Why are the MLB playoffs one of the few remaining American civic rituals not ruined by our current, culture-swallowing obsession with partisan politics? Maybe it’s because we realize that, like Lincoln’s “Mystic Chords of Memory,” the game’s legacy still helps bind our fractious nation. Lou Gehrig’s courage, Hank Aaron’s power, Willie Mays’ grace, Jackie Robinson’s heroism, Cal Ripken’s grit, Roberto Clemente’s magnanimity comprise much of what’s left of our unquestioned American pantheon.
I’ve never played a down of organized baseball, but I’ve always loved the game for its heroes and also because so many of my own indelible memories are wrapped around it: My father and I in a cheap Dallas hotel slapping each other on the back as Reggie hit homers on three consecutive pitches from three different pitchers in the ‘77 Series: Standing at Shea Stadium in reverent silence as an aged, pigeon-toed Say Hey Kid slowly trotted out to center field: Our beloved Astros defying their carved-in-stone choker heritage and pulling off an incredible win in the seventh game of the ’17 World Series.
While I never played organized ball, I did have a brush with it almost 25 years ago when I volunteered to announce my five-year old son’s T-Ball games over the field PA system.
Matt was on the Braves, so I’d always welcome the fans to the friendly confines of Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium. Because the games were only five innings long, I instituted a second inning stretch, and my eight-year old daughter, Erin, would lead the fans in a merry rendition of Take Me Out To The Ball Game. I also gave each player fearsome nicknames as I announced their at-bats: “And now, striding up to the plate, Matt “The King of Ding” Merkl!” There were also “The Princess of Power”, “The Baron of Bonk”, “The Czar of Far”, and my personal favorite, “The Ayatollah of Bye-Bye Ballah”.
The next year, the league called asking if I’d volunteer to coach T-Ball. I told them I didn’t know the first thing about playing baseball, but they were desperate, so I reluctantly agreed to coach Matt’s Dodgers. Panicked, I made a beeline for the library where I spent hours researching how to properly swing a bat, field grounders, slide, run the bases, and, well… play baseball. Wisely, I also asked Jim, a world-weary friend who’d actually played Little League, to be my assistant coach.
On Opening Day, the Dodgers all showed up looking very professional in their brand-new uniforms and stiff gloves. I noticed, however, that for some reason their baseball shoes all seemed to be levitating just above the ground, like Luke’s Landspeeder. Apparently, none of them weighed enough for their cleats to penetrate the sunbaked Corpus Christi ball field. I pointed this out to Jim, who mumbled, “If we lose today, it’s not going to be for want of traction.”
As the game settled in, I began to imagine myself as Billy Martin managing the mighty Yankees. I casually slung my arm over the dugout rail and worked a chaw of Dubble Bubble while plotting intricate game strategies. But, my reverie was shattered when I noticed that all my outfielders were running around together in crazy circles, then piling on top of each other, only to get back up and repeat the process, like a flock of deranged birds.
I turned to Jim, who was sitting on the bench with his head in his hands, and asked, “What the heck is going on out there?”
Through his hands, Jim muttered, “Butterfly.”
“Oh.” I stopped chewing and removed my arm from the dugout rail.
The game turned out to be a tight one. With 2 outs in the bottom of the fifth and nobody on base, the score was tied.
Our next batter somehow drilled a line drive into right field and jetted around the bases sliding just under the tag at third for an amazing triple. The crowd exploded, and the other team’s coach rushed out from their dugout to argue the call with the ump. Meanwhile, their third baseman and my runner – completely oblivious to the tumult surrounding them – were happily showing each other cool Hot Wheels that they had both somehow managed to sneak onto the field.
I knew that Billy Martin would have charged toward third and maniacally joined in, arms flailing and feet kicking dirt on the ump. As I shot off the bench, Jim, staring straight ahead, hissed,” If you take one step out of this dugout, you’ll never see me again.” I sheepishly sat back down.
Somehow, we managed to finish second that year, a fact that was completely lost on the Dodgers who were only interested in goofing around with each other in the dugout and free ice pops after the games.
It may not seem like much to people who actually played baseball, but it’s a rare week that I don’t smile remembering my time coaching the mighty Dodgers.