and a half of drills and tryouts at every position on the field, he was still late to the ball and afraid of it. He said little and never complained. When taught the fundamentals of hitting or catching, mostly “keep your eye on the ball,” he would knit his brows and nod as if he understood, but then tighten up at his position and either weakly wave his mitt at the ball or get out of its way entirely. We would have liked to discuss his lack of progress with a parent, but he always arrived and left alone.
I asked Steve and the boys from the block to make a special effort to include him in the normal joking and joshing around, but the tall boy would remain apart, smiling but not knowing how to accept their overtures.
We played our first game against the best team in the league. We didn’t know this until they pummeled us without mercy, piling up the runs that weren’t supposed to be tallied. There could be no slaughter rule because there was no score, so we suffered through an entire six-inning game of pure humiliation.
As we drove home, Steve and his friends, sitting across the back seat of our brown Taurus wagon, said little until we approached our block on Hermitage Avenue.
“I think we got eight,” said Ben.
“Yeah,” said Steve, “but they got about thirty-eight.”
“Forty-one,” said Danny.
For our second game we moved the players around in the spirit of teaching each kid every position, and got killed again. On the way home, the three depressed buddies said nothing. Maybe this time, I thought, they followed the Park District’s rules and didn’t keep score!
Over the course of the first few games, I learned a few things about tee ball strategy:
ONE. Don’t play your best fielder at third base. It’s a waste of talent. At that age no kid will ever throw anyone out at first from all the way across the diamond.
TWO. As a corollary to item number ONE above, teach your players to hit the ball down the third base line, and never down the first base line, for their best chance of reaching safely.
THREE. Play one of your best fielders at the pitcher’s position. In tee ball a large percentage of batters will be lucky to hit the ball that far, so you’ll want a kid in the middle of the diamond who can field a dribbler and throw accurately to first base.
As we warmed up for our fourth game, Linda suggested that we put a certain kid at first because he hadn’t played there yet.
“The kids want to learn every position,” she said. “They all want to feel important.”
The kid in question was maybe four feet tall and couldn’t catch. Determined that I wasn’t going to drive home again with three kids ready to quit the team and quit the game and maybe look into joining a street gang, I spoke up. “True. But they want to win, too. And I don’t care what the Park District says, those kids are counting runs and they know they’re getting creamed every game. We can’t put that boy at first. He’ll be humiliated.” Linda was taken a little aback, but deferred.
Steve played first base for the entire game. Okay okay, he was the manager’s son and everyone hates that kind of favoritism, but he was also by far and away the best glove on the team. Ben went from third to the mound because he could field a grounder and get it to Steve at first. Danny stayed at second where he was doing just fine. Quentin was getting used to the “Quentin mitt” and could catch the occasional fly to left, and cut off extra base hits and get the ball back into the infield.
We won. After the game the kids stood around our dugout laughing and pushing each other in celebration. The tall boy sat at the end of the bench, watching his teammates.
As the second half of the season progressed, we beat several teams that we had lost to the first time around. During one practice I watched as Steve, Ben and Danny drilled each other with ground balls, and then got several little kids involved. Quentin took the tall boy in hand and gave him pointers on catching fly balls. At one point Ben went into a funk and couldn’t throw to first – a Steve Sax kind of syndrome. Every toss bounced in the dirt in front of Steve and often skirted beyond to the first base bench.
Linda walked up to Ben where he stood on the mound and handed him a ball. “Can you hit the backstop from here?” she asked. Ben looked at her for a moment and then drilled the chain link fence with a heater. “If you can hit the backstop like that, you can throw it to Steve,” she said, and then pointed to our son. “Get it to him. He can catch it.” And from then on he did, and from then on, Steve caught it.
After winning the second to the last game of the year, the kids stood jubilant at our bench, beating the pipe and wire that defined our dugout with bats and fists and mitts. The tall boy stood apart, but smiled and pounded the pocket of his mitt.
Although we kept score in flagrant disobedience of the rules of the league, and knew our own won-and-lost record, there were no official league standings. But by the end of the season we knew who was who, and for our last game we were scheduled to face the same team we played at the beginning of the season – the team that had run up basketball-like numbers against us.
With our key positions set, we had been moving some of the other players around to give them experience and a sense of their own strengths. For this last game I put the tall boy at third base where he would get some fielding opportunities and feel like he was more a part of the action, but would do the least damage.
But the other team’s manager had learned the same lessons I had, and they had several big kids who could aim the ball right down the left field line. I soon realized my mistake. The tall boy couldn’t field a grounder or catch a liner. Anything hit his way went through for an extra base hit.
