|The glove I bought at Retz Sporting Goods to try out for Muncie Southside's baseball team in 1977. I still have it and it hangs on a wall in our home.|
I fell in love with baseball during the World Series of 1972. Before then, I knew about the game. My dad taught me how to throw and catch at a young age, but for some reason it didn’t catch on with me until I was ten years old and was watching the Series at my Uncle Clint’s house. It was a sort of turning point in my childhood. Funny the random things you can remember.
Not only did I fall in love with baseball, but I also fell in love with the Cincinnati Reds.
By the following June, I had practically memorized the entire roster, their batting averages or ERAs, number of homeruns, and even the stolen bases. Johnny Bench became my hero with Pete Rose, Tony Perez, and Joe Morgan close behind. Not only did I love to listen to them on WLBC on those warm summer evenings in the backyard, or catch them on TV once in a while on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, but I became determined to become one of them.
I became determined to become a Cincinnati Red.
I just knew that one day Marty Brennaman would be calling my name and ole Joe Nuxall would be interviewing me after the game….before “the old left-hander rounded third and headed for home.”
So, I began to work on my skills every chance I got.
First was playing catch with dad. That was sometimes problematic because he worked nights or afternoons and often wasn’t around to work with me…and, when he was, he wasn’t always the most patient. One time, we were on the back walk tossing the ball back and forth. His back was to the back gate and the garage. My back was to the house…the house with my mom’s bedroom window above my left shoulder and our basement window behind my left leg.
Dad said: “You better make sure you catch this ball because if you miss and it breaks a window, I’m gonna beat your butt.” (He didn’t say “butt.”)
His next throw was low and to my left. It slipped under my glove and made quick work of the basement window.
I think he knew it was his fault with an errant throw because despite his cussing and yelling, he didn’t beat my….uh….butt. He just fixed the window.
Second, there was playing ball with all the neighbor kids in Cecil’s field. I’ve mentioned this field before in a previous story, but it was an open field that took up the center of the space between Cecil French’s house on 21st Street and Odie Belle’s house on 22nd Street. It was about three normal lots wide and seemed huge to me at the time. I go back now and wonder how we ever played any kind of baseball in that small space. Most of my buddies preferred football, but fairly often I could talk them into baseball.
When sixth grade came to a close, I got my first real taste of organized baseball. It was the Buddy Closed League...or was that Buddy Open?..., and Roosevelt Elementary had a team. Real baseball at last. Real fast pitch. Actually nine players on the field and a whole field too. I couldn’t wait. My pal Tony and I signed up.
For practice, we went to the ball diamond behind Roosevelt. I can’t remember my coach's name, only that he was huge…way overweight...rotund. He would stand at home plate and hit balls to us, but didn't move around too much. He had a couple of guys helping him, and one of them was a real player. We were so impressed with that guy because he could pick up the ball in deep center field and throw a strike at home plate. Wow! Of course, to us it was “deep center.” To him, it was probably more like just behind second base.
For games, we met our opponents at TV field. The baseball diamond behind the WLBC radio station, sort of between 26th and 29th streets. I would ride my red Schwinn Stingray bike to the games, and I can still remember the first one very well. I wasn’t chosen to be a starter…I just knew that was a mistake….and one day my coach would regret it…because I was going to be a Red someday. Instead, I warmed the bench.
We were terrible. We were getting blown out. It got down to the last inning they were going to let us play and we had zero runs…
Coach: “Okay, Mike. Go in and pitch hit.”
The adrenaline shot through me! I was going to bat…in a real game…against somebody throwing fast pitches…and with an umpire calling balls and strikes! I wasn’t worried though because I knew I could hit…I always hit the ball really well in Cecil’s field.
I don’t know what the ball/strike count was when I took my cut. I just remember that the ball kind of dropped and I whacked it! My friend Robert Bertram told me later: “Mike, that ball dropped like it fell off a table, but you hit it!” Yes, I did! I hit it hard into left center, high and deep. It wasn’t a homerun, but it ended up being a good double. And it was the first real hit we had gotten. Two batters later, I sprinted for home from third base and slid in on my backside to score our first run.
We didn’t win that game, but I had sparked a little rally where we scored three or four runs. After that, I was the primary pinch hitter. I don’t think I ever out did that first at bat, but it was cool to realize that my coach had some confidence in me.
