Saturday, August 25, 2007

Becoming a Ball Player

What ever happened to Tommy Pugh?
by Charlie Leck

My high school class of 1958 will celebrate the 50th
anniversary of our graduations next year and, of
course, a big reunion party is in the works. The
organizers have successfully tracked me down,
captured my address and formally warned me that they
will harass me for the next 8 months, trying to convince
me to attend.

This essay is the first in a series of four about what a
dunce I was in school days and why I would never have
the courage to show my face at any class reunion.
Another series of four will follow in two or three weeks.

My dream last night was extraordinary; however, the most extraordinary thing about it was that, when I awoke in the morning, I remembered it in detail. That doesn’t happen often.

I watched a bit of the Little League World Series last night. You got it! There wasn’t much on and I was pretty bored. Yet, it was quite intriguing to watch these kids pour so much of their souls into their ball games.

So, I went to bed. I was tired and sleep came easily. Some time during the night, the dream started. It was a replay of an actual moment in my life – approximately 55 years ago.

There was green, green grass everywhere and this wonderful fence out there in the outfield. I’d never seen anything like it. We were in Brookside, New Jersey for the first organized Little League game in which I had ever played. The League had just been organized in our county and my age qualified me by only a day or two to play for one season. I was a big kid for my age and there I was, in my dream, towering over all the other players.

Our own town had just a ball field. It certainly did not look like a “ball park.” However, there in Brookside is was really different. It felt like we were stepping on to a major league field. There was a grass infield and level outfields and an attractive fence, set at Little League standards, which ran all the way around the outfield. There were real dugouts and bleachers for spectators. A number of flags flew from bright white poles.

Our manager, Mose, threw batting practice. I easily rapped several balls over the left field fence. It was very exciting, but Mose grabbed me before the game started and warned me that the pitchers wouldn’t be throwing at batting practice speed, and I shouldn’t get too excited.
Well, as the visitors, we were up first. The dream kept playing. Buddy and Hank both rapped solid shots to the outfield. Toby went to the plate and I stood in the on-deck circle and watched him take a couple of pitches. He was always a patient guy and liked to look for a pitch in a particular spot.

This guy’s stuff looked slower than the pitches Mose threw up to me. The ball seemed to be huge coming up there. Toby banged a line drive that almost took the pitcher’s head off. Buddy raced easily across the plate. Hank pulled up at second.

I was very excited. Something was jumping around inside me and I could sense that my eyes were stretched wide open. I couldn’t relax. I grabbed handfuls of dirt in an attempt to dry my hands. This was the most extraordinary moment of my little life. I looked to that fence in left field. It was so close. A ball hit to left field in our own town would just roll and roll for hundreds of yards and the fielders could just race after it and after it.

Tommy Pugh was on the mound. Within months of this day he would become one of my best friends and I would spend plenty of time with him. He was a cool dude with a really funny walk. His arms hung straight down at his sides when he walked and they remained very still with each stride, but his hands jiggled very noticeably. We all laughed at him until we got to know him. Then I got to thinking it was the neatest walk a man ever had. I tried it and couldn’t pull it off.

Well, Tommy was a cool guy, all right; but he couldn’t throw any heat at all. He wound up (players had to hold their bases, in Little League, until the ball was released by the pitcher). No one worked from a stretch in this league.

When the ball came out of his hand it seemed like I had long moments to think about it and make my decision. It seemed slower than the pitches he had been throwing to the first three batters and the ball just grew as it got near me. It was right at the letters and over the middle of the plate. I swung as mightily as I could and just knew I’d whiff on that slow ball.

Instead, I felt the sweet feeling in the bat when it encountered the ball and I heard that solid sound of impaction that every batter likes. The ball was flying away toward left field. It was a high line drive that wouldn’t lose its climb for some time and it was still climbing when it flew over the fence and crashed into some trees that lined the flowing brook beyond them.

In the dream, my legs would barely carry me around the bases. I felt as if I might have to crawl. It was the same 55 years ago. It seemed to take forever to get around to home plate. It was silent. Our team had no spectators there except one or two parents who had each driven a load of players. My parents were certainly not there. They didn’t do things like that. My teammates weren’t making any noise or cheering because, given the handsomeness of Tommy’s pitches, it wasn’t any kind of significant achievement to thump on him. Yet, inside, I was screaming like crazy. It was the first time I’d hit a ball over a regulation fence for a home run. I ran down the third base line, trying to making it across the plate. My feet were in concrete. They wouldn’t move and I awoke exhausted. It was dark and quiet and I heard my wife breathing softly beside me.

For a second I’d been a kid again. Now I was back to being old, with legs that can’t run anymore and eyes that can’t see a moving ball very well.

In real life I had homered the second time up, too. It wasn’t quite as sweet, but it cleared the fence by plenty. We moved ahead by about 36 runs – really – and Mose pulled me and Toby and Buddy. Some of the second stringers gave up a run and couldn’t push anything across the plate for us.

It was not uncommon to win 30-0. We beat every team in our league that way all year, right up to the last game of the season. In that one we played Brookside at our place and Tommy Pugh was the pitcher again. Throughout the year he had been showing improvement. He was stronger now and he had some speed. He had learned to move the ball around a little bit, too. Someone had taught him about throwing the ball high and tight. That put the fear of God in a lot of little leaguers. In the last inning, during our last at bat, we were losing 4 to 3. With two outs I sliced a triple down the right field line. Hammerin’ Hank was up for us and Tommy threw one really close to him, that his catcher couldn’t get. The ball got away and rolled behind the catcher. I hesitated on the third base line and I heard Mose screaming: “Go, go, go!” I took off, but that hesitation cost me. The catcher flipped the ball to Tommy, who had rushed to cover the plate. The umpire, big Al O’Brien, screamed that I was out. To this day I don’t think I was. People were tired of us, though, and of all our bragging and of all the whippings we put on teams. I think Al just had to call me out.

From the ground I saw Tommy Pugh dancing a jig and his teammates were lifting him up and you’d have thought they’d won the World Series. We only won every game of the season; yet we lost the last one and we’d have to taste it all winter. Tommy would savor victory all through the cold and snowy season.

I was crying as I got up from the ground. The Brookside parents were streaming on to the field and hugging their kids. I was thankful, this one time, that my parents never came to ball games. Mose and the rest of our team disappeared quickly. I couldn’t stop crying. Warner Johnson, one of the big guys, a catcher who had tried out with the New York Giants, came over and put an arm on my shoulder and told me to stop crying and be, at least, the only player from our team man enough to shake Tommy’s hand. I shook my head, indicating I wouldn’t. He crashed a fist into my arm, just below my shoulder, the way my brother did when he was pissed at me. The shot really rocked me. He pushed me toward the celebration. I went and, with eyes fixed upon the ground, offered my hand to Tommy. He was my buddy by this time. He didn’t take my hand. Instead he hugged me and I could tell he was crying. It was a really happy cry and I knew that he was as jubilant that day as I was on that first day of the season, in Brookside, when the ball flew so high and far out into left field.

“Way to go!” The words didn’t come out very easily, but I said them. I pulled away and started the long, long walk into centerfield and toward the joint, a few hundred yards away, that was my house. Warner fell in step next to me and put his hand on my shoulder again.

“You’ll be glad you did that,” he said. “You just became a ball player!”

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