The mad dash a little le.., p.1
The Mad Dash: A Little League Team’s Pursuit of Championship Glory, page 1
The Mad Dash
A Little League Team’s Pursuit of
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Ya Gotta Believe
Patrick Quinn, the ol’ left-hander, toed the rubber and stared me down. Now pushing 40, graying at the temples, Quinn had nothing left but guile and guts. I was ready for him.
I tapped my bat twice on the plate and focused on his next delivery. I leaned in, waiting…waiting.
This was my final at-bat, my last shot. Relax, a part of me said, go with the pitch. But my other self wanted to blast the daylights out of the ball. I recalled Babe Ruth’s 714th and last home run, a 500-foot monster that roared out of Forbes Field. “Boy,” bellowed the Babe, “that last one felt good.” And for a brief instant, I thought I heard broadcaster Russ Hodges after Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ’Round the World” in 1951: “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! And they’re going crazy! They’re going crazy! Oh-ho!”
Finally, Quinn wound, kicked, and fired. With his face distorted in concentration, he unleashed his best effort. Like slugger Ted Williams had preached, I looked for the spin on the ball. But it didn’t spin. It didn’t tumble. It wasn’t a curve or slider, cutter or change, splitter of knuckler. This pitch came in fat. Straight down Main Street. Room service. Right in my wheelhouse. Bells and whistles went off in my head. I went for the fences like the great Babe Ruth…and blooped a pop-up right to the pitcher.
“Arrgh!” I grunted in disgust.
“Don’t sweat it, Jake,” said Coach Quinn as my hit plopped like a dead bird into his mitt. “It’s the first practice of the year.”
He smiled and addressed my teammates in the field. “Bring it in, guys!” And with that, the team known as Morey’s Funeral Home trotted toward the bench.
Yes, my team is named after an undertaker’s business establishment. But that’s how it goes in the Little League circuit in Hickory Oak, Michigan. Any small company can get their name slapped on a team’s jerseys as long as they write a check for $300. “It could be worse,” my mom had joked. “The Princess School for Ballet is looking to make a name for itself.” Personally, I don’t mind the funeral bit. It lends itself to good headlines:
“Morey’s Sends O’Sullivan’s to the Grave”
“Morey’s Puts the ‘Fun’ in Funeral”
“Morey’s: Can You Dig It?”
Anyway, this day—the first Saturday of April—was more a day of rebirth. After five brutal months of Michigan winter—cold, clouds, and dirty snow—spring was coming alive. Our town’s famous oak trees, as well as maple and magnolia, were budding. A sheen of baby grass covered the outfield, and a warm breeze fluttered across the diamond. We felt energized.
“It’s a beautiful day for baseball,” beamed Gary, our team’s hyper-enthusiastic baseball junkie. “Let’s play two more hours!”
“That’s not what he meant,” retorted Marty, our solemn-faced teammate who spoke in brief sentences in a dour tone. “He meant let’s play two games.”
“I know what Ernie Banks meant!” Gary retorted. “What do you think I am, a moron? I was paraphrasing! Improvising!”
“Gary, guys, gather up,” Coach said. “Everyone in the dugout.”
Our “dugout” wasn’t really dug out, like in the big leagues. It was just a bench behind a fence, but it did have a special feature: a tin roof. Pretty classy, huh? The only drawback was the occasional pop-up that landed on it, which can only be compared to cymbals crashing against your head.
But we liked our field, which my friend Riley called a kid-sized Field of Dreams. The infield featured manicured grass with a strip of dirt leading from the mound to home plate, just like at Comerica Park (home of my Detroit Tigers!). Center field and right field were more than 200 feet away—unreachable for even the strongest 10-year-old sluggers. But left field was a tantalizing 175 feet. The chain-link fence in left soared 12 feet high, giving us our very own “Green Monster.”