But we were scoring runs, too. The tall boy plopped one in right center for a double in the fourth, and scored when Ben lined one down the first base line, giving us a two-run lead going into the bottom of the last inning.
Their first batter stepped up to the tee and smashed one past the tall boy. His coach had schooled him well about our weakness at third so he kept running around the bases. Quentin fielded the ball cleanly and made a great throw to the tall boy, but he just couldn’t catch. The ball bounced past him and into foul territory, all the way to the backstop. The hitter ran through third and on to the plate for a home run.
Linda looked at me. She knew. They were going to keep hitting the ball at the tall boy until they won.
I checked my scorebook. The next three hitters were little guys who had trouble making contact. Get them out and it’s over.
The tall boy stayed at third.
It worked. Two routine plays to Ben later and we were one out away from beating the team that had poured it on and laughed at us at the beginning of the season. The kids felt it. They crouched and swayed and beat their mitts and dared the big kids on the other team to hit. The players on our bench stood and screamed incoherent encouragement to the guys on the field.
The next batter dribbled a roller just out of Ben’s reach for an infield single.
“That’s okay,” yelled Linda. “We’ll get the next guy!”
But the next guy got on base when our shortstop threw wildly to first. My fault. I should have told him to step on second for a force.
I looked across the diamond to the other team’s bench and glanced down at my score book. The next two hitters had been on base all day. Linda and I glanced at each other, but I did nothing.
One of their biggest kids strutted to the tee. He squared off to hit the ball right at the tall boy. He reared back, bit his lower lip and wailed. But he was too anxious and hit the tee more than the ball, a loud rubber thrump telling us that we would live to face another hitter, if not win outright. The ball landed between first and the pitcher’s mound, pulling Steve off the bag. The batter had no trouble legging it out for a single.
Bases loaded, two out, tying run on third, winning run on second.
The next batter, a huge boy at least twenty pounds heavier than anyone on our team, including me, walked to the tee with calm confidence. He looked old enough to shave.
Linda stood at the short dugout fence, her arms crossed on the top bar. She looked down and focused on the dirt below her. “This kid has hit to third every time,” she said softly, but what she meant was we had put the tall boy in a spot where no matter what happened, whether we replaced him or let him commit the game-ending error, he would be hurt.
I called time and slowly walked to third base. As the tall boy watched me approach, his shoulders sagged and his face turned ashen. I put my hands on my knees so my eyes would be level with his, and said, “This kid is going to hit it right to you.”
He nodded, curled his lips and crunched his eyes.
“Here’s what you do.”
He nodded again.
“You knock the ball down, pick it up and step on this base.” I pointed to the third base bag. He nodded, made a fist and pounded his mitt, which made me a little nervous because I didn’t want him to try to catch it. “Knock it down; pick it up; step on the base. The runner coming down from second will be out and we’ll win.”
He nodded again. I wasn’t sure he got it, but I patted his shoulder and walked back to the bench, sick to my stomach.
The kids on both benches stood and screamed. Parents, grandparents and siblings howled their encouragement. Passersby on the sidewalk stopped to watch.
The big kid squared off and looked out at left field as if scoping a fairway for a par five drive. He planted his feet on a direct line to the tall boy. He stared at the ball. He lined up his bat, pulled it back high above his shoulder and let it rip, drilling a hard one-hopper right down the third baseline.
In the instant it took for the ball to reach him, I noticed that the tall boy had bent at his waist and assumed the best fielder’s crouch of his short career. He stepped to his right and reaching across his body got his mitt on the ball, playing it like a goalie in a hockey game. The ball plopped to the ground and died right in front of him.
He glanced at me. I nodded and mouthed, “Pick it up.”
He picked it up.
The runner on third was half way to the plate; the runner on second barreled down to third.
The tall boy held the ball and looked at his bench.
“Step on the base! Step on the base! Step on the base!”
Quick as a dart, he tapped the bag with his now scuffed and muddy Nike-clad right foot.
And thus did the Cubs win the World Series.
Okay, so it was only our pitiful tee ball team, but it felt just as miraculous.
The tall boy’s teammates rushed screaming to third base, fifteen delirious ballplayers attacking a shy boy and knocking him to the ground in a heap of “yes” and a world of “you did it!” If they had been big enough they would have lofted him on their shoulders. Instead they buried him with cheers and hugs and slaps on his back.
Many minutes later, we gathered the team together and congratulated them on their rise from the worst team in the league to a team no one could beat, not even the big boys that had poured it on during our first game. We told them that they should all be very proud of what they had accomplished. They responded by asking for a pizza party.
We packed up for the last time. I looked around for the tall boy, but he was gone.