Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger. –James Joyce, “Araby”
He was a horrible kid. “Ob-nox-ious,” as the wife’s sister would say. I’d just call him an asshole because we were just learning to curse then, and he was an asshole.
None of it mattered in the long run, but it mattered then because I loved baseball as only a nine-year-old does.
What happens to a Little League team when one of the best kids is a problem?
Anyhow, Wayne was one of the twelve-year-olds. He was bigger than most of us – certainly bigger, and taller than all but a couple – and frankly, he was ugly like an adult. You know, his features were grown-up, larger than our noses and lips. A few years later when I read Wells’ story about time travel, I imagined the Morlocks looked like Wayne, but with regular skin. Oh, and he was too fat, the kind of kid who looked like a middle-aged man with a beer gut, minus the moles and hair, naturally.
But he was strong by Little League measures. He could throw all the way home from mid-outfield unlike some, particularly the smaller kids, and if he got his pitch, he could hit the ball over outfielders if they weren’t playing too deep. But they rarely did that because Wayne rarely swung at the right pitches.
In retrospect, this was weird because Wayne’s father was always at the game – part of the normal Little League “regular parents” who come to games all the time because they’re concerned about the safety of a younger kid, or they’re baseball junkies, or they’re interested in getting on the umps. Big Wayne – I think that they were both Waynes, but we probably would have thought of him as Big Wayne even if his name was Herbert – Big Wayne was a whatever – contractor’s assistant, pizza delivery guy, once he was in some really weird uniform. You saw him do a bunch of things. What he didn’t do, however, was teach Wayne anything about thinking about pitches, even simple shit like “it’s 0-2; he may waste one.” He also had no control over his son’s behavior on the field in any other way either.
And that was the problem.
I remember the first day I practiced on Wayne’s team, the Wildcats. We got our uniforms that day, and your first Little League uniform – particularly if it’s new – is a thrill. Our shirt was orange and had a printed wildcat in yellow under the team’s name. The image and lettering were raised in short bristle things. You don’t see it often now, and while the white pants were used, our league always came up with new shirts. You never forget that new shirt smell, although part of that may have been the plastic(?) stuff used for the lettering and image. But all together that smell hangs around in memory. It smells like success – Yankee Stadium, big cheers, and pretty girls all in a $10 cotton T.
Some of us had high hopes. However, the Wildcats were flat-out horrible, and made even more horrible by Wayne.
It wasn’t immediately apparent. Usually big, strong twelve-year-olds help a team at least a little, and at first Wayne kept our weak team in games. The seemingly next best player on the squad was a girl named Martina, who was actually a good athlete; quickly, she became the best player. At the time there were few girls playing at this level; the inclusion of girls had started at tee-ball levels a lot of places, but many girls dropped out of what you think of as Little League (nine to twelves) before they weren’t competition equals with twelve-year-old boys whose hormones were kicking in.
Anyway, Martina and Wayne sort of kept us in games we lost early, but the second loss should have suggested the basic problem – Wayne’s lack of discipline. It wasn’t even a word I used at nine. It meant the principal’s office or detention then, but in the second game we were up, 6-5 late, and Wayne scooped up an easy grounder to short – with the bases loaded. All he needed to do was flip the ball to the second baseman for the inning’s final out, but he was distracted by the small, quick kid streaking towards home plate from third. This must have annoyed him, so he fired the ball towards the batting cage.
And missed it. We lost in extra innings.
By the eighth week we were 1-7, only because one team didn’t have enough players show up on a day threatening rain, and the list of Wayne’s nonsense plays was growing; worse, it didn’t seem as though his ridiculousness was a matter of frustration and over-trying – or whatever you’d call that. It was simply that he was out of control – beyond his father’s reach, and certainly beyond the grasp of our blob of a moron coach.
Incredibly, Wayne had accomplished all this in a matter of half a season:
- Entering a game to pitch in the top of the sixth inning, up 3-2 with two on base, he walked seven people in a row. Throwing harder and wilder on each pitch. We didn’t come back.
- Again at shortstop, he threw five balls past the first baseman, and hit the catcher in the mask with a 70-mph throw from a distance of twelve feet on a slow roller, allowing a run to score.
- He missed what can only be called an eephus, but he should have expected it since it was thrown by the smallest nine-year-old on the field (who was pitching because we were down 23-4). Worse, he let go of his bat, and it hit another nine-year-old at third base; then, he yelled at the kid, “Get out of the way, asshole!”
- Summoned to the mound again, he produced a fourteen wild-pitch performance, but that might have been because Fat Fran was hungover…anyhow, you get the idea – there were other, equally bad performances, and basically, hard as it is to do, this kid single-handedly lost about six games.