Our ball field rested in humble Hickory Park, which was nestled in a quiet, pleasant neighborhood—much like Wrigley Field in Chicago. Small brick houses with lots of big trees surrounded the park, which we called The Hick. I’ll never forget the sounds of the season: the rustling of leaves mixing with ball field chatter. Sweet memories….
I don’t have any siblings, so my teammates were kind of like my brothers and sister. (Yes, there’s a girl on my team. I’ll get to her later.) Not only did we all hail from the same school, Hickory Oak Elementary, but most of us had been on the same Little League team since first grade. We’ve always been sponsored by Morey’s, which has followed us around like the Grim Reaper.
Our teams have been consistently lousy. The coaches didn’t keep score in first grade (thank goodness!), and the following years we stumbled in with records of 5-9 and 4-10. Highlights included snack time, cap flipping, fence climbing, and bench parents shouting, “Get down from there and cheer on your teammates!” Pathetic baby stuff.
But this year was different. We were fourth-graders, 10 years old—double-digit maturity. Even at our first practice, I witnessed commitment never before seen by the boys of Morey’s. Much of the turnaround was due to our new head coach.
Our previous coaches were moms and dads whose only skill was filling out the lineup cards so randomly that no one could possibly complain of unfair treatment. Coach Quinn, on the other hand, was the real deal. He had played baseball in college, starting at second base for the Central Michigan University Chippewas. As Jeffrey’s dad, he had always wanted to coach us but was too busy making obscene amounts of money in real estate. This year he made time for us, and I for one was eternally grateful.
“Okay, guys, listen up,” Coach said. Mr. Quinn had a perpetually smiley face. He effused enthusiasm, and he always seemed to be bopping to some beat—as if an iPod had been surgically implanted in his brain. His positive vibe energized the whole team.
All 10 of us grabbed some bench: Jeffrey, Riley, Jackson, Evan, Gary, Gus, Marty, Tashia, Rupa, and Jacob (me!). We listened up.
“I think we’re going to have a great year this season, guys,” Coach said.
“Oh yeah, right,” quipped Tashia.
“I’m not talking about wins and losses,” Coach said. “I’m talking about having fun with your teammates. Learning new skills. Enjoying the thrill of laying down a perfect bunt or turning the double play.”
“Like that’ll happen,” interrupted Riley.
“Hey!” Coach shot back. “Riley. Look at me. I want every one of you to look me in the eye.”
That caught my attention, since my dad was notorious for looking in the clouds or at the ground when he talked.
“The only way we’re going to be successful this year is if we believe in ourselves—and our teammates,” Coach said. “We might not be the New York Yankees, but all of you have unique skills that can help us win games. Tashia, I like how you stay down on those groundballs. Rupa? Where’s Rupa.”
Rupa was easy to miss. He had a severe speech impediment—so bad that he was afraid to talk, or even interact with anyone. A smaller kid, he usually melted into the background. He also was the worst player on the team, which is why Coach was calling him out for praise.
“Rupa, in baserunning drills, you were turning the corners like Bryce Harper. You were awesome, buddy!”
“Maybe we can be like the Worst to First Twins of ’87,” offered Gary.
“Or the Miracle Mets of ’69,” I added.
“There you go, guys,” said Coach. “Ya Gotta Believe!”
“Actually,” interjected Gary, “that was the slogan of the ’73 Mets.”
“Well, we’ll make it Morey’s motto,” Coach said. “On the count of three, Ya gotta believe. One…two…three…”
“Ya gotta believe!”
“All right,” Coach said. “Next practice, Tuesday at 5:30. Eat your Wheaties!”
We all dispersed, feeling that this year was going to be a whole new ballgame. I quickly packed my equipment bag and trotted toward my dad, who was waiting near the backstop.
“Jacob,” Coach said in a subdued tone. I stopped in my tracks and turned around.
“I need you to be a leader out there,” Coach said.
I stared back and eventually nodded. No one had ever said anything like that to me before.
“That was a nice compliment,” said my dad, putting his hand on my shoulder.
