by Akim Reinhardt
Thirteen year old Mo'ne Davis recently took America by storm when she pitched her south Philly baseball team deep into the Little League World Series, where clubs from around the world compete every August.
A beloved celebrity of the moment, her success brought to mind my own somewhat tortured little league experiences.
I. While not terribly big, my father was nevertheless a super-stud athlete at his highschool in Fresno, California during the mid-1950s. Captain of the football team (he played end on both sides of the ball), member of the track, field, diving, swimming, and basketball teams, he was popular enough to be voted president of the class of `56. And he was good enough, despite being only 145 pounds, to earn a football scholarship to Redding College in northern California, although he would soon lose it in a gambling scandal. True.
So you'd think I grew up in a household that paid attention to sports and that I learned it all from at my father's knee.
Quite to the contrary, not only didn't the old man watch sports, he didn't even understand the appeal. To him, sports were something to do, not something you watch other people do. I think he looked at it like drinking: he liked drinking, especially with others and alone if need be, but why on earth would he turn on the TV to watch someone else drink? Or drive across the city and pay for parking and admission to watch people drink. It didn't make any sense to him.
Fair enough, you say. But then he must've been a great coach when I was a kid, right? The kind of dad who could really teach the fundamentals and show you the tricks to getting ahead.
Again, not really.
Great players often make for lousy coaches. One common explanation is that their prodigious talent makes it more difficult for them to become good teachers, not easier. That the concept of pedagogy is foreign to them. That they are dumbfounded when mediocre players play, well, mediocre.
How could you not hit that ball or make that shot? That's easy, what's wrong with you? It was easy for them, of course. Not so much for the other 99% of humanity.
And that's kind of what it was like with my dad. As I became old enough to participate in organized sports on the rock and glass strewn fields of the Bronx, he was, more than anything, dumbfounded when it became obvious that I wasn't a great, natural athlete. He wondered about my eyesight (which was fine), and told me to concentrate more (which I did, sometimes). But generally, he was at a loss to explain it.
Of course, to my mother's side of the family, comprised of the scrawny and the rotund, this all made perfect sense. By their standards I was tall, lithe, and dextrous.
But despite being confounded, my father encouraged me in all the right ways. He sent a clear message that childhood athletics were good for building a healthy body and that they should also be fun.
Much to his credit, my father was also openly critical of the scumbag parents (mostly dads back then) who took little league sports too seriously, who screamed at umpires, jeered other children, and rode their own too hard. He knew them for what they were: desperate has-beens and hyper competitive never-weres, desperate to recapture their glory or to invent the glory they never had, by living vicariously through their child. He thought they were pathetic, despicable, and miserable examples of humanity, and I tend to agree with him.
My dad missed a lot of my games because he was a general contractor who worked many Saturday mornings when the whether was good. But when he did make it, he'd sit alone or with a work buddy, away from the other parents, drink a beer, and root for every 10 year old to do well.
And more often than not, I didn't do very well.
Over the course of six years in Little League baseball, plus 1 in football (when I broke my leg) and a couple in basketball, it quickly became obvious that I wasn't going to grab any college scholarships for sports.
II. The 3rd grade began with me attending a new school, P.S. 24. I was still a couple months shy of my 8th birthday.
It was at 24 that I encountered other boys who watched baseball on TV, proclaimed their loyalty to a particular team, and even a couple who spun magical tales of having attended a major league game.
But if following baseball was new and somewhat bewildering to me, with this talk of batting averages and pennants, RBIs and standings, I was taken even further aback in the spring of 1976 when a student asked me if I'd signed up to play Little League yet.
I still remember it. His name was Steven and things were a little loud and energetic. Our class was moving through the hallway, from one room to another, perhaps having just had a music lesson from Mrs. Novay; she was partial to using that thing which looks like the bastard offspring of a midget piano and a flute. My friend Paul still calls it the Mrs. Novay instrument.
It was amid the mild cacophony and buzz of the hallway that Steven asked me if I'd signed up. I was at a total loss. How? When? Where?
