I played Little League baseball. I was terrible at it, but I played. I was skinny and clumsy; I couldn’t field or throw; I could hit a little. Mostly I played right field, which is the position where they put guys who can’t field or throw. And clumsy; OMG clumsy, you don’t know clumsy unless you could see me at the age of 12. (And at 14, I was even clumsier). Mom says that once, on my way from the bench to my position, I tripped and fell three times. A woman behind her in the bleachers said ‘who is that big awkward kid?’ My Mom was too embarrassed to admit she knew me.
I did have one triumphant game, though. Our first baseman was Davey Williams, the coach’s son. And one game, Davey mouthed off at his Dad, who promptly benched him. We didn’t have anyone else on the team who could play first, except for Marc Lunsford, who was pitching. Coach Williams looked down the bench, settled on me, sort of shuddered a little bit. Closed his eyes, as if in terrible pain. Probably threw up in his mouth a little. And then, with a resolute look of desperation, sent me out to play first base. First. Base. The infield. Where a batted ball might actually come my way.
First player hit a ground ball to short; our shortstop fielded it cleanly, threw to first. I caught the ball, tagged the base. Routine play, handled routinely, but I felt like I’d won the Gold Glove. Later, same game, I came up to bat. It was a close game; we were up a run. I swung hard, singled to right center, knocked in a run. It was the best day of my life, up to that point. Later, I even stole a base. Still not sure how.
I was easily the worst player on the team, but it was a very good team; sponsored by Kinser Lumber, if memory serves. Marc Lunsford was our best player. He later became quarterback of our high school football team, then was recruited by Arizona State, where he started at QB for three years. Marc was our best shortstop and pitcher, but we also had Jamie Foutz, another terrific pitcher, and Terry Phegley, our team leader and catcher, a tough competitor, also a bully and a thug. But he was good at baseball; I’ll give him that, though he stole my lunch every day in 6th grade. Plus, of course, Davey Williams, a good hitter when he wasn’t mouthing off. Coach Williams told us that if we won City, he’d take us to a Cincinatti Reds game as a reward. And we did, and he did.
On the bus trip to Ohio, some of us sat in the back and did jello powder. That was our drug of choice. You bought jello (you know, the powder you add water to to make jello), and put it in a baggie, then you’d wet your finger in your mouth, dip it in the jello, lick it off. It was sweet and sticky and, for some reason, against the rules. Grandview Elementary School was death on jello dipping, and teachers were always checking your fingers for that tell-tale stain. But the boys’ bathroom had this industrial strength corrosive soap powder that was great for eradicating jello stains; also for removing the top layer of your skin. I never did get caught. Did I succumb to peer pressure, break a school rule? You bet I did. You had to. Guys would sort of saunter up to you and say, “do you . . . dip? I’m carrying.” And he’d pull out a baggie of jello. A challenge. You either licked and dipped, or you were despised as a weenie and a dweeb. Me, I certainly dipped. I even became a dealer. Charged fifty cents for a baggie of jello, which I stole from my Mom’s pantry.
Re-reading this post, it occurs to me that my Mom comes across badly, which I feel terrible about. My Mom’s great. But I know I baffled her terribly; always bugging her to buy more jello (which somehow mysteriously disappeared from the pantry), and asking for three sandwiches every day for lunch, not knowing that two of them went to Terry Phegley and Charles Robinson, the school bullies.
See, I was a good kid, a university professor’s son, an A student, on the rare occasions that I turned in my homework. I was the quiet kid sitting in the back of the class, reading. I wasn’t a trouble-maker, not really. I didn’t spend recess like most of the other kids did, clipping off grasshoppers’ heads with a toenail clipper, to watch headless insects hop. I was on the school’s safety patrol, an honor I loathed. A few favored kids were chosen by the principal for safety patrol, which meant that you got this white belt-with-shoulder-strap thing you were supposed to wear, especially at recess. The purpose of the belt thing, I now realize, was for the convenience of the school’s bullies, to let them know who should be beaten up first. As a safety patroller, if I saw kids breaking school rules, I were supposed to narc on them. Turn them in. I never did, of course, but it didn’t matter; the belt was enough to get you thoroughly thrashed. I had to do something, so I became a hard-core jello dipper. And jello trafficker.