However, while not a single kid on the Wildcats moved through the season and made any significant personal improvement (the assistant coach who later went to jail for union intimidation nonsense didn’t help either although I actually liked him), we came to the last game of the season with a chance of making the playoffs. The tournament was designed like, what, a giant participation trophy, I guess.
Five of the eight teams would advance with the fifth and fourth-place teams meeting in a one-game playoff to meet the first place team (and be eliminated, duh). We were fifth at 2-10.
The day of what everybody assumed would include our elimination from the playoffs was a postcard day. High, fluffy clouds against blue, bunting on the batting cage – even the uniforms looked clean. Our opponents were the also dreadful Panthers, 4-8 in the regular season. Their one advantage was a lanky twelve-year-old who threw hard for a kid – a “big kid” as I would have seen him them.
That didn’t matter, since in the first inning, Martina slammed a first pitch fastball into the right center gap, and since there was a fence only in left field, it kept rolling – a traditional Little League rolling home run.
And it stayed that way for a while. I actually had a double in the third inning, but managed to get myself thrown out trying to steal third. I sort of consoled myself that the hit had raised my batting average to a measly .111, a fact that depressed me nearly as much as waiting for Wayne to do something wrong that would erase our 1-0 lead. Mostly, however, the goose eggs accumulated because both teams hit like squads that had compiled a .333 winning percentage coming into the contest.
Parents yawned in the bleachers. The clouds drifted slowly by. I reflected on our sad fortunes, and the weird possibility that we might advance in the playoffs, something my sad pro team, the Phillies, would not do that year. If it all ended today, at least my average would stay above .100 – I was on the bench after four innings, replaced by an even weaker nine-year-old.
I began rooting silently for Wayne to pull one of his bonehead moves because that would set off Mr. Ritchie, the coach who had begun to grumble lately about such idiocy always sinking our leaky boat. At least there would be someone clearly to blame for the awful season, and it wouldn’t be me or my friend Frankie. I suddenly had a modest goal, but one I had no control over.
And all of a sudden, for once, I got my wish. With a runner on third for the Panthers, a small kid dribbled one to Wayne, also at third, and he surprisingly managed to hold the runner. But then, he reared back in some sort of half-assed wind-up and fired a bullet towards first. It caught the batter on the side of the head, and he went down, howling. Panther coaches ran towards him, and on their way, one frantically waved the baserunner at third towards home. He had stopped when the other kid went down, but then trotted home: 1-1. The kid Wayne hit was lucky; he was only hit a glancing blow, which nonetheless cut his ear. His yellow shirt was dotted with blood droplets. He left the game, and the next Panther struck out.
Both teams batted unsuccessfully, then, until we came to bat in the bottom of the sixth. Runners for both teams who reached on errors were stranded by strikeouts. Wayne didn’t injure anyone else, and he would bat third in the last inning.
Both our runners reached base before The Moron came to bat, and both had moved up to second and third on a pitch that got by the Panthers’ catcher. My friend Frankie was on second. He was fast. The kid on third was even slower than Wayne, however.
Wayne walked to the plate and told the catcher, “You’re done, asshole.”
The umpire said, “Be quiet, Wayne, or I’ll toss you.”
Wayne grunted, and then showed more plate discipline than he’d shown in the last four games. He actually worked the count to 3-2. Oh, hell, I thought, he might walk. Martina was next. Pretty much all she’d need to do is put the ball in play, and I’d have to watch Wayne’s fat ass dancing around screaming, “WE WON, ASSHOLES! Panthers suck” – and so on. But no, there was a chance – the next pitch sailed high and wide, and The Moron reverted to form, lunging and jumping at the same time to get his bat on the ball. It ticked high into the air near second base, sounding like a badly made cue shot. Our runners froze.
The ball dropped out of the spinning second baseman’s glove. Everybody moved.
That Panther infielder was pretty quick, though, picking up the ball and firing home, or rather to his catcher, who, oddly, was eight feet up the third base line, where he swiped at our runner, tagging him out. In spinning back to face the infield, though, the ball shot out of his glove, hit the fence in front of our bench, and rolled a little behind the side of the batting cage.
He charged after it, and Frankie steamed towards home.
With Wayne on his heels!
The catcher snatched up the ball, ran back around the edge of the cage and dove at Frankie who had started his slide way too early. Frankie was out, but –
Wayne took two more lumbering steps and dove over the catcher and Frankie – seriously – like those kids diving over catchers ten, fifteen years later on YouTube. And Wayne actually cleared two kids – bounced over home, but had clearly caught it with both his stomach and then his knees.
And I had to watch The Moron dance around cursing.
The Panthers Head Coach just stood there staring straight up, as though into darkness instead of a sunny sky. I knew how he felt.
Wayne was the hero.
I guess that’s why they make them play all the games in the major leagues on TV – so that kind of thing is understood properly. You know, a body of work, and so on.