I went home and asked my mom. She told me to ask dad, which I did when he got home from work. He was happy and supportive about the idea, but he also looked surprised, as if it had snuck up on him.
Maybe it was because he hadn't thought of 8 year olds playing organized ball. Or maybe it was just how kids getting older often sneaks up on parents when they're not looking; the way a parent knows something's coming eventually, but now?
There was no t-ball back then. Not in the Bronx, anyway. That first year was mostly coach pitch, though kids occasionally got a chance. There was no umpire to call balls and strikes. You just swung the bat. No walks. Miss three times and you were out. I almost always struck out.
We didn't get to play on the actual diamonds with backstops. The adults just setup bases in the grass on an unused patch of Van Cortland Park.
At nearly 2 square miles, Van Cortland is bigger than Central Park. But it's in the Bronx, so no one cares. It's also sliced into pieces by the Saw Mill River Parkway, the Bronx River Parkway, Henry Hudson Parkway, and the Major Deegan Expressway, so it's far from idyllic. There are no memorials to fallen Beatles or free Shakespeare in Van Cortland Park.
One day, Danny's dad was supposed to bring me home from Van Cortland after the game. My dad was working of course, and we only had the one car. But something went wrong. It was actually entirely Danny's dad's fault.
And so after all the kids had left, I sat on the curb along Broadway, watching the traffic wiz by, for what seemed like an eternity.
I kinda knew how to get home. Kinda. But it was about a mile long walk, which seemed impossibly long at that age, mostly uphill, and across countless streets. It seemed too daunting. It felt like I might be in Van Cortland Park forever. Eventually I started to quietly cry as fear overtook me.
A nice Latino man with an impressive moustache took notice of me. He briefly interrupted his soccer game to inquire. I explained my situation.
The mustachioed man walked me across Broadway's many busy lanes to a gas station. They called the cops, who took me home.
Nowadays, middle class parents would probably be freaking the fuck out. Back then, shit just happened. Your mom thanked the cops, chewed out Danny's dad on the phone, and you got on with your life.
III. The next two seasons of 4th and 5th grade little league were grim. We now played our Saturday morning games on Van Cortland's backstopped diamonds, which felt like a promotion. But the fields were rough. The outfield grass was patchy. The infield dirt was a mess. Bad hops were the norm.
My playing was atrocious. I subbed off the bench, getting an at-bat or two per game. Kids pitched full time, and I had a good eye, which translated to a fair amount of walks. But when I swung the bat, nothing came of it. And balls hit to me in the outfield were not likely to be caught on the fly.
I hated playing the outfield.
Part of the problem, I suspect, is that I was young for my cohort, and small for my age to boot, my growth spurt not coming until puberty.
NYC schools had January 1 as their cutoff. Everyone in my grade was born in 1967. My birthday's in November. Another six weeks and I would've been one of the taller kids a year back. But instead I was one of the runts. And my hand-eye coordination was erratic.
In the 6th grade, when most of my classmates moved up a level from the “Minors” to the “Majors,” where kids played on fields that were a little nicer and could take leads and steal bases at will. I elected to stay behind in the minors.
I truly loved playing baseball. I loved it so much that I wanted to get better, and I thought delaying my advance by a year would help. I turned out to be right.
A little bit taller and a little bit older than most of the kids, I was finally one of the better players.
One day, when I was hanging out in the dugout with some friends at their “major league” game, a player I knew, a good one, lauded me for taking the sport seriously and trying improve. He then laid into a mutual friend, one of the scrubs on his team, for moving up to the “major league” even through he wasn't any good. “You should've done what Akim's doing,” he said. “He's trying to make himself better instead of just socializing with friends.”
I had worried I'd be a pariah for keeping myself behind. I never imagined I'd be respected for itby one of the genuinely good players.
IV. The following year I rejoined my cohort in the “majors.” And somewhat to my surprise, my success continued. In fact, I played the best ball of my little league career. I batted nearly .500, accrued my usual allotment of walks, and was a terror on the bases. I even talked the coach into letting me play the infield, where I somehow managed to hold my own for the most part.