So, anyway, we jello dipped in the bus to Cincinatti, and then got to the ballpark way early, so we could shag flies during batting practice. It was amazing, to run around on the field of a big league ballpark. The Reds were playing the San Francisco Giants, and all my teammates were Reds’ fans. Above all, we wanted autographs. We’d brought our gloves (essential anyway for shagging flies), and our sharpies. Of course we had sharpies. They were a new thing back then (first marketed in 1964), but they were perfect for autographs.
My teammates and I saw Pete Rose, and ran over, to get his autograph. Rose was the Reds’ best player, already an All-Star, already a household name. He was just 27 that year, and as beloved a player as could exist. Pete hustled. Pete cared. Pete played hard all the time. And we saw him, just rubbing down his bats as I recall, and we asked for his autograph. Me, Davey Williams and Jamie Foutz. And Pete signed their gloves. My turn, and I don’t know, but it was probably the jello stains on my fingers or something, but he turned away. And I said something, like ‘But Mr. Rose. . .”, something plaintive and probably annoying–I could be a real whiner–and he turned back, said a bad word and then: “kid, get lost.” As though he’d decided he didn’t like me. Personally.
I did not want to cry. I was a baseball player too, you know, and baseball players don’t cry. Tom Hanks said. But I wandered off, and, yeah, I was in fact crying, my teammates all off wherever. And this shadow fell over me, and I looked up, and this big black guy put his hand on my shoulder. And he said, “Kid, what’s the matter, man?” And it was Willie McCovey, the Giants’ first baseman.
And he invited me to the Giants’ dugout. And he introduced me to his friends. Willie Mays; I met Willie Mays, and he smiled at me, and said ‘say hey,’ and he signed my glove. And Jim Ray Hart, the great third baseman. And Hal Lanier, the shortstop, nicest guy of the bunch. And I met Gaylord Perry, and he signed my glove, and I met Juan Marichal, and Ron Hunt and Dick Dietz and Jesus Alou, and their rookie right fielder, Bobby Bonds, a great player who had a son, turns out, even better. And they all signed my glove. Which my Mom threw out when I went on a mission seven years later. But that’s okay. I know what happened.
Anyway, I was there, in the Giants’ dugout. And I obviously couldn’t stay there, so I finally left and found my teammates, and sat with ’em, and they all rooted for the Reds, and I rooted for the San Francisco Giants, quietly, on my own. I’m pretty sure this is the box score. I know the game was in Cincinatti, and both Willie Mays and Willie McCovey hit home runs, and I remember Jim Ray Hart hitting two. I also remember the game was shortly after the All-Star game that year, and I knew it was in mid-July. I also knew better than to cheer aloud. I remember maybe wanting to cheer for Pete Rose to strike out or make an error, but he didn’t play, I remember; he may have been injured. But I wanted, more than anything, for my guys to win, for Willie McCovey, who was kind to me, to get a hit. I did jump up when he hit his homer. And Terry Phegley looked at me and said, “what’s your problem? He’s on the wrong team. Hey, guys, Samuelsen doesn’t even know which team to root for!” And I got made fun of. The worst players on good teams always get made fun of.
But he was wrong. I did know who to root for, and why I was rooting for them.
The San Francisco Giants have been my team ever since. I was smart enough to marry a girl from San Jose, so whenever we go to visit her family, I’m able to sneak in a game. And they play in a ballpark with a statue of Willie Mays in front, and the ocean just past right field, an inlet called McCovey Cove. And this year, Gaylord Perry and Juan Marichal threw out the first ball in the World Series. Which, for the second time in three years, we won. They won. We won. They are my team, and always will be, ’til the end of my days on this planet. Willie McCovey was kind to a sobbing child, an unattractive skinny awkward child with weird stains on his fingers. And got his friends to sign a glove with a Sharpie. How can I repay him, except with my lifelong loyalty?
And last night, we won the World Series. And once again, I discovered how good a simple baseball game can make you feel.