While visiting my parents' house in New Windsor, Md., I discovered treasure buried up in the attic. There, in a musty King Edward cigar box, was a grass-stained baseball, a washed-out Mike Garcia bubble-gum card and a box score from The Frederick Post dated June 21, 1955—all mementos of a day when a rather reluctant Little League catcher took the mound for the first time and pitched the game of his life.
Back in 1954, while the Cleveland Indians were laying waste to the rest of the American League, the Cubs, my Little League team, were having a similar season in New Windsor. We went 22-0 that year, beating every club in the Frederick-Carroll league by a big score, and did it with a catcher who didn't even hit .300. That was me. My weak bat and squatty body made me an unlikely starter, but I had the position nailed down because I was the only kid in town willing to get my hand bruised catching Danny Hartzler and Satchel Hill, the two fastballing 12-year-old pitchers who took us to the pennant that year.
The next season, with Hartz and Satch off pitching for the Babe Ruth league team, the Cubs found themselves short-handed in the pitching department. But not according to Coach Wilson. "What we really have here is a wonderful opportunity," he said. "There's another Satch or Hartz on this team; it's just a matter of finding him." And for the next three weeks I was bouncing around behind the plate, short-hopping curves and chasing fastballs to the backstop, as a parade of would-be pitchers went through the coach's grand audition.
Then one evening, after a poorly pitched 16-4 loss, Coach sidled up, gave me an appraising look and said, "Couple of nice throws to second tonight, Robbie." I nodded, spat and shoved my shin guards into the equipment sack. "Yes sir, not a bad little arm, and built just like Garcia, too. Anybody ever tell you that you look a bit like the Bear?"
May 9, 1982
As I rolled up the chest protector, I let that one sink in. I had the card. Mike Garcia, the Big Bear, was one of the aces of the Cleveland Indians' formidable pitching staff. He was a little on the heavy side and not much of a hitter, so I could see some similarities between him and me. Then Coach leaned over and whispered something that hit me harder than a foul tip. "Listen, Robbie, do me a favor," he said. "Bring your fielder's glove to practice Saturday. I've a hunch you just might be our Bear."
Ironically, Coach Wilson's latest trial balloon (me on the mound) and our new outfield fence both went up on the same day. The Cub Boosters, a group of the team's fathers, had spent the better part of Saturday stretching a red snow fence around the outfield, and by 6 p.m. batting practice a regulation barrier was up, 200 feet down the lines and to center, according to the regulations of Little League headquarters in Williamsport.
The butterflies dancing in my stomach as I warmed up were wasting their time. No one had even noticed me there on the sidelines—perhaps because I didn't look much like a pitcher. I was still throwing the ball by taking it back behind my ear and cocking my wrist as if I were pegging it to second. Then, when Coach put his arm around me and we started walking toward the mound for BP, heads began to turn. By the time I'd toed the rubber, half the team was storming the bat rack shouting "Dibs!" and grabbing bats like there was some kind of lumber shortage. The butterflies turned to bile. Giving up my spot behind the plate, where I called the shots and controlled the game, just to be another one of Coach's guinea pigs wasn't exactly my idea of a good time.
For the next half hour I was subjected to a public flogging. Line drives screamed to all fields, booming shots bounced off the new fence and when everybody but the bat boy had had his way with me, Herbie Weller, our cleanup hitter, dug in again and deposited the next three pitches over the barrier in left, 10 rows deep into an adjacent cornfield.
When it came to spotting tears Coach Wilson had the eyes of a hawk. I'd barely choked back my first sob when I saw him hustling out toward the mound, smiling as if I'd just one-hit the Yankees. "O.K., Bear," he said, "let's rest that old arm. We want to have a little something left for Union Bridge on Monday."
That evening, as I lingered in the shower, I racked my brain trying to come up with a way to get out of pitching that Monday. When I got out of the shower, I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the full-length mirror on the back of our bathroom door. I stood there naked as a blue jay, scowled for a second or two, puffed out my left cheek, fired an imaginary stream of tobacco juice off toward the sink and went into my windup. One look at that bring-it-back-behind-the-ear business and my troubles were over. I was ecstatic. No wonder I'd been hit so hard. Catchers don't pitch, they peg!
My first step toward developing a windup was to pull the Garcia card from my collection and tape it to the left of the mirror, just above the bathtub. A picture of the Bear standing there scowling in at a hitter made the ideal visual aid as I pumped, kicked and threw, psyching myself up for Monday. "Garcia looks into Hegan, gets the sign. The Bear's been throwing bullets by these Yankees tonight," the voice of my imaginary announcer intoned. "Here's the pitch. Steeerike three! And Mantle's caught looking!" On game day Union Bridge wouldn't see some fat little catcher on the mound. By then I'd have faced hundreds of big league batters and be a seasoned veteran with a major league windup.