Mr. D was a great coach. A fireman. Blue collar, like my dad, which was a rarity in our middle class neighborhood. His son Mike was our catcher.
Mr. D understood little league the way my dad did. It was for the kids. Help them improve as players, build a strong team ethos, and use the game as an opportunity to teach lessons and build character. No prima donas. No spoiled brat outbursts when things don't go your way.
I once threw my batting helmet down in anger after an opponent made a great catch to rob me of an extra base hit. When one of my teammates went to pick it up, Mr. D stopped him. He made me go back and pick it up.
In the end, we won our league's title against a heavily favored team with a young coach who drafted all the stud players and emphasized winning.
It felt good. It felt right.
V. My final year of little league came during the 8th grade. I didn't know it then, but it would be the last time I ever played competitive baseball. Most people never play baseball after little league. They, as did I, soon move on to softball.
Baseball is actually pretty bad ass, mostly because of the aptly named hardball. Grown ups playing the game can get pretty fucked up if they're not careful. The ball's as hard as a rock. Take one in the eye, like I did off a bad hop during practice one day that last year, and it fuckin' hurts. I had a shiner and was done for the day. Have that happen when people with adults bodies are throwing and hitting the ball? Watch out.
Softball is a lot safer. You can have a beer and relax.
I had a shitty coach that last year. One of those white collar dads who didn't understand the game very well, placed way too much emphasis on having his team of 12 year olds win, and openly favored his mediocre son.
I regressed. I was back on the bench. I was back in the outfield.
I wasn't as bad as before. I made a couple of nice catches, I had a few hits. But my mechanics at the plate were screwed up, and there was no one to correct them.
Our team had some good players. We made the title game again, but a couple of those good players couldn't make it. One had moved to Florida. His dad was the super in a local building, and rumor had it that he'd died in a boiler explosion. Who knows. Another kid just didn't show up.
All of a sudden, I was starting the last game of the year. And our unimaginative coach just slotted me into one of the spots where one of the good players was supposed to bat. I hadn't hit well all season, but somehow I was batting second.
We were down big in the final inning. No one's fault. hey just out played us.
I came up with two outs. More than anything, I just didn't want to make the last out of the game. I was determined not to make the last out.
On the first pitch, I got plunked in the ass. It hurt like hell and felt real good. I trotted down to first base, the weight of the world off me. And now the heart of our lineup was coming up. We were down a bunch, but maybe we had a chance.
I took a big lead. I was fast, a good base runner. I could get away with that.
On the first pitch, Rob tomahawked a ball down the rightfield line. I took off like I was fired out of a canon. And then I heard someone behind me shout, “foul!”
I pulled up and turned around. But Rob was steaming towards me. Someone other than the umpire had just yelled “foul,” but the ball was fair, in play. I turned back around and started to run, but it was too late. We were too close to each other. I made it to 3rd base, but Rob got hung up and tagged out in a rundown.
Game over. My fault.
I tried to explain. It was hopeless. No one believed me or cared. I sat down in the dugout, dejected and embarrassed. The coach's son said something smarmy. His dad said nothing.
VI. Mo'ne Davis is living the dream that every little leaguer fantasizes about. She's a star player who led her team to victory in a local league, a regional tournament, and on to the Little League World Series, where she became an international sensation.
As a kid, you imagine what that would be like. You think you understand. You're sure it'll be nothing but sunshine and lollipops.
As a middle aged adult, you realize you have no idea. I can't pretend to know what it's like for Davis to walk out to the mound, with more than 30,000 cheering fans in the seats and television cameras carrying the game around the world, and then start mowing people down. I certainly can't imagine what it's like to have your little league game get something like 10x the TV ratings of Major League games being played at the same time. And I can't even begin to understand what it's like for a 13 year old to see highlights of herself later that night on ESPN.
It's all too surreal for me to be able to contemplate it from her perspective.
I just hope she gets to eat pizza after the game. And that she has a coach like Mr. D and a parent like my dad, to remind her what's what now and again. Play hard. Have fun. Pick up your teammates when they're down. Don't thrown your helmet. And remember that life goes on. Because it will.
Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com