“Yeah,” I said, still perplexed. “Do they have captains in Little League?”
“No,” Dad said with a laugh, even though I didn’t think it was a dumb question. “But you can be like a captain by how you act and play.”
“Yeah…. Are you going to coach at all this year?”
“Well, Mr. Majus is going to help Coach Quinn. But I’ll be the scorekeeper again.”
Mr. Majus, a quiet old man with a big gut, had been our third base coach the previous two years. He was Gus’s stepmother’s father. Mr. Majus actually made it the major leagues back in 1967, but you won’t find his name on baseball-reference.com. Though he played with the Cleveland Indians, he never got into a game.
Gus said that in one Indians game, Mr. Majus entered the on-deck circle as a pinch hitter in the ninth inning. But the batter ahead of him grounded into a game-ending double play, killing his big-league dream. Now, his only tie to the game is hitting us balls in practice and coaching third base. He never gives us any advice or says hardly anything. I think it’s all pretty sad, to tell you the truth.
While Coach Quinn and Jeffrey loaded their BMW X3, I slunk into Dad’s ’05 Chevy Malibu. “What do I need a new car for?” Dad always asks. “It gets you from point A to point B, doesn’t it?”
When my dad, Douglas Vehousky, was a kid, he idolized Tigers pitcher Mark Fidrych. They called Fidrych “The Bird” because his curly blond hair made him look like Big Bird on Sesame Street. Fidrych electrified Tiger Stadium as a rookie in 1976. Like my dad, he was also tight with the buck. In fact, he used to fish for dimes in payphone coin returns.
“That’s because he made only $16,000 as a rookie,” Dad said. “Can you believe that?”
My dad knows a lot about baseball’s past—and history in general. That’s what he teaches at Schoolcraft College. Dad looks like a quirky professor, with circle-frame glasses and long sideburns. He seems to specialize in the history of misery: famines, plagues, economic catastrophes. He likes to talk about suffering on a grand scale (“Did you know that 75 million people died from the Black Death in the 1340s?”) in order to make me “appreciate” what I have. But his history lessons usually bring me down. Moreover, on a teacher’s salary, he can’t afford a BMW X3.
We live in a two-bedroom brick ranch house on Ogleby Street. It’s not big, but I can play baseball in the basement with a Wiffle bat and a tennis ball, spanking liners off the cement walls. My mom sews dresses for money and decorates nicely despite Dad’s tight budget.
Though recently traumatized by turning 45, Mom (Bridget) has the spirit of a kindergartner. She cracks up at Whoopee cushions, Spongebob, and Tina Belcher on Bob’s Burgers. She’s also really good at doing voices, whether when reading children’s books for kindergartners at my school or doing the voices of my stuffed animals. The funniest is Chewy, my goofy-faced Teddy Bear who takes everything literally.
“Hey, Chewy,” I said on the night of my first practice. “This year we’re gonna beat the pants off United Trust.”
“I hope they’re wearing clean underwear!” responded Mom in Chewy’s toddler-like voice.
Me: “We’re going to kill them!”
Chewy: “You’ll go to jail!”
Me: “We’ll hand them their lunch!”
Chewy: “Hot dogs or hamburgers?
Me: “We’ll mop the floor with them.”
Chewy: “Do you clean windows, too?”
Mom broke into laughter.
I went to bed that night musing about Morey’s Funeral Home. Could our new coach, Mr. Quinn, turn us clowns around? Could I meet his expectations as a team leader? Could we unseat the great power, United Bank & Trust, and somehow win the league championship?
“Ya gotta believe,” I whispered to Chewy.
“Believe what?” he replied.
Nine Clowns I Call My Teammates
“You’re not a real ballplayer,” my dad once said, “until you have a nickname.” I thought he was exaggerating until, one day, I looked it up. Seemingly every other guy in The Baseball Encyclopedia has a nickname. Some are simply silly and sing-songy. Major-league baseball has seen the likes of Yo-Yo Davalillo, Still Bill Hill, and Emil “Hill Billy” Bildilli.
