Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Little Red Machine


After blogging about Eldest's baseball experience (as well as mine as an assistant coach), I decided to write about my five years playing organized baseball as a kid. Long ago (the mid-1990s), I wrote about two of these seasons, so I will dig those up and transcribe/edit/add/revise when I post on those two seasons. This post will be about my first season, in 1978 on the Reds.

We had moved into our new house in 1977, and my new friends, especially Marc, loved baseball and collected baseball cards. Even before we had moved that spring, I was started to become interested in baseball, so my interest exploded that summer. I had played basketball for two seasons at Norwood Park, so my father signed me up for t-ball in the spring of 1978 and bought me a glove (mass-autographed by Mickey Rivers!). I was placed on the Reds.

The team was coached by a couple teenagers, including the older brother of one of my teammates. I don't remember many of my other teammates, except we had a big third-grader named Kyle who was our power hitter and we also had a couple girls on the team. Did we win more games than we lost? I don't really remember, nor do I remember if I was a good hitter off the tee or not. I don't think I stunk, but I'm sure I didn't hit it that far considering how small I was when I was 7.

I do remember a play in my first game. I was playing right field, a kid hit a grounder through the infield, it came to me, I picked it up and threw it to Kyle and got the kid out. I didn't know that outfielders don't normally throw out runners at first, but I guess I was just paying attention enough to throw it to first instead of second. A decade later, I saw Andre Dawson do this for the Cubs -- surely he got the idea from a heads-up t-ball player years earlier!

I liked to play catcher that season, which was mildly useless in t-ball. I think I just liked putting all the equipment (kind of similar to Eldehttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifst right now, but at least he has to try to catch the ball). I remember two notable misplays from my time behind the plate. Once, the batter (who I recognized from basketball at Norwood Park) hit the ball, started to run right as I stood up to get into the infield, and I accidentally tripped him. Oops, catcher's interference, and a pretty severe interference at that. The other play was one a ball got hit right in front of the plate. I picked the ball up, but instead of tagging the batter with the ball or the ball in my glove, I just tagged him with my hand. I didn't realize that didn't work to get someone out. I figured, if I'm holding a ball and step on a base before the runner gets there, he's out, so why can't I simply touch the runner since I'm connected to the ball?

Our last game of the season was to be played at Thillens Stadium (we actually got two; I'll explain more later). Thillens was the highlight of the season -- an actual baseball stadium with, as our coaches put it, a beautiful sandy field (in reality, it was just groomed like a professional diamond, but I had the image of a beach before I got to play there) -- quite a difference from the t-ball fields at Norwood Park, including one behind the field house on which the league put a fence up in right, not for possible homers, but to protect kids from running into a group of trees (I looked up the park on Google Maps -- the trees are still in right field!). Most of the individual park baseball leagues had a Thillens day -- usually the last day of the season, culminating with the championship game (I doubt we even had playoffs in t-ball, but for older kids, playing for the title at Thillens was amazing -- more on thttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifhat in another post).

Thillens was as good and fun as advertised. We played games on both diamonds there, and in our last game I was so into the game, waiting on deck a patted a teammate on the backside to wish him luck. I saw Major League players do it all the time, so why couldn't a kid who loved baseball do so as well? I felt a little embarrassed after I saw my coaches laughing, and I haven't done it since.

We played two Thillens games that year because of a tragedy that happened in an older baseball division at Norwood Park. A 10-year-old boy was sliding at home, took a relay throw from the pitcher right in the chest, and basically, his heart exploded. He collapsed and never woke up. (After Googling the kid's name, I found a description of what happened that night written by his older sister; I hope she won't mind me linking to it.) The league was in shock; the whole city was in shock. I don't know how much my parents and coaches told me about what happened, but the tragedy was in on the news and in the Tribune. For years in the Norwood Park trophy case, a tribute to Bobby Roggatz was displayed (I wonder if it's still there). The Thillens family was so moved by the tragedy that it gave Norwood Park an extra day in the stadium.

I thoroughly enjoyed my first year of organized baseball, and the tragedy a boy dying at home plate didn't dampen it. I'm not sure if, at age 7, I didn't quite understand the implications of a kid dying on a routine play, or maybe if I did get shielded by it enough by my parents. The freak accident didn't make me want to play baseball any less -- I didn't come away afraid (playing baseball would scare eventually scare me, however). But 33 years later, that tragedy is what I remember first from that season.

The incorrect tag is second.

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