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The Last Game Anniversary

May 11th, 2015 · No Comments · Baseball

I was sure I must have written about this before, on this blog, the final organized sports competition I was part of, so many years ago.

But I have searched the site with all manner of names and terms, and I got no results, so the search function is not working or I wrote about this somewhere else.

I do not expect anyone else to be interested: It is few hours in the life of a 17-year-old, a long time ago.

I did not play interscholastic sports for the first 2.5 years of high school. Mostly, it was a social thing: I never felt part of the group. Also, I wasn’t sure I was good enough. In part, it was practical: I lived 26 miles from Los Angeles Lutheran High School, and until I had a car, it was going to be difficult to get home two or three hours after the bus had left.

I had not played organized sports at all, actually, which was odd, considering we played informal sports all the time, in my neighborhood. My brothers and I, and three neighborhood friends. We followed the three major sports around the calendar. Tackle football in the fall, on the lawns of the nearby school; basketball in the winter, around some hoop attached over a garage door; the baseball-ish sport of “over the line” in the summer.

My father even sponsored a baseball team, for boys in their early teens, but I declined to play because 1) I knew nearly no one on the team and 2) I was convinced the coach would play me only because my father sponsored the team. (Which was certainly true.)

I finally became part of an organized sport the second semester of my junior year, joining the junior varsity baseball team. I was a bit old to be playing with the JVs, but considering I had never played a nine-man game of baseball before, about right.

It turns out, I was a very good defensive player, going back to those hundreds of hours of over-the-line competition, which includes lots and lots of ground balls and pop flies, and third base was a good place to put me. However, I had never hit live pitching, and I had exactly zero experience in organized ball — none of the Little League/Pony League stuff most everyone else in the league would have done. I knew the game, but I had not played it formally, so I was not ready to play on the varsity, and I actually was relieved I was left on the JVs.

It worked out fine. I was on a JV team dominated by freshmen, several of whom were fine players, led by a little left-handed pitcher named Bob Goodyear.

He threw fairly hard, but his breaking stuff was particularly nasty, and it is true throughout baseball, right up the major leagues, that a lefty with good breaking stuff is always tough to hit. He dominated the opposition.

We had some decent hitters, as well, a guy my age named Andy Jackson, and some other freshmen, like Tim Warneke and Chris Haugen and Danny Edwards and Vernon Hemingway.

(Looking back, I wonder if Andy Jackson and I were, in part, left on the JVs because we could drive. Back then, before personal injury lawyers had taken over the world, the school allowed anyone with a driver’s license to ferry players to games. Yeah, a 16-year-old “mature” junior doing 30-mile roundtrips with three or four 14-year-old teammates in a Volkswagen van. The school had a van, too, but you couldn’t get 15-16 guys in there. So I drove several teammates all over the greater Los Angeles area, because we played in a league that extended from the San Fernando Valley to Artesia, and we all got back safe and sound. An amazing concept, in retrospect.)

Anyway, we swept all before us, finishing 20-0. Not included in that mark was our defeat of the varsity during the Easter break. We knew we were pretty good, then, because the varsity was embarrassed (but perhaps not surprised) to lose to us. They were competitive against the other varsity teams in the league, but they couldn’t hit Goodyear either.

The next year, the JV team moved up to the varsity and pretty much took over, aside from Dennis Doescher and Frank Estes and my friend Dan Campbell.

We were pretty good, again mostly because of Goodyear, who did more of his crafty left-hander things and pounded the strike zone.

We played several public schools much larger than we were, like Lennox, Lawndale and Morningside, and won some and lost a few. Then we moved into Olympic League play, which went on a long time, considering it was an eight-team league and everyone played everyone else home and road.

The first time around, we lost to St. Genevieve and Pater Noster, and I was partly to blame for both. After not making an error in 20 games as a JV, I developed a sore arm as a senior and had real trouble getting the ball to Estes, at first base. High, low, wide right, wide left. I suddenly had no idea where it was going. And my arm always hurt.

I don’t remember specifics of the first St. Genevieve game, but I do remember their coach suggesting to his hitters — loud enough that everyone at the game could hear — that they “hit the ball to third base” because he knew I was shaky. Did I make an error in that game? I think I did. I believe we lost 2-0.

In the last game of the first round we played Pater Noster at Occidental College, and I believe it was on a Saturday. Our pitcher was nearly unhittable, and so was theirs, a kid named Farr.

About the fourth or fifth inning, Pater Noster’s best hitter (the league’s best hitter, for that matter), name of Montan, singled and stole a base. Or perhaps he hit a double. At any rate, he was at second base, and he took off for third as Goodyear threw to the plate.

Playing third base on a steal attempt is a tricky thing. First, you have to make sure the hitter doesn’t put the ball in play. Then you hustle over to the bag with the runner not far behind you. In theory, you want to get to the bag so that a foot is on either side of it, with your body angled towards home to receive the throw from the catcher, and then get your glove (with the ball in it) down next to the bag as the runner slides in.

(Now that I think of it, I bet we rarely practiced that. Covering third on a steal. We practiced on packed dirt, dirt so hard my knees hurt from standing (on steal cleats) and running on it for four months, and sliding was a bad idea, so it wasn’t something I had perfected, with the help of the catcher.)

It isn’t easy for a catcher, either. He has to receive the pitch and throw around a right-handed batter. Some catchers at that level take a step onto the field and throw; some sort of duck under the batter and throw behind him. It is not a long throw, but it needs to be accurate because the guy on second nearly always has a greater lead then he would at first base.

