Johnny Keane, Al Lopez and the other major league managers needn't come whining to me about their problems. Does Keane have to stop a game and run out to tie his shortstop's shoelaces? Has Lopez ever tried to get bubble gum out of the hair of a base runner who tried to slide into second base while blowing a bubble? These are routine for the manager of a Little League team. I can show you the scars.
One day a spring or so ago I let it be known at a playground in my neighborhood that I was available as a manager, and within a week I was given a team. It was called the Indians, because we wore white T shirts with a mopey-looking Indian on the back. A green cap made up the rest of the uniform.
At our first tryout I found my ballplayers standing around in their uniforms, pounding their fists into their gloves. But most of them wore the gloves on their throwing hands. I told one boy to hustle out to second base. With a puzzled look in his big brown eyes, he asked, "Where's second base?" It was an omen of the season ahead.
The very first game showed up the flaws in our signal system. When one of my Indians, about the size of Yogi Berra's shin guard, reached first base, I flashed the signal for him to steal second. (For a signal I used the cunning device of removing my green cap.) The pitch came in, but the runner stayed where he was. Once more I signaled. The base runner shouted loud and clear across the diamond: "Do you want me to steal second base?"
June 6, 1965
But in our anarchic way we Indians managed to win some games. By mid-season we were, so help me, in first place. Then disaster struck. It was vacation time, and six of my best players were spirited away by their parents to lake and seashore. No one was left who in any way resembled a pitcher. I decided to make a hurler out of my second baseman, Davey. He was a sandy-haired 8-year-old who looked like Nellie Fox with bubble gum instead of tobacco. He could throw the ball almost hard—but only for 30 feet. Unfortunately, in Little League the pitcher's mound is 46 feet from home plate, and first bounce doesn't count.
In his pitching debut Davey gave up 26 bases on balls, and we were trampled 32-9.
Even with my best players available, coaching was not without problems. My star pitcher was Butch. His fast ball was good, but you never knew where it was going. When Butch was pitching, the only safe place in the ball park was the middle of home plate. Butch had another control problem—his temper. When he was losing, he was about as sweet as Leo Durocher at an umpires' clinic. He even copied some of Leo's mannerisms and became the first player in the history of the league to be kicked out of a game for cussing at an umpire. As Butch left the field, he stopped just long enough to deliver a hard kick to the shin of the man in blue.
When my regular players came back from that summer vacation we roared into the game with the Beagles. It was for the league championship. We were leading 11-10 in the third inning when a Beagle player slapped a grounder to my third baseman, who darted to his left, scooped up the ball and threw it high over the first baseman's head. There was a large hubbub, and the batter wound up on third base. I was concentrating on the play when I felt someone tug at my arm.
"I wanna play second base," a small voice said.
Trying to ignore the interruption, I glanced vacantly around the field. I snapped to my senses when I looked toward left field. It was empty. Suddenly I recognized the voice at my side. It was my left fielder. While I stood there wondering just how Dr. Spock would tell his left fielder to get back on the field, I heard the sound of a bat meeting a baseball. I looked back on the field in time to see a shiny white ball skip into the far reaches of left field as two Beagle runners skipped across home plate.
Somehow I retained my sanity, and the Indians went on to win the championship by scoring 10 runs in the last inning to win 21-20. As a reward I got to coach one of the Little League all-star teams. Or is reward the word I'm fishing for?