The summer of 1981 featured numerous big events—baseball was on strike for 49 days, leaving lots of fans wondering what to do; Raiders of the Lost Ark, For Your Eyes Only and Arthur were raking in the bucks on the big screen; Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II were both recovering from assassination attempts; and “Bette Davis Eyes” blasted out of car stereos everywhere. But for 11-year-old Steven Raymond Reynolds, the summer of ’81 meant humiliation, pain, taunting and disrespect from adults—all in the name of Little League.
Now I liked baseball as much as any 11-year-old kid did. I started collecting cards in 1977, spurred on by my grandfather Ray. Ray Reynolds was a hard working man throughout his whole life. He spent over 30 years working for the New York State Department of Transportation, sweating over blacktop in the summer and spending long hours plowing the voluminous amounts of snow that fell over the Berkshires each winter. Beyond that job, he worked weekends and evenings as a caretaker at the estate of city stockbroker, breaking his back pulling weeds, planting flowers and vacuuming the pool.
So when he actually had time off, he liked to watch other people work hard, hence his love of baseball. He was a Dodgers fan to the core, and when I started showing interest in baseball (my first TV memory is watching Henry Aaron’s 715th home run), he tried to instill that same Dodgers passion in me. While I did root for them in the playoffs and World Series, I somehow became a fan of baseball’s other lovable losers—the New York Mets and Boston Red Sox, just because we could actually see their games on broadcast TV once in a while. (Of course, picking those teams was just the first of a long line of misguided decisions, but that’s a story for another time.)
In the end, my grandfather didn’t care who I rooted for or against. He was just happy that he could share his passion for baseball with me. I was raised by my grandparents and my aunt, and since my grandfather was retired by the time I became passionate about baseball (and, more importantly, baseball cards) he would always drive me to Zayre’s to get cards and some candy for both of us. (Gee, thanks for the lifelong gut, Gramps.) As I look back on that time, I also think my grandfather liked to come up with reasons to drive me around just to get away from his domineering bitch of a wife, my grandmother Emma. When people tell me I have a rather loud voice, I feel like telling them it’s because yelling was the only way to talk to my grandmother. She yelled at my grandfather for ruining my diet, for buying those “useless pieces of paper,” for being late for dinner, for messing up the house and heck, she probably yelled at him for causing the Vietnam War for all I know. This woman loved yelling seven days a week, and as she got older she lost her hearing, so yelling became the trendiest thing we did in our house.
My grandfather died in late 1978, and I’ve always wondered if it really was his heart finally giving out, or that his ears just couldn’t take that loud piercing voice anymore. So when the 1979 baseball season rolled around, my aunt Joyce picked up the sports slack, allowing me to spend my allowance on baseball cards each week. And my grandmother played her part as well, coming up with multiple versions of the word “stupid” to describe my card habit. And that little drama triangle was played to perfection for the next two years.
Then in May 1981 my aunt hit upon a great way for me to lose weight—why just watch baseball when you could be out there playing it with kids my own age? Why be immersed in stats on the back of the cards when I could make some of my own? At the age of 11, I was certain of a few things: The Empire Strikes Back was the greatest movie ever; Legos could only be taken apart with your teeth; The Beatles’ Red Album was the best album ever...and I was horrible athlete. Every single gym class where teams had to be picked, I was always last picked. And with good reason—I couldn’t kick, I couldn’t hit, I couldn’t shoot and I couldn’t even block, even though I outweighed most of the kids in my class.
Yet my aunt saw me crush the wiffleball when I played with my cousins in the backyard, so she thought I could be a great hitter. (Those great eye-hand coordination skills were better used once I got an Atari the next year.) So one night over dinner she announced that she was going to take me to the little league tryouts the next night. I barely had a chance to register my shock when my grandmother offered up some helpful advice: “He can’t hit, he can’t throw, he can’t run. The best thing he could do is maybe eat the ball.” (Wait, I think I meant to say she offered up some painful insults. Yeah, that’s more like it.)
Undaunted by my grandmothers’ criticism (which, in hindsight, I think was delivered at a volume that would drown out the planes flying over Shea), my aunt took me to the tryouts the next night. Hillsdale was a small town, with a population of just barely 800 people, with one traffic light, one supermarket, one liquor store and two thriving bars. (What else are you going to do in rural upstate New York?) So the “tryouts” were basically “show up and we’ll get your kid on the team.” And befitting such a poor town (even though there were plenty of city folks with big summer houses in the town), the Hillsdale little league field looked as though someone designed it to be a living cliché of a piss poor field. Home plate had cracks in it, and if any of us kids really learned how to slide we could have broken it in two. Centerfield was so brown and devoid of grass that I thought it was a reasonable facsimile of the desert planet in Star Wars. And the backstop must have been used in a Rustoleum ad to show what happens in the rain when you didn’t use that all-powerful aerosol can to protect your metal.