So, a bang-bang play. Big guy (Montan was a big boy) steaming at me, trying to straddle the bag, Dan Campbell rushing the ball at me.

The throw was low and it short-hopped me. In a split second I decided to stay at the bag rather than get in front of the ball to make sure I stopped it — even if it meant the runner was safe without a play. But I failed to catch the short-hop, and the ball went down the left-field line, and Montan got up and scored.

We lost 1-0.

Campbell’s throw was not good, but I should have at least stopped it. I blame myself; I think most people watching did, too.

After that, we rarely had runners at third base. Goodyear pitched twice a week, and we reeled off six consecutive league wins, including one over Genevieve, a team nobody liked. We beat them 4-3, I believe on a home run by Larry Reynolds, future Long Beach State basketball coach, into the short porch in right.

That made us 11-2 in the league, one game behind Pater Noster who had lost to Chaminade, I believe it was.

A victory would mean a co-championship, and we would go to the California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Section playoffs in the 1A competition. Back then, only champions got into the CIF playoffs. Or co-champions. (A few years later, the top three would get in, across the sports spectrum.)

It was a bright day, and we were playing on our all-dirt practice field, rather than the grass field where we had beaten Genevieve. I don’t know why.

I am going to try to reconstruct our lineup that day. I think it went something like this: Hemingway, 2b; Warnecke, cf; Doescher, ss; Estes, 1b; Reynolds, rf; Oberjuerge, 3b; Briggs, lf; Campbell, c; Goodyear, p.  Though it is very possible a kid named Hicks, another basketball guy who had joined the team late, played in the outfield, and Briggs was the catcher, with Campbell not playing and Hemingway hitting seventh or eighth.

But I hit sixth. I know that. I hadn’t batted that high all year, but I was hitting fairly well, in my second year of real baseball, and I was up to the 6-hole. I remember being proud of that.

My memory now is reduced to two episodes. And it may well be a memories of memories.

We were trailing 3-2. Maybe the third or fourth inning. Not early, but not late, either, in a seven-inning game. I was on third base. How did I get there? I believe I doubled, one of those inside-the-bag things rather than some ball in the gap. Might have been my second or third double of the season.

And I somehow got to third. Ground ball to the right side? Wild pitch? I would be guessing.

But I was on third, and Rex Briggs was at-bat with one out, and our coach, Jim Young, gave the sign for the squeeze play.

Coach Young was a very good man who also was the school’s athletic director and football coach. He never used profanity, because it was a religious school. Instead, he would call us “hamburgers” when he was angry or mildly exasperated. (He was rarely angry.)

Looking back, after a career covering sports, I can second-guess what he did, both in football (we should have passed the ball all year) and in baseball (he should have benched me because my defense was so shaky, and he shouldn’t have let Hemingway lead off most of the year because he wasn’t ready to hit varsity pitching.)

But I don’t blame him at all for trying the squeeze there. It was a brave call.

If it works, it’s 3-3 and we’re at home, and Goodyear may not give up anything else. Briggs was a decent hitter, but against Farr … and I was slow enough that he would have to hit a fairly deep fly ball for me to tag up and score.

Like all ball teams, we had a “signifier” indicator for signs coming from our coach. All the patting and pointing and head-tapping — signs — that Jim Young did from his station in the third-base coaching box, meant nothing unless it came after the “signifier” — which I believe was touching the brim of his cap.

And if I was not a great player, I at least was an attentive one, as was Briggs, and both of us picked up the sign.

A squeeze play involves the runner on third taking off for home as the pitcher is beginning his move toward the plate. The batter then squares around and bunts the ball. All he needs is a tiny bit of contact to get the ball on the ground, and the runner is home before the pitcher can pick up the ball and throw it to the catcher.

But the squeeze play is sometimes called a “suicide squeeze play” for a reason.

The dangers are 1) if the hitter misses the ball, the runner is dead to rights between third and home or 2) even worse, the hitter’s bunt turns into a weak pop-up which usually means a double play, with the runner doubled off third base.

Rex Briggs popped up his bunt. I think it went up a few feet, right in front of the catcher’s face, and he caught it without a problem. And there I was, 10 feet from home. Did the catcher tag me? Maybe. He may have thrown it to third, doubling me off the bag.

End of inning. From “tying run on third, one out” to “end of inning”.

I thought then, and remember thinking this, that Rex Briggs did not show enough remorse. I don’t remember him being obviously unhappy, and he certainly didn’t say to me, “Sorry for hanging you out to dry.” Maybe he was annoyed he had been asked to bunt when he thought he could get a clean hit off the guy.

Anyway, the failed squeeze was the turning point. Pater Noster got three more runs to win 6-2, and we finished tied for second with Genevieve, at 11-3, and we were 13-6-1 overall.

The second episode I remember and would testify to, was that at least one of our seniors was in tears after the game was over. Sobbing on the bench. Because we were not going to compete in the CIF playoffs, and in his athletic career at the school, and he was a pretty good athlete, he had never been in the playoffs. I remember thinking, “Well, sure, that’s unfortunate, but crying?” (And this was decades before Tom Hanks declared: “There’s no crying in baseball!”)

And one more thing I remember?

It was May 11.

I’m going to guess that all but one or two of every May 11 since that one, I have thought of my last game. Coach Young’s signal, and how I could have scored the tying run, the popped-up bunt, the light-brown hardness of our grass-less field at Centinela Park, my mom in the stands, how close we came to sharing a league championship, my role in our failures which seems larger as the decades slide away, and one of our best players weeping as he sat on the team bench and took off his cleats.

Every May 11.


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