My brother, Eric, is the direct reason that I developed a passion for baseball. We were born in Los Angeles and moved to San Diego when I was just four. The radio was always tuned to the Dodger broadcast with Vin Scully and Jerry Doggett, and in the '60's it was on KFI with it's big 50,000 watt signal, so the games came in loud and clear.
Baseball cards were everywhere, so being an impressionable youngest sibling, I revered my closest brother (four years older), and naturally gravitated toward whatever he was into, including music, learning the drums, politics, girls, and the ocean. By the time I was 13, Eric was off to college and essentially gone forever, so his early contributions to my upbringing in a fatherless house were crucial.
Eric was a pitcher in Little League, and I recall his post-game glee at his best appearance when he was called in from the bullpen with the bases loaded and nobody out and he whiffed three on the Crawford side to help his Department Store team to victory.
I'm 6'2" and Eric is 6'4", so he was a long and lanky righthander who threw straight over the top.
I followed in his footsteps at age ten to play in Cap League. Back then, the kids pitched, but I was a catcher, for the most part. Eric later told me that he actually saw me catch a few pitches cleanly that season, but not many. Hey, everything was new to me, and I was undoubtedly horrible, though nothing could squelch my zeal for playing as I was trying to translate my understanding of a game that I heard on the radio to playing it for real.
At age 11 I graduated to Little League and was assigned to the Safeties team in Minors. With Sandy Koufax as my ultimate baseball hero, I wanted to pitch, so Eric advised me that the best path to achieve that goal was to play the outfield and show off a good hose.
My manager was Mr. Bovis, a genial man with the proper temperment to lead a team of mediocre kids. He had a young Navy gent, probably a flyer, who I recall as a handsome man who had a beautiful convertible with a Playboy on the passenger's seat. I don't recall his connection to the team; I think that he simply knew Mr. Bovis, and was assisting a friend, versus being there because he had a son or nephew on the squad.
The younger coach favored pitching another kid but Mr. Bovis' strategy was to start me every game and have me get us through the first three innings, get a lead, and cruise to wins with the bullpen mopping up. The rules at the time of innings pitched per week allowed me to get half the game in the books for each game, versus tossing me for all six innings and making me ineligible for the next contest.
Mr. Bovis' strategy paid off as we went 10-4 and finished third overall. I went 8-1 and cried in my room like a little girl upon my only defeat. My mom simply said to cry it off and be done with it. I don't bawl like that anymore, but I sure have retained a deep distaste for losing!
It's funny, because the first game that I was unable to start because I was attending the San Diego County Fair, Marvin Motley started and tossed a no-hitter. I got to the game in about the 4th and took over in centerfield to enjoy the gem. Marvin was a great teammate, always positive and helpful. I recall him at third base one game when I hurled a wild pitch. He asked me for the ball, took off his glove, reached down and filled two hands with dirt and smothered the baseball, massaging the brown stuff into the leather before an umpire yelled for him to stop it and give the ball back to me.
Marvin was a stout black kid who threw hard and was--as they say--effectively wild. Most batters at that age are scared of getting hit, anyway, but against Marvin, it appeared that most hitters wanted to be back home watching Jonny Quest versus standing in the box against big Marvin.
As a 12 year old I finally made it the the Majors, playing mostly shortstop and centerfield, which tells you all you need to know about our team; we were lousy.
I was deemed not good enough to pitch. Not sure why. I felt a bit overwhelmed and passively accepted my fate. I hit .218, made a horrendous error at short as I waited back on a hop on a routine grounder that went through my legs instead of being the last out of the inning. Naturally, Jim Reilly, one of the great talents our town every put out, immediately followed my gaffe with a grand slam. Our manager, Mr. Lecompte, chewed me out a bit at the end of the inning as I trudged back into the dugout. That did it for me and I cried in shame, only to be made to feel worse as younger teammates Chris and Jeff snickered at me.
For a kid, that's a kind of turning point that either makes you or breaks you. How many times in our competitive lives have we seen a kid fail and just walk away from it forever?
Luckily, I had a best friend growing up named D.R. who was so competitive that you either had to decide not to hang out with him, or toughen up and raise up your game to keep pace. He did not have the talent of Michael Jordan, Brooks Robinson, or Tiger Woods, but he was going to do just about anything and everything in the book to beat your ass and come out on top.
For example, he exasperated pitchers in high school by setting a 1974 record of 33 walks. The record still stands. He also led the team with a .333 batting average. Most would not say that he was the best hitter on the team, yet he used his brains and talents to force the pitcher to yield to him.
We won the consolation bracket of the Lion's tournament in our senior year. On the second day we played El Cajon HS and a southpaw with good stuff got him on a nice breaking ball first time up. D.R. came to me and asked my opinions about what to expect the second time around and I advised him that the lefty would undoubtedly use the curve to try to get him again since it was so devastatingly effective the first time. Sure enough, D.R. sat on the deuce and came up with a big hit that keyed a nice win.
He was smart, resourceful, tenacious, and was the exact kind of friend that I needed in a house with no dad, and big brothers who were largely uninvolved and soon gone altogether. I needed some male toughness or I was bound to be a mama's boy and sissy. I was a nice, straight, Sunday-school going boy who needed an outside infusion of testosterone and D.R.'s contribution to my life was huge. If he beat you at anything, he was in your face celebrating and declaring his superiorty. You either slunk away into the bushes never to return, or you grit your teeth and upped your game to grab some of your own victories to wipe that gloating smile off of his mug.
Yup, D.R.'s friendship was enormously important in my upbringing.
After the ignominy of the big error at shortstop, the two highlights of the season came in the field and at the plate. First, while in center, I raced to the fence in rightcenter to rob Chris Greene of a homer. Chris was a talented lefty and son of the high school's football coach from Texas, Gene. Chris yelled from the dugout that he would kill me for what I had done. I half thought that he would and could, too, but the catch gave our side such a lift and me such a personal boost, that I was happy to take the verbal flak from Chris.
Being an unschooled hitter, not knowing what the heck I was doing at the plate and not yet being physically strong, I was called upon to pinch hit late in the game as big Bill Rochford was firing a no-hitter. Bill had the best heater in the league so as I carefully stepped into the box, intent on taking the first pitch no matter what, the ump actually chuckled and urged me to join them in the game by getting closer to the plate. I was so embarrassed by his intimation that I was scared out of my wits at being hit by a Rochford blazer (as I most certainly was), that I mumbled with disdain, "I'm taking the first one."
I think that I worked the count to 2-1 before I put on the best swing of my dismal season and whacked a one-hopper off the fence for a double, which turned out to be our only hit on the day. I really marveled at it because I purposely did not overswing and just threw the wrists out there and actually hit the ball right on the screws. Hmm, if I swing hard, I miss it; if I swing calmly, I rip it...perhaps there is a lesson in there somewhere...