But the field had nothing on the rough shape of our coach, who immediately made me think of that drunk guy from The Tonight Show, Foster Brooks, crossed with an overweight version of Tom Selleck on Magnum P.I. Coach van Alston (I never heard his first name the entire season) seemed to slur his words when he welcomed us to little league, and continuously rubbed his moustache as if he was going to find some leftover food (a leftover meatball, perhaps?) buried in its immense bushiness. (And when I turned 17 I realized my Foster Brooks analogy was spot on, as when I got my first smell and swig of whiskey I immediately thought of Coach van Alston and the way he smelled during our Thursday night games.)
I never understood why this man was our coach. None of his kids played on the team. As he was running the tryouts I’m pretty sure he actually dozed off—while standing straight up. I think I saw his brain attempt to crawl out of his ear whenever he was talking with a parent about their child. His assistant coach, Mr. Albright, wasn’t much better of a role model. He looked like he never met a doughnut he didn’t like (which I guess made him my role model) and couldn’t hit ground balls to our infielders any better than I could.
With all this talent supporting me at the tryouts, you can draw only one conclusion—I was HORRIBLE. Any nuances of the game those two “teachers” passed along during that two hour initial tryout went in one ear and out the other. I could grasp any math problem in seconds, had an unhealthy interest in history for someone so young and could easily sing the lyrics to almost any Top 40 hit from 1973 to the present day, yet none of these skills helped as I swung at the first pitch from Mr. Albright…and forgot to hang onto the bat after I swung. That aluminum bat flew about 20 feet, hitting the backstop first and then clanging onto the ground. Every parent stopped in the tracks and immediately looked to make sure their child wasn’t hit by that flying hunk of metal. I learned how to hang onto the bat quickly after that, not that I made any contact. With each miss I racked up, Mr. Albright threw slower, then slower and then delivered what could only be described as an “eephus” pitch. I swung so hard at that one I twisted like a corkscrew and fell right to the ground.
As I picked myself up off the ground I heard the chuckles of my soon-to-be teammates, Coach van Alston walked over to me and said—with a hint of disgust or bemused resignation, I’m not exactly sure which—“That’s okay, kid. We’ll use you as a defensive replacement.” Unfortunately for both of us, coach had seen me attempt to catch fly balls. I never failed to lose sight of the ball when it was at its highest point and ended up using my glove to protect my face more than a place where the ball could safely land. Alas, we were a small town, so everyone made the team.
As the season got underway, I was rightfully buried at the end of the bench, the sixth outfielder on team that probably only needed four. Even with the less-than-professional coaching, our team somehow started out well, going 6 and 2 in our first eight games. I contributed by, well, keeping splinters out of the asses of my more talented teammates. My aunt would always hope I would get into the game, yet she didn’t seem that surprised when I rode the bench all the way through the 7th inning. She knew I stunk, yet would always put a positive spin on it. And she was popular with the other parents, and even ended up umpiring our eighth game when the other umpire couldn’t make it. “Great,” I thought. “My aunt has spent more time on the field than I have.” (She was so successful that night that someone that ran the league asked her to umpire a couple of other games, and then she ended up working the All-Star game we had against one of the other leagues in our county. The ribbing I got for that was a perfect exclamation point on the entire summer.)
At the beginning of July, I caught my lucky break. Two of our backup outfielders were going on vacation over a two week span, so only one kid stood between me and my first appearance in the field. And during a game against Copake my chance came. We were up by four runs, so in the top of the seventh Coach van Alston came over to my usual spot on the bench and said, “Reynolds (buuuuurp), you’re going in into right field.” I grabbed my glove and sprinted out to my position. And then I realized I had NO IDEA how to play my position. I had stopped paying attention in practices at that point when I realized Coach van Alston was more interested in seeing how many Marlboros he could smoke around a bunch of kids in an hour. I started panicking. How do I catch the ball? If it rolls on the ground to me, who do I throw it to? Do I have to crash into that fence behind me? What if I have to go to the bathroom?
“Hey, get on in here!”
I snapped out of my panicky daydream to see that our pitcher had struck out the side and that the game was over. Whew, I dodged a bullet there.
The next game I didn’t play, which left us with only one more game where we didn’t have the full outfield. We were playing Ancram on our home field. Ancram was led by pitcher Nicky Dolan, who shared the same age as I did, but that was about it. Nicky seemed to be seven feet tall, had huge arms and legs, longish hair and generally looked like the size of Chewbacca to me. Nicky not only had a wicked fastball, but he also had the pitch we had all heard about—the curveball. We were battling Nicky’s team for the league lead, so I was convinced that I was never going to get into this game.