In the old days, some nicknames touched on a player’s ethnicity. Reliever Al “The Mad Hungarian” Hrabosky was a door-slamming relief pitcher in the 1970s. I can’t tell you much about Lou “The Nervous Greek” Skizas except that he probably wasn’t as relaxed as “Cool Papa” Bell. Other nicknames are pure poetry, such as “Blue Moon” Odom and “Sudden” Sam McDowell, whose fastball reached the plate in a hurry.
Some nicknames refer to a player’s physical attributes. “Pee Wee” Butts, I’m guessing, had a tiny heiny. Nick “Old Tomato Face” Cullop may not have been the handsomest pitcher in the league. Other nicknames focused on players’ habits or shortcomings. “Fidgety” Phil Collins didn’t inspire confidence, nor did three-time 20-game loser Bill “Can’t Win” Carrick. Moreover, teammates probably kept their distance from “Spittin’” Bill Doak.
Morey’s Funeral Home had enough goofballs that it wasn’t hard to tag them with nicknames. Featured below are personal profiles of every player on Morey’s roster. Gary, Riley, and I came up with the nicknames.
Gary’s nickname had nothing to do with the amount of baked beans he consumed. (That was his own personal business!) It had everything to do with Pete Rose, baseball’s career hits leader (4,256). Every now and then, Gary announced Rose’s immortal line, “I’d walk through hell in a gasoline suit to play baseball.” And you know what? He would.
Highly charged and wild-eyed, Gas channeled all of his energy into baseball. He grunted when he swung the bat and chased after fly balls in the outfield—even when he was playing shortstop. He was every teacher’s nightmare, but every coach’s dream-come-true.
Riley was no Gold Glover at third base (his usual position), but he had incredible guts. On the last day of third grade, he ventured into the teachers’ lounge—strictly off-limits to all students—and plunked 75 cents into the school’s only pop machine. Mr. Clark abruptly whisked him out of the lounge and to the principal’s office—but not before Riley cracked open and chugged an icy cold Mr. Pibbs. Riley has joked about it ever since. He jokes about everything, which makes him a good benchmate during those tense one-run games.
Riley and I called Jeff “The Prince” (though not to his face) because he possessed everything a kid could ask for. He had a massive TV in his bedroom, had been to Disney World four times, and owned a bat bag that was big enough to store his own personal catcher’s equipment. Jeffrey had once been happy-go-lucky and fun t
Gus’ nickname was like Steve “Bye-bye” Balboni’s because he could belt the ball farther than anyone—at least anyone on our team. Gus swung a big bat but rarely said a word. My dad compared him to Tigers legend Charlie Gehringer: “He says hello on Opening Day, goodbye on Closing Day, and in between he bats .350.”
However, my dad insists that Gus’ name will prevent him from big-league stardom. “Gus Voot is not a baseball name,” Dad said. “Reggie Jackson, Joe DiMaggio, Chipper Jones—those are baseball names. Simon and Garfunkel sang, ‘Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?’ What are you going to say: ‘Where have you gone…Gus Voot?’”
That may be true. But if my team were down to its final at-bat and we were trailing by a run, the guy I’d want at the plate is Gus. “Bu-bye,” we’d say as the ball disappeared into the great beyond.
Every 10-year-old Little League team, it seems, has exactly one girl. For Morey’s, Tashia was it. As Coach instructed, we were never to use the phrase “for a girl.” You know: “For a girl, she can hit.” I can respect that. But you know something? For a girl, she had a pretty foul mouth.
Tashia had long, curly dark-brown hair that she held back with one of those scrungy, rubbery things. If she muffed a groundball and someone laughed at her, Tashia would shout, “Go stick it up your nose, you little….” She’d always omit the last word, since profanity wasn’t permitted on the baseball diamond.
Mrs. Whitaker was reviewing fractions with our class when she noticed Jackson staring out the window.
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