AFTER A ROCKY START, THIS ROOKIE NURSED A SINGLE INTO A HOME RUN

November 10, 1980

Why can't I play, Stooie Schachter? I have a bat. I have a glove. You even use my A.J. Reach Official American League ball. For two hours every Saturday I have to sit there on that big rock in that empty lot and watch you and the other kids play nine innings, and when you're finished you flip me my ball and say, "Thanks, kid." Two hours watching you when I could be reading The Official Encyclopedia of Baseball. Two hours for a lousy "Thanks." O.K., so you're 9½ and I'm only eight, and you're the best ballplayer in the neighborhood and I'm only the second-best in my class. But I'm still better than half the guys you play with. So why can't I play?

It always started at 12:30. I never knew whether game time was determined by lunchtime or lunchtime by game time, but at 12 o'clock the 9-year-old ballplayers in my neighborhood in Queens would eat lunch, get their things and go to the empty lot for the game. Stuart (Stooie) Schachter and Norman (Normie) Geller ate at 12:15. They could afford to, because they were the stars. In fact, it was impossible to have a game without them, seeing as it was always Stooie's team against Normie's team.

I ate at 11, and not because I was a slow eater. How could I be? I had the same thing for lunch every day, a plate of Chef Boy-ardee ravioli, so I knew all the shortcuts—slicing one piece while chewing another, eating the hot pieces last so I didn't have to waste time cooling them off by sucking in air with my mouth wide open. I ate at 11 so I could rest up for the game, so I'd be physically prepared, mentally alert, totally ready for a game I'd never been in. But I had to do it. What if I did get to play? It might be my only shot, and I wanted to be at my best. So I finished eating at 11:02 and sat on my bed checking lifetime batting averages, in case they came up in conversation with Stooie.

I would get to the field at noon. It was early, but there were things to do. Like clock myself around the bases. "Go!" I would yell to myself, already halfway into my first stride. "It's over short and into leftfield for a base hit!" I tore around first. "It's in between the outfielders and rolling to the wall!" I turned on my speed. "He's rounding second and heading for third." Dust flew off my pounding spikes as I steamed for the hot corner. The Old Crow gave me the stop sign, but there were two out and I wasn't about to let some .260 hitter ground out to end the inning and waste my triple. No, I was going for all the marbles this time. "He's rounding third and he's going to try for the plate! Here he comes. Here comes the throw. He slides...and he-e-e-e's...safe!"

I looked at my watch. The second hand was on the six. Had I started when it was at the one or the three? I couldn't remember. It was important, though. If it had been the three, it meant that I had circled the bases in 15 seconds, only a few seconds off Willie Mays' time. Reluctantly, I rejected that possibility. "Twenty-five seconds," I said to myself. "That's less than twice Willie Mays' time, and he's at least twice as old as I am." I let that reasoning stand, realizing it implied that an 80-year-old man could run the bases in a shade over three seconds.

But there was more to do between 12 and 12:15 than run bases. I had to hold batting practice, which consisted of my hitting the ball out of my hand and walking 300 feet to pick it up. (That's 100 feet on the fly, 200 on the roll.) When this got boring I'd throw the ball up in the air as high as I could, wait until it was almost halfway down, then run two or three steps and make a spectacular diving catch.

Around 12:15 the first 9-year-old would usually appear, and we'd loosen up our arms throwing the ball back and forth. To most of the kids this was a routine warmup and they'd be very casual about it, not bending too far for the grounders, not throwing as hard as they could. But to someone who'd never been in the game, everything was a test. Maybe if I caught all the balls that were thrown at me, maybe if one of the catches required a leap or a difficult scoop, maybe if, at that moment, Stooie or Normie were looking in my direction....

But it was hard to keep my attention on my fielding when my mind was on the players. Not who they were, but how many there were. They needed 18 for a game, so if they were a kid short, I'd be in. As I warmed up, I watched and worried. If an old face, a regular, appeared, it was all right. There were only 17 of them. But if a new face came it meant trouble. Saturday after Saturday my hopes were crushed by somebody's cousin from New Jersey or Long Island. Some kid without sneakers, some dope without a glove who didn't even know that Yankee Stadium was in the Bronx and the Polo Grounds in Manhattan.

But they played. If they could see, breathe, walk, smell or make any kind of noise, they played. If they ran from first to third on a pop-up—even though everyone within 30 miles was yelling for them to go back—they played. If they stepped on second instead of tagging a guy who was sliding in for a double, they played. If they swung at a 3 and 0 pitch in the dirt two seconds after they'd been told not to swing at anything, they still got to play.

And I got to watch. I sat there on that rock, an audience of one whose only thought was that maybe someone would break his leg and be unable to crawl from home to first and they'd be forced—out of necessity, out of embarrassment, out of something—to put me in the game.

