Crack! Ready in your fielding position, with one hand on your knee and your glove down on the other. You leaned down and forward in your stance ready to explode towards the moving baseball. Even before the ball was put into play, you focused on the movement you’d make if the ball came in your direction. Anticipation, I think they called it! Predicting the results came easier if you’d planned the outcome already in your mind.
Things that altered your performance were the unknown facets of the game. Speed of the play, how hard the ball was traveling, speed of the base runner or the hitter. Execution followed through based on someone else’s anticipation as well, things you couldn’t control. Each player became solely responsible for their own actions and fate was determined by repetition. In order to develop that chemistry between ball players required hours of practice, practice and more practice.
Guiding our efforts would be my Little League manager, whom mine was an elderly, crafty veteran in Mr. Foster. As a 9 year old player I’d joined the ranks of the Major league which supported 9-12 year olds. Having been drafted through means of a try-out camp conducted on the field one early Saturday morning. Names dropped faster than bugs sprayed with Raid, yet my name hadn’t been called. Finally the Chesterton State Bank Lions and Mr. Foster yelled my name, “Craig Walters”. The Lions team was defending league champions and had many returning older players.
Practice after practice I became adjusted to the other players on my new summer league team. Many nights or Saturday mornings we honed our skills by repeating the processes over and over. As an outfielder I worked on, catching the ball first, collecting myself and firing the ball like a BB to a cut-off man. The cut-off man was usually a middle infielder who came towards you, for a relay, to reduce the length of my throw and turn firing the ball into the infield quickly.
If executed flawlessly the ball could get there before an incoming runner resulting in an out. The faster the play unfolded the more efficient your defense became. Unfortunately, if you either botched the catch or overthrow the cut-off man during the transition the coaches got upset. “Your wasting my time, Craig”, was uttered from Mr. Foster’s lips. Eagerly, I wanted so badly to prove my worth and excel at this beloved game. Occasionally, at practice I’d stand in my position in the outfield for over an hour with no action. Causing my focus and attention to wonder which compounded the situation.
Then as my anticipation wondered and daydreaming began a ball undoubtedly came flying in my direction. Resulting in a poor performance and a scolding from other players and Mr. Foster. More than once I failed to be ready and my punishment required some lap running. Running to the dugout, putting down my glove and running around the exterior confines of the ball diamond. Some practices I spent the majority of my time, running laps. I often thought, when middle school starts I’ll be a excellent sprinter.
After a couple weeks of this routine I began to lose my enthusiasm for the game of baseball. Not once had I completed a single practice without running some amount of laps. With my fielding woes piling up I hoped for a better result when batting. Unfortunately, players pitched to players and I lacked confidence facing a 12 year old. Mr. Foster said, “You’ve got to learn to hit off these guys, afterall I won’t be pitching to you in the game”. Not once had I ever seen Mr. Foster throw a ball or even hit a ball. I’m not even sure if he carried a glove. My problem batting became greatly magnified due to my keen eye and patience to only swing at strikes. I prided myself on NOT swinging at bad pitches which would create bad habits. Mr. Foster felt differently, batting practice meant swinging the bat and moving the line quickly.
Mr. Foster was none to pleased with my approach and yelled, “In order to hit the ball, Craig, you’ve got to swing the bat!” I thought but sir, these are balls and I’m waiting for a good pitch. Some 10-12 pitches later he’d bark, “Alright if your not going to swing, your done Craig, put the bat in the dugout and start running some laps”. Routinely this same treatment prevailed and feeling overwhelmed I contemplated quitting the sport. When I informed my father he said, “Your NOT QUITTING, give it more time and find something you like about the game and work on that”.
So far my existence into the major leagues cast a dark shadow over my attitude. The fun and joy I’d obtained in the minors playing for my Uncle George vanished. Not wanting to upset my father I attempted to try and find something, anything, no matter how small to keep it fun, real and exciting. I wondered if the task would keep me focused, happy and fulfilled. With the real games and the season starting soon I hoped things would eventually change.
Game after game my entrance in the line-up consisted of the mandatory two innings of defense and one plate appearance. On one particular game I approached the plate stepping inside the faded, chalked line batter’s box. I was facing a kid who appeared around 10 foot tall. As he released the pitch it seemed his hand practically touched my bat. Luckily due to my scared stiffer than a board approach I worked a 3-2 count. Knowing that I had to swing, I barely fouled off two consecutive pitches. The final pitch bounced in front of the plate and I tossed my bat down and sprinted down to first base. As I ran down the line I smiled widely in jubilation knowing I’d reached base safely.
Seconds later my smile got quickly erased when Mr. Foster removed me immediately and subbed in another player to run for me. I thought as I walked across the infield towards the third base dugout, “I’m a good runner, I should be, I run more at practice than any other player”. Nonetheless my required two innings of defense and one at bat were completed. Lo and behold the next hitter smashed a grounder to shortstop who easily fielded, tossing to second base for the force out. My frustration and anger grew now, knowing I’d been removed for no reason. This form of coaching by Mr. Foster continued the remainder of the long season.