But on Monday evening when Coach Wilson plunked the ball in my glove, gave me the old "Go get 'em, Bear" and walked off the mound, I knew this wasn't going to be like the mirror games I'd been pitching in our upstairs bathroom. My knees were weak, and by the time I'd finished warming up in the steamy heat, my uniform was as wet as a Preacher Roe spitter. Then the P.A. cracked and popped and a scratchy rendition of the national anthem began to play. Off behind the backstop, packed in with their fellow boosters, my parents stood proudly, Cub caps covering their hearts, singing their lungs out. My knees were knocking in time to the music, and I let my hand slide down deep into my back pocket to rub the Garcia card for luck.
Perhaps the heat and the excitement of the game scrambled my brain because, to this day, the details remain a blur. I remember sweating, shaking and walking my way into trouble in the early innings and then rubbing the card and having the defense bail me out. The first play to save the day, a circus catch in the second inning, was pulled off by Donnie Ecker, our 8-year-old second baseman, who raced down the rightfield line, dived and pulled in a pop fly destined to be a double. In the third, with two of my walks dancing off first and second, I felt a sudden numbness in my glove, a line drive I never saw. The Cub Boosters stood and yelped in unison to celebrate my lucky catch. The inning was over and, miraculously, Union Bridge was still without a hit or run.
As I began to pitch the fourth, things seemed to get better, a little bit like back in '54 when we'd won it all. I had a four-run lead, a bubble-gum card that was working miracles and a two-strike, no-ball count on the batter. Then this wonderful sensation came, a feeling like something I'd never experienced before or would again. I reached back for a little something extra from the card and fired a fastball; it caught the outside corner of the plate for a called third strike, and behind me all hell broke loose.
"Come Bear, Come Babe, Hum Bear, Hum Chuck," the infield chanted. I rubbed the card, tugged my cap and was in that other world—the zone—that athletes talk about. I felt invincible. I'd made believers of my teammates. Now there was no way Union Bridge or anybody else could hit me. "Hum, you Bear," the infield chattered. "Come Babe, Come Bear." The next five Union Bridge batters went down in order—four on strikeouts, the fifth grounding weakly to first.
As I came in to the bench after pitching the fifth inning of the six-inning game, I was still under the ether, pacing back and forth, shaking hands, too excited to notice the commotion going on down at the end of the bench by the medicine chest. Then as I walked down that way to pick up a salt tablet or two, the gist of the conversation between Coach Wilson and our bat boy came in loud and clear. "Heck, I never said 'no-hitter,' " the kid said, and the word was out. The spell was broken.
The next 10 or 15 minutes were the scariest and most exciting of my 11-year life. For one inning I was out there all alone, the words "no-hitter" echoing in my ears, yanking at my cap, rubbing the card, praying for God and Mike Garcia to pull me out. From the batter all the way back to the boosters everything seemed to be moving, waving back and forth like wheat in the wind. The windup I'd developed was gone—I was back to pegging again—and somewhere off in the distance, through the din, I could hear the Cubs, their voices an octave higher now, singing, "Hum Bear, Hum Babe, Hum Chuck, Hum Fire."
I don't recall how the first two hitters were retired, only that, when Ronnie Stitely, their cleanup hitter, stepped in and began wigwagging his bat, the moment had arrived. I was one out away from pitching a (even now I shudder to say it) no-hitter. I turned, looked off toward the flag in center, took a quick hit on the card and came in with the pitch. The bat cracked like a rifle, and the rest is an instant replay that I'll be calling up until the day I die. As I wheeled and looked toward leftfield, Herbie, the third baseman, was already airborne, hanging parallel to the ground like some kind of little acrobat. Then he fell facedown on the grass in short leftfield and rolled once. His glove came up and there, perched in its web like a 5¢ scoop of vanilla ice cream, was the ball. In an instant he was up and racing to the mound to hand me the souvenir of my no-hitter.
Unfortunately, my pitching performances after that game were less than memorable, and by the end of the 1955 season I was back behind the plate. But I was able to accept my rapid rise and sudden fall. I'd never really thought of myself as anything but a catcher. And even now I can't seem to see the memorabilia as proof of any great pitching feat. Instead, I think of the ball, the card and the box score as just mementos, pleasant reminders of a day when a catcher was called on to pitch and was lucky enough to get it right the first time.