But that didn't seem to be in God's plan. In fact, He seemed to be against me. Time after time, at 12:29, when they were a man short and it looked as if I'd finally get a game, He'd wave His mighty hand and a 9-year-old second baseman would appear out of nowhere to push me out of another game.

But even God is fallible. One gray Saturday afternoon (He probably still remembers it), He left the Stooie Schachter-Normie Geller game with a grand total, me included, of 18 players. As always, I stood in the crowd, pounding my glove, being ignored. But this time I knew something they didn't. I knew that after Stooie and Normie had flipped (Normie would get first pick), after they had ignored me through the first seven rounds of choosing, after they had told Normie's players to stand on one side and Stooie's on the other, and after Normie had picked his final player, that Stooie would look around and discover, to his horror, that everyone else had been taken and he'd be forced to pick me. He could put me at catcher, he could bat me ninth, he could be sick every time he thought about it, but he'd still have to take me.

"All right. We'll stand you," Stooie said to Normie. (Translation: "O.K., I'll take him, but it's practically like playing with our legs tied together. Of course, if your team wins it doesn't prove you're better than me.")

"Thanks, Stooie," I said, grateful but not fawning. After all, I had a job to do. They chose again, and Stooie decided to have us bat last. "Where do you want me to play?" I asked, posing possibly the most unnecessary question ever uttered. "Shortstop," he answered sarcastically, and I picked up the catcher's mitt and went behind the plate.

Tony Towle, our pitcher, threw seven warmup pitches. I caught them all. Stooie was busy gobbling up grounders at shortstop and didn't notice. Normie might have, but he didn't seem impressed. What more do they want? I thought. Yogi Berra only fields .984, and that's his position.

"Come on," Normie said. That wasn't a suggestion. It was an order. Anything Normie said was an order, unless Stooie said the opposite, in which case they'd flip for it.

I caught Tony's last warmup toss and ran out to the mound. I shielded my mouth with my glove and said, "One for a fastball, two for a curve, three for a slider, four for a knuckler, five for a screwball." I started back for the plate, stopped, turned back to Tony and whispered. "And a wiggle for a changeup." He nodded, impressing me with his quick memory, and waved me back to the plate. Halfway there I remembered that I'd forgotten to give him the signs for when a man was on second, but I figured I could cross that bridge when I came to it.

The first batter was Ernie Tobis, a fast skinny kid with no belt who would hit everything on the ground and try to beat it out. The infield moved way in. "Watch for the bunt," I yelled to Barry Harney, the third baseman, who was already halfway between third and home. The pitcher looked down, and I flashed the sign to him—one, a fastball. He reared back and fired his high hard one over the plate. Tobis just looked at it. I showed off my arm by firing the return throw over Tony's head and into centerfield.

Tobis worked Tony to a 3 and 2 count and fouled off nine pitches before striking out on either a knuckleball or a change. (I couldn't tell which because I'd called for a slider.) Their No. 2 batter also worked the count to 3 and 2 before popping one high in the air to right. The fielder came in a step, went back a step, tapped his glove a few times and then dropped the ball. He yelled in anger and threw to second base in plenty of time to hold the hitter, who hadn't run in the first place, to a single. "You stink," someone shouted.

"That's all right, kid." I yelled, trying to get an ally in case the same thing happened to me. "It's a tough sun." Stooie disagreed. "Shut up!" he said.

He was right. We were in a hole now. There was a man on, only one was out, and Normie was coming up. I called for a curveball on the outside. Tony must have had trouble picking up my sign because he threw a high, inside fastball, and Normie ripped it down the third-base line. "Foul, foul, foul," our third baseman screamed, but the runners didn't stop. The leftfielder ran over, cut the ball off and threw it in to the third baseman, who didn't see it coming because he was still pointing to the spot where the ball had supposedly hit.

"All right, I'll do it over," Normie said, running in from second base. This wasn't a gesture of sportsmanship. For Normie (or Stooie) a double was no big deal. So Normie got up again, but this time Tony got smart and walked him on four straight pitches. The next hitter grounded to first. Two outs, men on second and third. Their No. 5 hitter, a lefthanded batter with a gold and purple shirt that said "Falcons" on it, went for the first pitch and popped it up about 20 feet behind the plate.

"Mine!" Stooie yelled from shortstop, invoking the age-old rule that the star takes everything he can conceivably get near, especially if the alternative is letting someone like me try for it. But fortunately I was moving too fast to observe the pecking order and I made a running, one-handed catch. "Nice play," Stooie said, a quick rewrite from, "Next time, when I call for it...."