My team, the mighty Lions, excelled winning the league Championship with a 10-2 record. Resulting in the Lions being invited to the next round of districts in Hobart. Now with the extension of the season unfolding Mr. Foster asked the team, “Who all are available for the upcoming district tournament, it starts Saturday?” Two of our regulars raised their hands, “Mr. Foster my family is going on a family vacation”, one guy stated. The other player said, “Same here coach, we’ll be gone a whole week”. Mr. Foster dropped his head low and scanned his player roster. Lifting his head he approached me, “Craig, will you be available for districts?” I honestly hoped I wouldn’t be available for whatever reason, family vacation, a party, an outing with friends or just any event. But I knew we had no family plans, “Yes, Mr. Foster, I’m available!”
I’d hoped our season would be over and I could move on from the dreadful pastime. My role for playing time consistently echoed the bare minimum of two innings defense and one at bat. Sadly, I was beginning to be recognized by State Officials for my overzealous coaching at third base. Honoring dad’s wishes I found something good and enjoyable about the game of baseball. I tried mimicking Tommy LaSorda from the Los Angeles Dodgers. Fans laughed about how animated I became in between those white chalked lines of the coaching box. Some said my hands and arms turned more than a farmer’s windmill.
With two players unavailable I hoped my playing time would increase and my coaching time would decrease. Unfortunately, Mr. Foster had dreams of taking the Lions past district and advancing onward, maybe even to the Little League World Series. He knew, with two studs gone, we just needed to get through districts and they would be back. But, when game one ended in a nail biting loss and an upset loss Mr. Foster began to fall apart. He lost focus and vision and scrambled around looking for answers. When game two rolled around on Monday evening Mr. Foster looked frazzled, his shirt was wrinkled, looking like he slept in it all night. His face scruffy and eyes bloodshot and swollen.
Scoreless after four quick innings, where the opponents had one measly hit and we hadn’t had a base runner. Mr. Foster began to look even worse, his shirt was now soaked in sweat and his excitement wiped off his face. Knowing that soon he’d have to put his substitute players in the lineup appeared to take his breath away. As the stress and tension built he wrapped a damp towel around his neck trying to cool down and focus. Any error in his calculations of the league requirements for each player and his team would lose by disqualification.
As inning five started our team became unraveled and uncharacteristically made numerous fielding mistakes. Compounded with the mental errors of throwing to the wrong bases or overthrowing players we fell apart. Our opponents rallied for 10 unanswered runs. Causing the Lions to score at least one run in the bottom of the fifth to stay alive. Having played the field I ran into the dugout and readied myself for my at bat. I’d be leading off the inning and so desperately wanted to prove myself to Mr. Foster. As I stood in the on deck circle I studied the field, watched the pitchers warm up tosses and focused on the task ahead. When the Umpire yelled, “Let’s have a batter”, I strolled to the batters box.
Casually I glanced down at the third base coach, took the signs and as pitch number one tumbled towards the plate. I squared around and laid down a bunt, exploding down the line to first I heard, “FOUL BALL”. The second pitch I took for strike two. Calmly I began a barrage of fouling off pitches, pitch after pitch I kept my bat alive. Finally pitch 10 approached the plate and I took it thinking it’s outside. Well, Mr. Umpire decided it was close enough and rang me up, “YOUR OUT!”
With my head down I ambled back towards the dugout. Fans began standing and cheering for me. I wondered, “Why the celebrating, I struck out!” Dad informed me later, “Son I’m proud of you, you NEVER gave up and you battled your butt off out there. Keep your head and chin up!” Two batters later our calendars became free for the remaining days of summer. Mr. Foster couldn’t come up with anything to say, other than, “Pack things up Boys, were done. Let’s go shake their hands and head home”.
Months later the team touched base with each player to have a league ceremony and recognize the Lions. While my grandmother babysat us she knew of the ceremony and questioned, “When do you have to head to the park? What time is your trophy presentation?” I responded, “It’s at 1:30 this afternoon, at Chesterton Park and I’m not going”. Bewildered, she asked, “But why?” I muttered, “Because it doesn’t mean anything to me. I didn’t contribute to our team!” As I continued to mumble and blow off steam I stormed outside to cool off.
Grandma seemed to recognize my pain and feelings and gave me my space. Some time later she called Ron and I in for lunch. While eating she brought up the ceremony again. This time she focused on a story and life lesson before attempting to sway my feelings. She began with, “Craig, have I ever told you about the time as a young woman I dreamed of meeting a man who would really love me, who’d I have children with and raise them together and have a loving home. These were my hopes and dreams, my goals and ambitions. When others laughed, or pointed fingers I never wavered. I remained focused, determined and today I’ve raised three boys, been married over 40 years and lived in many wonderful, beautiful and loving homes.
My point is, (You and you alone have your dreams, your goals. If you put forth the effort, did your best, went to all the practices, never gave up on yourself, you should feel as important as the rest of those players. They aren’t any better than you, it took a team to win that Championship.) Now, finish up your lunch and head down to the trophy presentation ceremony!”
Years later I repeated these words and sentiments at my grandmother’s funeral. Stating, “The prize wasn’t the trophy or the ceremony. The prize was knowing I put in the time, the hard work and participated just as much as the rest of the players. A lesson I still cherish today”. I wish I still had the trophy I collected that day to remind me of the wonderful conversation I had with my loving grandmother.
Moral of the Story: Believe in Yourself! Don’t ever give up. When the chips are down and the going gets tough, dig a little deeper. Reach down inside and amaze yourself, but more importantly (Never quit!). Thanks Grandma for your loving touch.