The Rise and Fall of a Young Athlete
Like most 9~12 year-olds in early 60’s suburban Ohio, I played little league baseball. Going in, I wasn’t particularly driven or gifted (not unlike now), but most of my peers had signed up, and my nascent interest was fanned by my dad, who was no doubt hoping to discover that he had a budding Tito Francona on his hands. Tito, I’m sure we all remember, played for the mediocre-even-then Cleveland Indians, the nearest & dearest major league franchise.
I rode my Schwinn to the cattle-call tryouts in Mill Creek Park one cloudy Saturday in May. All of the Mill Creek league’s coaches were there to survey the local talent and draft their nine-year-old rookies. Each team was sponsored by a local concern: we had Kirkmere Kleeners, Isaly Dairy, Nestor’s Amoco, Cornersburg Pharmacy, and seven or eight others. By the end of the day I was one of three new additions to the Cornersburg squad. (Fitting, in that the Pharmacy was a frequent destination of mine. Anchoring the walking-distance nontown of Cornersburg, it was an old-style wooden establishment that could always be depended upon for the perfect chocolate Coke.)
The first day of practice I met the coaches and the other team members. The head coach was an easygoing guy named Big Jim Nytuk. His son Jimmy was on the team returning for his third year. Jimmy had the unfortunate nickname of “Noodles”—more unfortunate still, was the fact that it fit him rather well. The coaching staff was fleshed out with two other dads: Don Beret, father of catcher Donnie Beret, and Joe Tomak, father of first basekid Joey Tomak. (no Justins or Taylors in those days, by gawd).
Now, Mr. Beret and Mr. Tomak were quite different types—Beret being rather effeminate, even sporting a mini-rack of manbreasts, while Mr. Tomak was a chiseled Charles Bronsonesque man’s man. Most of the useful baseball tips, unsurprisingly, were imparted by Mr. Tomak.
My rookie season I spent most of the time in the Siberia of right field, where the shall-we-say “less experienced” players are billeted. At the plate, I had a typical 9yr-old’s excessive number of strikeouts, peppered with the occasional minor victory of earning a base on balls with my discerning eye. Highlight of season one: the moment in game eight when my bat made blessed contact with the ball and I could see that it would drop for a single, changing forever my batting average from triple zeroes.
As unimpressive as my personal achievements on the field were that year, the team’s record was its equal in mediocrity. We finished next to last (At least we beat out those losers from Kirkmere Kleeners!)
My second year, Cornersburg Pharmacy, perhaps due to lagging chocolate Coke sales, decided to discontinue its sponsorship of the team. Into the breach jumped local men’s club, the Downtown Optimists. Despite whatever optimism I may have had at the beginning of the season, it was pretty inauspicious. But, over the next two seasons, though certainly not Tito Francona material, I got progressively better, as did the Downtown Optimists.
By my fourth year, as a 12yr-old, I was looked on as one of the big guns. My tenure in right field long since over— fresh 9yr-olds for that—my time was spent mostly behind the plate as catcher. As such, I was in on every pitch, totally involved. I loved knowing I had the arm to pick off a runner trying to steal second. (No such larceny on my watch!) At the plate I had reason for similar smugness--my batting average hovered in the respectably high 300’s all summer and homers were not uncommon.
If I had come a long way, so had the Downtown Optimists. Thanks to Mr.Tomak’s fundamentals, we’d become a semi-oiled machine, and by the end of our schedule we found ourselves playing in the championship game. I’ll spare you the play-by-play, but suffice it to say that we won the game 5-3 on the strength of my three RBI’s. Consumption of potentially deadly amounts of ice cream ensued during the post-game celebration.
A week or so later I was voted to be on the all-star team representing the Mill Creek League in a regional tournament. The player with far and away the most buzz at the tournament was Calvin Murphy. Calvin was a supposedly 12yr-old black kid from an inner city league. He was a well-muscled 6’2” pitcher who’s fastball was dubbed a “Murphy Meteor” by some wag. Nobody on our team was relishing standing in the box opposite a giant black manchild hurling meteors at them from a mound a few yards away. But the time came, only once, when I faced off against the dreaded Murphy.