I trotted over to the bench, confident that I could no longer be taken for granted. I soon found out otherwise. "One, two, three, four," Stooie said, pointing to his teammates as he made the batting order. "Five, six, seven, eight." A pause, and then reluctantly, "nine." All my catch had done was put me in the category of "good field, no hit."

The first 2½ innings were uneventful. Nobody scored, and I didn't get up. But in the last of the third the drama began. Two of our men had been left on base in the second, which meant that I would lead off the third. I was standing at the plate with a bat in my hands before any of my teammates had come in from the field. I had chosen a Hillerich & Bradsby Ferris Fain model. I would have preferred to use the Duke Snider model, but the fact that I could barely lift it off the ground mitigated against it. I swung the bat slowly and menacingly at the pitcher before putting it down for a second to conserve my strength. I tapped my spikes (a pair of $2.95 Keds with a red stripe around them), straightened my cap and indicated I was ready. The first delivery was a ball, high and outside. The pitcher was annoyed with himself. Why be cute with the bottom of the order? So he laid the next one in. It was the pitch I wanted. Ash met horsehide, and I sent a dribbler down the third-base line. The third baseman took a step in, picked it up on an easy hop and threw it over the first baseman's head. "Base hit," I said to myself and tore for second, sliding in headfirst just in case the first baseman had been able to climb the fence, cross the street, reach under the blue Studebaker and relay the ball back to the field in time to cut me down. Normie was standing near second. "Tough chance," I said to him, referring to a play he'd probably seen his sister make a hundred times. He spat in his glove. I took it as a sign of agreement.

Well, maybe it wasn't a clean hit. Maybe it wasn't even a hit at all, but getting on base was the important thing. The guys who got on through errors were the same guys who walked a lot, who got hit by the pitch a lot, who did all the little things that didn't show up in the box score that helped their teams win. Guys like Eddie Stanky. And me.

But apparently the subtleties of the game escaped Stooie and Normie, because despite my "single" and my errorless game behind the plate, there were no pats on the rear, no apologies, no expressions of amazement that such an outstanding prospect had been sitting right under their noses. The problem was that our team was losing, so my contributions remained unnoticed.

We went into the last of the ninth trailing 6-5. Our first man up singled and the next two popped up, so I came to the plate with one on and two out. This is what I wanted most—the chance to be a hero. It was also what I wanted least. An out here would never be forgotten. Stooie trotted out to shortstop to talk to Normie, and from the way Stooie was gesturing it became obvious that he wanted to pinch hit an 11-year-old delivery boy who had stopped to watch the game. Normie wouldn't hear of it. Why should he? Do they pull the hot-dog man out of the stands and have him hit for Mickey Mantle? It was too unorthodox even for a game with do-overs. Stooie argued furiously, slamming his glove to the ground every time he made a point, but Normie stood firm and Stooie finally gave up, dusted off his glove and returned to the sidelines.

I stepped into the batter's box and checked the position of the fielders. They were straight away and, unfortunately, shallow, taking away one of my primary weapons, the bloop hit. The pitcher went into his windup and fired the first pitch. It was right where I wanted it, belt high and a little inside. Right in my wheel-house, as they say. Right where every muscle in my body could contribute to the total impact. I took a mighty ripple and missed. "Oh God," I thought, straightening my cap, "is it going to be like this? Are the John R. Tunis books nothing but lies?" The second pitch came in. It was low, around the ankles.

"Strike two," someone said. I couldn't believe it. It was a foot low. But I was too numb to argue. I was down to my last strike.

The pitcher wound up again and threw. I swung—a base hit over short. A legitimate single to save me from embarrassment. But wait a second! This one was more than a single. This one was in between the left-and centerfielders. I rounded first and headed for second. The ball was still rolling. They'd never get to it in time. I shortened my stride and checked to make sure there was nothing in the base paths I could trip over. But then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a nurse. Not the hospital kind, but the kind that people hire to watch their 2-year-old brats. The ball had hit her foot and she had picked it up. She was going to throw it to the centerfielder who was going to throw it to the shortstop who was going to throw it to the catcher and I was going to be out at the plate. It can't be! I thought. It's impossible! It's not fair!

But God moves in mysterious ways. The nurse may have had every intention of starting that relay, but she didn't have the arm. Her underhand toss went about 20 feet in the air directly over her head, and I scored standing up.

They mobbed me. Or at least one of them did. "Nice shot, kid," someone said, pounding me on the back.

"Just trying to get a piece of it," I said, modestly, implying that I hadn't really taken a full swing. The players gathered and there was a brief discussion about the Yankees and the Dodgers. Then they started to split up.

"Whose ball is this?" Stooie asked, looking around. I smiled. I had lost my identity. I was no longer the kid who sat on the rock and let them use his ball. I was one of them.

ILLUSTRATION

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)