Playful, Pius or Remembered Stuff

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Thursday, September 8, 2011

More baseball lore

When I was a kid I could play baseball all day long, and on more than one occasion I did exactly that.  My first "organized" team was in a playground league at Ladera Park, near Dorsey High School.  We were a scruffy bunch of rubes who just liked the game, even though we stank at playing baseball.  As the season progressed, and we lost every game, some of my friends lost their loyalty to the team or to me or to the institution of baseball itself.  We were not unlike Charlie Brown's team.

The team evolved and new players asked to join.  Inevitably they were an improvement.  Eventually we came to the point that I was the last player from the original ragtag group.  But I didn't want to quit.  It was my team (i.e. it was my name that was registered with the playground organizers as the contact person for this team).  So, since all the new guys were better players, it turned out that no one wanted to play catcher.  Neither did I, but I wanted to play, so I became the catcher.  When Tim McCarver refers to the catcher's gear as "the tools of ignorance", I know with intimacy just what he is talking about.  It's uncomfortable to squat for the whole game.  When the batter just nips the speeding pitch, the ball changes direction just a tad, and that is enough for it to miss my glove and hit me.  When opposing runners are trying to score, and someone pegs the ball to me, it never comes into my glove.  It frequently hits the dirt just in front of the plate, raises a cloud of dust, and I have to try to snag the ball and make the play.  It all looks so simple on TV, but it's not.  I ate a lot of dust, and took a few hits from sliding runners, and if I didn't succeed in tagging him out, my team mates would get all over my case for not making the play.  That was my introduction to organized baseball.

The playground announced that there would be a baseball clinic for us to attend, and a local celebrity would be there.  It was Billy Schuster, who played shortstop for the Cubs, and then for the triple A Pacific Coast League "Los Angeles Angels".  He was known to be a clown, as many ball players seem to be.  I went to the clinic, and learned tips on throwing, catching and batting.  It was the basics that I needed to learn.

Billy Schuster told us the following story.  There was this guy we'll call "Joe" who played for a professional team.  This team was making a tour of small communities and playing against the local men and boys all across the country.  (They did that in the old days before the Major Leagues moved west.)  Well, as the story goes, the team visited a town so bush league that the ball park didn't even have fences. When the batter hit the ball hard enough it might roll for 600 feet or more while the batter rounded the bases.  The outfield melded into desert landscape with mesquite and tumbleweed bushes dotting the landscape.  Joe played center field, and didn't want to get stuck in that position.  Joe had an idea.  Early in the morning of game day he took a bag of baseballs out to the park, and carefully hid one behind each bush he thought might be useful.

Well, game time arrived, and Joe was ready to surprise the local yokels.  And it worked very well.  Some big cowboy would drive that ball between fielders and start running.  But Joe just reached behind a bush and tossed the planted ball to the infield, holding the runner to one or two bases.  This worked without a hitch for 6 innings.  But the local cowboys were hitting well, and Joe's pitcher was not one of the club's premium players.  Finally it happened.  Joe chased another line drive to left-center, and when he reached behind the bush he found that ball had already been used.  He tried the next bush with the same disappointment.  The runner was rounding second at full speed, and Joe had to do something to stop him.  The next bush was a real surprise to Joe because when he reached behind the bush, his hand grabbed a rabbit by the ears.  Here he was looking at this little rabbit in his hand while the runner was rounding third, heading for home.  Joe thought, "What the heck.  I've got to do something."  So he tossed that little bunny into the infield.  The shortstop relayed him to the catcher, and guess what!  The runner was out by a hare!

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