Little League was new to Grandville, Mich. the year we moved there from our farm, but Grandville boys soon began playing their way into the top echelons of the greater Grand Rapids Little League. Within three years, in fact, we were playing for the district championship.
I say "we" because by then, as a four-eyed 14-year-old with a stack of baseball magazines and a zeal for presiding over others' jumping jacks, I was an assistant coach. I was also a friend of our town's principal Little League organizer, a college boy with a shared desire to succeed in athletics beyond his body's capabilities. For the district championship game, he named himself manager and me third base coach.
The opposing team came from somewhere in the city; such details didn't concern me as I had other things on my mind, like trying to memorize the manager's complicated signals. I was also worried that my kid brother, Jim, would embarrass me. Jim played rightfield for Grandville and batted ninth, glaring testimony to an ineptitude that the few close followers of Grandville Little League believed to be genetic.
Despite my misgivings, the game went well. Jim struck out three times, but his teammates were accustomed to that, and by the end of six innings the score was tied. A quick conference called by the umpire before the seventh began resulted in the decision that, because of dusk and gathering mist, each side would receive one more turn at bat, and that would be the game. Our opponents went down feebly in the top of the inning. Now we had a chance to break the tie.
Even at that age, I understood that baseball was a special kind of sport because it offered so many possibilities, and they often arranged themselves in a way that made for high drama. I was not surprised, therefore, when we had the bases loaded with two out and a Grandville hitter at the plate with an opportunity to become celebrated. But what distinguished this scene from those of my imagination was that the hitter was not me. It was my brother.
Jim has a fair complexion. Standing at the plate that evening with the mist above his head, he looked paler than ever. He gripped the bat fiercely, giving heart to Grandville's few fans in the third base bleachers. Only I, his blood relation, sensed his awful fate.
He swung mightily at the first pitch, a good cut but late, his bat whizzing past the catcher's glove at about the same time the ball arrived there.
Past the catcher's glove!
For 6‚Öî innings, I had been transfixed by the opponent's catcher. He was a small boy, even by Little League standards. The chin guard of his mask hung down at throat level. But what attracted my attention was his fearlessness. Never before had I seen a catcher squat so close to batters with such insouciance.
Suddenly, my fascination gave way to an idea. I waved for a time-out and ran to my brother. Pulling him up the baseline, I hissed into his ear, "When you swing at the next pitch, don't step forward with your front foot. Step backward with your back foot!"
He blinked at me, a portrait of befuddlement. "Step backward! You'll hit the catcher's glove. Interference, got it? Catcher's interference! You'll be awarded first base and force in the winning run!"
The umpire yelled at us. "C'mon. It's too dark already." Even our manager, coaching at first base, ran down the line to signal his impatience. I pushed Jim back toward the batter's box and retreated up the line, uncertain whether my message had gotten through.
The catcher squatted. The pitcher wound up. Under my breath, I implored my kid brother, "Step back. Step back."
He did. And he swung the bat in a tremendous arc with his arms fully extended. The fat part of the bat struck the catcher flush in the back of the head, toppling him over so that his face mask landed smack on home plate with his face still in it. The umpire was quick to call catcher's interference and point my brother toward first base. Involuntarily, I had advanced down the baseline to within a few feet of the fallen catcher. Rooted in place, I, and I alone, it seemed, watched him, horrified, for signs of life. Presently he lifted his head, shook it once and then, in a movement known to all good catchers, rocked back from his knees to his feet and stood up. He took off his mask. Head down, he walked slowly through the crush of shouting parents and weeping teammates. I sprinted for the parking lot.
The next summer, I was asked to be an umpire. "For the good of the game," I was told, and I accepted with pride, not then understanding the grownup concept of irony.