I did my best to feign confidence as I stepped into the batter’s box. With the classic mantra “Keepa you eye onna da ball”…”Keepa you eye onna da ball” looping in my head, somehow, by the grace of God or Tito Francona, I was able to connect with Calvin’s first pitch and looped a base hit into shallow left field. For the final time as a little leaguer I got that you-know-it-when-you-feel-it sensation when ashwood makes solid contact with horsehide. (no aluminum bats back then!) Running to first after besting the quasi-mythic Calvin Murphy, I experienced the same rush that 9yr-old Tommy had gotten with his virgin hit three summers before.
Looking back, forty-six summers later, I can unequivically name that particular summer as the apex of my sports endeavors. From that Everest of athletic prowess, it has subsequently been all downhill.
Since I had ended my little league career on such a high note, I decided the next summer to continue to the next rung up the baseball ladder, pony league. Unlike little league, where practically the only prerequisite for getting onto a team was a pulse, in pony league we were all battle-hardened 13 & 14yr-olds.
I’d like to be able to recount thrilling tales of diamond derring-do from that fateful season. However, only one episode is seared into my memory, and it was one that proved to be my downfall.
It was July, about halfway through our schedule. I was playing left field and there was a runner on second. The ball was hit solidly to left and I scooped it up on one hop. I could see that the runner was going to try to score and I felt that I had a shot at nabbing him at the plate with a well-placed heave. Rearing back, I let loose with all I had and the ball shot like a bullet…right into the ground about eighteen inches in front of me.
I was stunned. What the hell was that!? Instantly, my face flushed Cincinnatti red, but the runners were still careening around the bases so I had no time to ponder the hellish physics of why I’d just pegged the ball a disturbing foot-and-a-half. As the runner scored from second, I semi-recovered enough to relay the ball to our shortstop, who, with the same “what-the-hell-was-that?” look on his face, held the batter to a cheap double.
I played out the rest of the game hoping that the ball was hit nowhere near me, a sentiment I hadn’t experienced since my tyro days as a 9yr-old stuck out in right field.
So, what had happened? The little mechanism that tells your hand to release the ball at precisely the correct moment just decided to take a powder. One theory is that an adolescent growth spurt had changed my center of gravity too quickly for my body to adjust. Whatever the explanation, it turned out not to be an isolated incident. Since I could no longer count on a throw to go where I’d intended, I tried overthinking the matter: “Okay, Tom, release the ball…now!” That workaround merely resulted in an almost-as-embarrassing girly lob. Sessions with a professional pitching coach proved fruitless.
I limped through the rest of the season hoping, along with my teammates, that the ball stayed well clear of my position, which was mercifully demoted to the accursed right field. By the time the next summer rolled around, the little “release-the-ball-now” guy hadn’t returned from his extended vacation, and another season of baseball was out of the question.
Thankfully, about this time I got into my first band. I might not be able to throw a ball anymore, but I could throw myself into music and toss off a guitar lick with ease. The transition from athlete to musician was complete.
But just because I wasn’t involved in organized sports anymore doesn’t mean I was a stranger to my throwing demons. Plenty of opportunities for embarrassment await in the day-to-day: Toss a football around at a picnic? I’ll pass. Skip a few stones at the lake? I’ll be skipping that. Friendly game of darts at the pub? You want I should put someone’s eye out?
For years, when mere avoidance was not possible, I was sometimes able to underhand an object from here to there successfully. This remedy was shot down a few years ago while playing horseshoes. I gauged the distance, took aim, and let loose. Seconds later I was ducking for cover, trying to avoid being brained by a hunk of iron I’d chucked straight up in the air.
Now, depending on the situation, I can throw caution to the wind, throw up, pitch a tent, pitch a fit, hurl an insult, toss back a few margaritas... but if your overthrown ball, Frisbee, or whathaveyou, comes landing at my feet, don’t bother calling out “little help”. You won’t get it from me.