Unfortunately, that season was the highlight of my baseball career.
In seventh grade, I moved up to Wilson Middle School. This school was much larger and pulled kids from several elementary schools. I had a lot more competition, but I was still determined…and I still knew I was going to be playing in Cincinnati someday…so, I tried out. I wasn’t without some skill and I did pretty well in tryouts, so when the first exhibition scrimmage game was arranged, I was asked to participate.
Two terrible things happened in that scrimmage game. First, I went up to bat and got a walk. Not too bad, right? Well, it was all good until I got caught looking the wrong way and got picked off first base. Second, I was playing third base…my position of choice at the time…and some kid hit a little pop up between third and home. It was my ball to catch. An easy one. A no-brainer. I had one problem: Nerves! It seemed that someone had nailed my feet to the third base line. I froze! It was like someone had taken liquid nitrogen and sprayed me with it just as the kid swung the bat. I watched the ball go up. I saw it sail in my direction. I watched it fall easily to the ground.
I was cut from the team the next day.
Oh well. That was disappointing, but I was an optimist. There’s always next year, I thought.
That was positive thinking, but the seventh grade coach was the assistant eight grade coach, and apparently he had a pretty good memory. Despite the fact that I did pretty well in the 8th grade tryouts, and made very few mistakes, I got cut again the next year.
Now, all along, I still kept working on my skills any way I could. My dad even got me one of those Pitch-Backs. It was a taunt net inside a metal frame. You’d throw the ball at it and the net would throw it right back. I spent many hours in the back yard throwing at that thing and fielding its return tosses. I was still determined. I may have been cut at Wilson, but what did they know? I’d make the team at Southside!
Spring of my freshman year rolled around and I tried out again. This time, the workouts were a lot harder. Lots of running. Weight-lifting. Batting cages. Overall, I didn’t do too bad. I don’t recall any glaring mistakes. But, I had even more competition…from even more schools that fed into the high school. Ultimately, I think they looked at me and saw a kid who didn’t really excel, and who didn’t play in middle school, and decided to use someone else. I was cut for the third year in a row.
One other detail to share was that I had been a “manager” for the Wilson 8th grade football team and the 8th grade track team the year before. A manager is a glorified servant. I carried equipment. I carried water. I cleaned up after the players. One year of that was enough.
So, when I got cut in 9th grade at Southside, Coach Lewis came up to me after the roster was posted and my name wasn’t on it and said: “Mike, we need a team manager. If you’ll be the manager, you can hang with the team and do some practicing, and maybe you can become a player next year.”
I’d had enough with being the flunky waterboy. I asked my mom to tell me that I couldn’t do it so I could tell the coach that my parents said no. She complied and I told the coach that “Mom said no.” (I’m pretty sure that Coach Lewis was sharp enough to see through such a lame excuse.)
Anybody else would have thrown in the towel already, but not me. I decided to try out again in 10th grade. After all, Johnny Bench was once cut from his high school team. Surely, I thought, the coach will see my abilities and add me to the team the next year.
I wish this story had a happy ending. I tried out four years in a row and I got cut four years in a row. After being cut in the spring of 1978, I finally gave up baseball as a career and took up girls as a hobby, and here’s another way that my life turned in the summer of 1978.
I have often wondered how my life would have been different if I hadn’t been picked off of first base and if I’d caught that pop fly between third and home in that scrimmage game in 7th grade. I really think that I would have made that team. If I'd played in 7th, I would have played in 8th grade too. If I had the extra experience in middle school and all the extra practice, I could very well have made the high school team. Who knows where it would have gone from there? Cooperstown? Well, a guy can dream, can’t he?
Anyway, I went on to have a pretty doggone good life without baseball. I continued to follow the Reds until the strike of 1994, and then I gave up on baseball altogether. The little boy who could name the whole roster has grown into a man who can’t even name a single player today. That’s sort of sad, I think.
However, I replaced my idol of baseball with more important things. I focused on growing in my faith in God as a teenager, and ultimately that led me to meet the woman who would become my wife and the mother of my children. While things have not been always perfect and I’ve made some mistakes along the way, I’ve really lived a pretty wonderful life over all.
All’s well that ends well.
Still, there are days when I have fleeting thoughts of how nice it would have been if I could have experienced that dream of having a baseball card with my face on it.