Baseball 1981: Astro mania

Last summer, I blogged about my memories playing baseball as a kid: in t-ball as a 7-year-old; as an 8-year-old in instructional league; and my first year of kid pitch in 1980. I wanted to continue the series with my next year playing baseball (to the point I scanned pictures), but 1981 was no ordinary season in my athletic lifetime. I've written about this season before in a writing journal that I had been scribbling in during the mid 1990s. I didn't feel I did it justice then, and I wanted to be thorough on my favorite season in any sport I've played over the past four decades. So I put it off, and put it off some more, until here it is, a year later. So here's the first installment of baseball from that summer.

I was still playing Peewee at Oriole Park in 1981. Most of the fifth graders that spring had moved up to Midgets, but with my birthday after Sept. 1, I was relegated to Pee-Wee again. I didn't mind. Most of the Reds from the year before (I never realized until now what a young team we had been) returned to the same team, including my friend Chris, who was a pretty good pitcher the year before and, based on an old team picture I'm looking it, at least 5-foot-2 and still months away from being 11, was almost unhittable. Our head coach had been an assistant for the Reds the last summer (and his son was on the team), and the two much older (late teens?) brothers of one our teammates were his assistants. We were renamed the Astros, and for the first year, our uniforms were replicas of real Major League unis -- and if you remember the Astros from three decades ago, that meant a lot of orange. Our hats wouldn't conform to the MLB hats for another year, so ours were simply orange with an "A" on it.

Aside from Chris, we didn't feature any dominating players. And looking at the team photos from this year, we weren't particularly oversized, either. But we hit the ball well. We were good fielders. Our other pitchers got the ball over the plate. With so many kids who played the year before, we brought enough experience to the diamond that I think we were executing more than learning. Coach was such an encouraging adult; I don't ever remember him getting mad at us for not making a play (I do remember him getting annoyed at Chris for being, well, Chris ... as a coach myself, I can relate when my kids are goofing off). He always had a smile for his players whether they got a big hit or struck out, and often called them "Son." And the assistant coaches were just cool, maybe just because we were 10-year-olds and they weren't, but they always seemed positive nonetheless.

All these factors produced a quick start in which we won our first eight games. We were winning these games convincingly, too, and having fun. I hope every kid just for one season can be on a team that wins all the time, simply for the joy of not losing. Yes, losing can build character and provide life lessons, but once in a while, being dominant can be pure bliss. Michael played on a soccer team this year that was far better than all its opponents. With that team breaking apart after this season, I hope he appreciates how great he had it if the team he lands on next season isn't as good.

The Astros' domination didn't last. We didn't play one team -- the Giants -- over the winning streak because of a rainout. We hadn't even seen them play and didn't know how well they were playing their last few games. They had a couple good pitchers, one of which I think was going to be a seventh grader (and technically too old to be in Peewee -- I can't prove this, but when I looked him up on Facebook, his graduation year suggested he was a year older).

Perhaps we were overconfident, or perhaps we were just primed for a loss, but we lost big -- so big that the game ended early due to the slaughter rule (called the mercy rule in many places, but not in Chicago). We were stunned. I was playing left field on Diamond 7 and remembering hard-hit balls that kept rocketing into the gap past an unofficial small dirt trail (made by enough people cutting across from Oriole Avenue to Diamond 4) that intersected the outfield.

The winning streak was over. Like an opponent in a Rocky movie, once we took a big hit, we wouldn't be the same. Plus, due to rescheduled rainouts and a six-inning limit for pitchers per week, we didn't have Chris pitching part of every game in the second half. We got to the last game of the second half needing a victory to win our division and make the championship game. And the team we were up against: the Giants, who led the other division and had given us our worst loss.

To be continued, next with how I played in 1981 ...


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