Baseball 1981: Grownups behaving badly

In the first and second posts of this series, I haven't used my coach's name out of respect for him. Hence, I just call him Coach.

Diamond 5 is tucked way in a remote corner of Oriole Park bordering Bryn Mawr Avenue. Peewee teams played on diamonds 5 and 7 (now called 6), but during my season with the Reds, we only played one game all year on Diamond 5, which was far away from the other diamonds and required a 150-yard bike ride to the nearest water fountain (requiring a mad dash on your bike to get a drink if you were lucky enough not to be batting that inning).But the next year, we played several on that field.

After the Astros' showdown against the Giants, I'll never forget Diamond 5.

I've tried to remember every detail of this game, 31 years later. I've asked my mother, too, who was at the game (my dad, I relearned, missed the game and only heard everything secondhand), to find out what she remembered, but I think I remembered more. The evening was a bit overcast. The game wasn't the blowout our first meeting had been. The score was close. And the other team, or at least the other team's adults, weren't playing nice. One woman behind the backstop was encouraging our players to "strike out" when we were batting. According to my mom, someone back there was spinning an umbrella every time our pitchers were delivering a pitch. Their adults might have been acting this way all season. Win at any costs, even in 1981.

The pivotal play of the game -- the play that caused so much subsequent chaos -- occurred when we were losing 2-0. Chris, my best friend and the best player in the league, hit a three-run homer. As he was coming home, he rolled right over the catcher. I don't know if there was a slide rule in place, and I don't know if there was, if it would have applied if the ball wasn't near the plate (and if the ball was even near being thrown home). I'm looking at the current Oriole Park Baseball Association rules and there is a slide rule -- if a play is being made. Was a play not imminent? Without video (and thank God there was no video from this night), we may never know. Chris did not slide, ran the catcher over, touched home and was called safe with his home run, apparently not violating any rules in the eyes of the umpire. We took the lead.

The Giants' coaches weren't happy and started arguing. Our coaches started arguing back. All the coaches were out near home plate. The argument got more heated. And then, in one of the most stunning things I had ever seen an adult do in my 10 1/2 years of life, Coach slugged one of the Giants' assistant coaches in the face.

I don't know how it got to that point. I would like to think Coach knew how the actions of the other team all game and might have been offended at a suggestion that we were playing dirty. Clearly, the other assistant said something that pushed Coach past his limit. I overheard another of our parents say that another assistant on the Giants' side "took off his glasses and picked up a bat." Did this happen after the punch? The assistants and our parents got Coach back into the dugout, but he was fuming, to the point he was going to jump the fence to get back on the diamond (but thankfully, he thought better of it). The argument continued, with one of their coaches saying one of our assistants shouldn't be on the field because he wasn't wearing an orange OPBA shirt (which, from an end-of-year picture, I know he owned but just wasn't wearing that night).

I'm recounting this whole episode because it is one of the most out-of-character moments I have ever seen from an otherwise respectful, caring, decent human being. He was coaching that year not for glory or to relive his youth, but because he loved coaching and working with kids (including his own son). Though I think I get most of my coaching style from my father, I think I get a little from Coach as well. Stunning as my coach's punch was to 10-year-old me, 41-year-me who is a coach kind of gets it. Winning or losing to dedicated coach might not matter, but protecting your players definitely does. I find myself getting worked up when an opposing coach is acting unfairly or when a referee clearly doesn't know the rules and it negatively affects our kids. We played a baseball team this year that was putting six kids in the infield (not counting the pitcher). The league's rules clearly stated you couldn't have more than four. Though they argued that it was pointless to have so many outfielders because "kids weren't hitting it that far anyway" (and we burned them on some big hits even when they playing four outfielders and abiding by the rules), I was ready to say "Go ahead, teach your players that it's OK to cheat." and escalate the situation because, well, it wasn't fair to our kids who were playing by the rules. Did Coach feel the same way that night? I want to believe so.

Back to 1981.We won the game by one run -- Chris' play at the plate. We won the division to advance to championship game and would play for the title against, of course, the Giants, who had won the other division. The controversy was just beginning.

Click here to see who won the championship.


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