When we got to the field, Coach van Alston said to me, “Tom’s not feeling well, so you’re our fourth outfielder tonight.” I never felt so nauseous so quickly. I definitely was going in if we changed pitchers, which meant I’d probably have to face Nicky. Uh-oh. This did not sound good at all. My usual summer sweating kicked up to a level that could have flooded our entire town. I spent each inning watching my teammates flail at Nicky’s Nolan Ryan-esque fastball and his God-like curve for five innings. In the top of the sixth Ancram broke the pitchers’ duel, roughing up our ace Garret for three runs and making the score 4-1. So coach changed pitchers, sending in Richie, who was in right field, to pitch the rest of the game, and sending me out to my own field of nightmares.
Richie struck out the last Ancram batter, so we went into the bottom of the sixth down by three. As I sat on the bench, Mr. Albright said, “Steve, grab a helmet and a bat, you’re leading off.”
Defending my precious head from a towering fly ball with a glove was one thing; having a ball thrown directly at me was NOT what I signed up for. But my aunt was excited to see me up at the plate—she even had her camera out. So I licked my lips (which strangely felt like sandpaper), put a helmet on and grabbed the lightweight red bat that none of my teammates liked to use. With each step to the plate Nicky grew six inches taller, until he finally was tall enough to block out the fading sunlight. I stepped into the batter’s box hoping for one thing—that it would a quick embarrassment for me. Most of my other teammates looked pretty bad swinging at this guy’s pitches, so I figured my incompetence would blend right in.
I stared at Nicky, wiggling my bat from side to side because I thought it looked cool, waiting for that first pitch. When I saw it leave his hand I thought, “Wait, I can hit this.” So I swung. HARD. And missed. HARD. So hard that the bat yet again flew out of my hands—and right past Nicky. My teammates laughed, as they had seen my batting prowess before during practice. But Nicky, well, he looked PISSED. He had a look of, “How dare you try to show me up?” I wanted to yell out, “I’m sorry—can I just go sit on the bench now?” Mr. Albright ran onto the field, picked up the bat and brought it back to me. He said just three words to me: “Hang onto this,” and grumbled on his way back to the coach’s box.
I stepped back into the batter box and thought, “Okay, I’m not going to swing. Just throw two strikes and I will be out of your way forever.” Nicky looked in at me, and I knew he was going to throw a 100 mph fastball. What I didn’t expect is that he’d want to throw it so hard that he gripped it so tightly that the ball slipped out of his hand at the last second—and headed directly for me. Now I didn’t think he would throw at me on purpose; I mean, this kid had pinpoint control for a little league pitcher. His team was cruising. There was no need to settle a score. All these thoughts blinked across my brain, followed by, “Holy crap, I better move.”
The 128 mph fastball nailed me as I was trying to turn away, hitting me directly at the top of the spine. I felt like I’d been shot by a high-powered cannon. I was out for just a few seconds, and then rolled over to see my aunt with an extremely worried look on her face—and a look on Coach van Alston face’s that said, “Crap, I hope I don’t get sued for this.” My aunt was a nurse, so she looked at where the ball had hit me and asked me if I could feel everything. And of course I could, especially the hundred eyes looking at me in the dirt surrounding home plate. After a couple of minutes I finally staggered to my feet to take my base. Coach van Alston said, “Good job getting on base kid,” and then—and I swear he did this—gave me a couple of pats on the back where I had just been hit.
When I reached first base I looked at Nicky, who was talking with Ancram’s coach. And he looked as if he’d just left a showing of Friday the 13th Part 2. He was as white as Jason Voorhees’ hockey mask (before all the blood got splattered on it), nervously shifting his feet and kicking the dirt mound. My teammate that followed me to the plate was this big kid named Ricky who I rode the school bus with every day. Any coach with half a brain would have taken Nicky out, but Ancram’s coach came from the old school—sports are not for crybabies. Nicky wasn’t crying, but his mean mound demeanor was certainly gone. His first pitch to Ricky was in the dirt. The second Ricky crushed for a home run. I started running when I heard the “ping”—and immediately fell down, bringing laughter from both teams. I got back up and started running again, but then realized that I could jog home because that ball was never coming back.
Alas, we didn’t win the game. The Ancram coach replaced Nicky with his younger brother, and he shut us down in order to close it out. I didn’t play another inning the rest of the season. We finished second in our league to Ancram, with no help from me. (Even though I did have a perfect on base percentage.) When we lost our final game to Ancram, I distinctly remember overhearing Nicky saying, “Well, at last they didn’t put in that loser in right field. He couldn’t get out of the way of his own shadow.” I was never happier to leave a ball field than that day. I knew, as did my aunt, that I did not belong anywhere within the confines of a baseball diamond. My love of the game was destined to lead me some place more comfortable than right field—the upper deck at Shea.
Steve Reynolds is the co-editor of Zisk, and admits that he probably couldn’t hit a fastball thrown by any 11-year-old today.