Ball four wasn't even close. It often wasn't in our league for 11-and 12-year-olds. I tried to contain my excitement as I tossed away the bat, a 30-inch Dick McAuliffe model, and trotted to first.
My heart pounded. I hardly heard my coach, who was standing in the first-base box, speak. He didn't know what I was up to, anyway. No one suspected—not my teammates, not the pitcher, not the catcher, not my father and mother, standing nearby. I had that sweaty-handed feeling a kid gets when he's about to do something he's not supposed to do.
"You're on your own," the coach said. He'd been saying that since the day I'd first pulled off a delayed steal, breaking his rule about not stealing without a sign, but establishing myself as a hustler. We all know what a hustler is—someone who can't hit. Or shoot. Or block. He can usually run, though. He'll know the rules, the strategies, the right play to make, even if he can't always make it. Hustling is the only way you can survive in athletics when you're shorter and scrawnier than others your age.
Mark Milaud, for example, never had to hustle. Mark was well-built, well-coordinated and nearly impossible to beat in any sports competition. He was the star pitcher, the forward with the smooth moves, the quarterback with a cool head and a keen eye, a man among seventh-graders. He had to unbutton his cuffs to take off his shirt. Thin-wristed 12-year-olds notice such things. Mark was strong and talented. But even Mark never stole two bases on one pitch.
Our league allowed no leadoffs. Base runners could not leave the bag until the ball crossed the plate, in deference to limp-armed catchers already encumbered with oversized protective gear. This rule hampered me, a classic good-field no-hit shortstop, because my only weapon was speed. Several games earlier, however, I'd circumvented the league rule and our coach's policy with a delayed steal, strolling oh-so-casually off base after the pitch, then lighting out for second as the catcher started his toss back to the mound. This sudden move startled my coach and brought shouts of alarm from the infielders. But the ball was already arcing lazily back to the pitcher, who, by the time he got it, could only turn and watch me slide into second. In another game the catcher pumped three times, waiting for the shortstop to cover, and the ball arrived far too late. Another time it rolled harmlessly out of his hand as he tried to stop his throwing motion. I was onto something.
Stealing two bases on one pitch would be striking a blow for those at the bottom of the batting order. It would be the kind of accomplishment that would linger in the memory of a hustler who never hit .300 and whose only "home run" was a double extended by two throwing errors.
The few highlights in my hopelessly frustrating athletic career were attributable to my running ability and a certain measure of alertness. Though I never scored a point in three years as a last-string junior high basketball player, I once started a game, thanks to speed and cunning. Our coach, angry at the team for a lack of—you guessed it—hustle, announced a series of wind sprints to decide the next game's starting five. My heart leapt. Except for the team's regular guards, I knew I could beat most anyone on the roster. So I held back in the first two races, conserving energy while those two speedsters won, then turned it on for the third sprint to win by a step.
The rueful coach had to let me start. The first time I touched the ball, putting it in play after my man scored, my teammates all ran downcourt, no doubt confused by the new lineup. Anxiously waiting for one of them to respond to my cries, I stepped on the inbounds line. From there it only got worse.
So that summer evening on the ball field remains my fondest athletic memory. I'd planned the play for days, and everything was falling into place. Nobody else on base, an unsuspecting pitcher was on the mound, and Jeff was behind the plate. Jeff, an excitable sort, was a year younger than I but a little bigger. For some long-forgotten reason, he was a neighborhood rival and embarrassing him held particular appeal for me.
I leaned toward second, my back foot still touching the bag, as the rules dictated. The first pitch was a ball. I walked off the bag, testing the water. Jeff didn't even glance my way as he lobbed the ball back to the pitcher. He shifted the bulky chest protector and resumed his crouch. I retreated to first.
The next pitch was another ball. I strolled away from the base, five feet, 10 feet, 15 feet, watching as Jeff routinely cocked his arm and started to throw. I took off, pumping my arms, hearing shouts and seeing the shortstop and second baseman converge. But the ball never arrived and I cruised in standing up, looking over my shoulder at home plate, where Jeff stood, ball in hand, arguing with the umpire.
Without pausing once, I rounded the bag, walking and watching. Jeff continued to complain, slightly turning his back to the infield. The third baseman, distracted by the ruckus at home, stood several yards from base. When Jeff finally shrugged and began to toss the ball back to the pitcher, I took off again and sailed into third, sliding for effect, though again there was no throw. I dusted myself off and couldn't help smiling as I looked at Jeff, mask off now, glaring speechlessly at the ump, who was also smiling as he shrugged and turned away.
I didn't score, and we lost the game, but I'd pulled off a one-man double steal. In the twilight the bats made a familiar sound as we slipped them into a large canvas bag. My coach came up, bases under his arm, and smiled. "I'm glad you didn't tell me what you were going to do," he said. "Good hustle."