Timmy was a great shortstop –he could go to his left like nobody’s business– but had no power at the plate; Mike was all bulk, a natural-born RBI guy, so we stuck him on first. I could motivate in either direction and had a whip-like arm but without the oomph needed to scream one in from the outfield: second base was my spot.
Same with the rest of the neighborhood kids – everybody fitted in naturally at some position. Some kids could play more than one position. Or I remember one kid we put the mask on, handed him the pillow, and stuck him behind the plate to keep him from screwing up too badly.
To start with everybody had a turn pitching. It was the only way to discover who was good. The neighborhood diamond was located in a field owned by the parish church; it had a good back-stop and an actual grass outfield, so we almost forgave it’s concrete-like dirt infield. The field had a home plate permanently affixed, but there was no discernible mound so three of us paced off 60 feet and then split the difference.. Frank’s dad had an old nearly white rubber that we nailed in with appropriated tent spikes and we were good to go.
Most of us had no delivery to speak of and others aped their hero’s, or their dads’. Frank Belsen did this weird Ewell Blackwell submarine style that nearly brought his nose to the mound, but he had no pep on it so the ball got smacked around pretty good. No one else had a significant stylish delivery, though everyone thought they were emulating Stan Musial or Warren Sphan or Whitey Ford. My uncle had taught me three pitches – a two seamed fastball, a fork ball (all in the wrist snap) and a curve. I threw “well” enough that I got into the rotation occasionally, but mostly I stayed on second.
And this is how the neighborhood pickup games went for a couple of summers.
Then a new kid moved in. He found the diamond quickly enough and sat watching from behind the back-stop. After the morning’s first game we ambled over and everybody said hey and started talking. Mark was from Nebraska and his dad has just changed jobs so hello Kansas City. More importantly Mark was a pitcher, that’s what he said. Said that was his primary position and he was good at it, too. Jay handed Mark his mitt and ball and said “So go pitch.”
Mark didn’t blow us away but we didn’t hit him either. He didn’t seem to have any stuff, but we kept swinging over the ball, or ahead of it. Mike’s second time up he hammered one pretty good, a round tripper, but the rest of us were lucky to get an outfield flair or a seeing-eye single.
So, yeah – we had found our pitcher.
Which was fine with Mark – he liked being a pitcher. Pitcher was the premier position, like a quarterback, or maybe being Richard Petty. Girls knew you were the pitcher, even girls who didn’t like baseball. It was a big deal. And Mark liked that part real fine. He strutted around like a rooster and crowed about how well he pitched. But when he didn’t pitch well, which as it turned out, was most of the time, it didn’t bother him. In the middle of a horrid outing he often had a smile on his face as though the whole game was just a lark, some prank he was playing on everyone, nothing to get upset about. Well, it bothered us – baseball was sacred and meant to be played that way. Worse, we had brought this on ourselves; we had made Mark our pitcher.
Next summer we moved into 3 & 2 ball. At try-outs everyone said what positions they played and if they could play another one. The coaches set a quick roster and we played 500, with the obvious sluggers working against 4 or 5 pitchers. Mark had told them he was a pitcher so he came in the third “inning” behind a lefty from Raytown. And he stunk. He couldn’t find the plate, his fastball wasn’t and his curve just flattened itself belt high over the middle of the plate. They coaches had to pull him early cause they didn’t have enough little kids to go climb the fences to bring back the balls.
The guys weren’t surprised; other than that one time when he ate our lunch last summer this was Mark the pitcher we knew. Mostly we felt bad for him – he wasn’t going to make a team, and in those days if you weren’t playing ball you weren’t anybody. Most of the guys ended up playing for Kroger’s, though Frank and I caught on with Mr. Henry’s A & P. Somehow Mark caught on with the Safeway team as a reliever. Good luck with that, we thought.
It was one of those leagues were all 6 teams played each other, I think four times. So I got to hit against Mark a couple three times when their starter’s arm went. And it was weird cause mostly I beat him like a drum, knocking the ball all over the park – the kid didn’t have a thing, he was no pitcher. But one time he started and was near unhittable. How did that work?
And that’s how it went. As we moved through junior high and then high school ball, as we laddered up divisions in 3 & 2 (and some into Legion ball), Mark would always tell everyone he was a pitcher and he would always end up penciled in as such and in almost every game we would hit him like he stole something, except that once a summer he’d come close to throwing a no-no.
Eventually reality settled in –we weren’t going to The Show. We were too slow, too big, couldn’t go to our left; our arm was too weak, our bat speed was lacking, we couldn’t go to our right.
Life moved on.
But sometimes I wondered, unlikely as it might be, whether Mark would make it into the Bigs – he was sure convinced he would. What would The Show do to a pitcher like Mark?
Then last night, out of the blue, I got the answer.