Baseball is a hard game. Not that many are good at it. The coaches know this. We umpires know it better. We blow a call, and the ceiling falls in on us – that’s the hollering by the side we just robbed. We have to stand by the call, and the games has to go on, but we know that we blew it. We know that we are not always good at what we do.
There are a handful of kids who are naturals – by that I mean the guys who can hit. Natural talent is seen in all sports, if I can remember right. Actually, I can’t. I’ve forgotten. I am still with the baseball, though. That I still know about.
The thing about this game is that, when your turn comes in the batting order, you are placed right on the spot: the entire game concentrates on what you can do, or can’t do, to that ball coming in at you. Nothing happens at all in the game unless and until you connect with it. And if you can’t connect, it is quite hard indeed.
Most people would be inclined to think this is not a big deal. Okay, maybe it’s not. But the coaches and umpires sure see it differently. We spend entire seasons – every one of them – hoping that the forlorn kid at the bottom of the order will get his first hit. When he strikes out – again – we make like we don’t notice. We turn away. We hear the sidelines people pipe up with something like, “It’s okay. You’ll get him next time.” We don’t do that. We know that it is not okay, and that nothing you can say is going to help him. The kid has been defeated, dealt one more dose of humiliation. Ignore it as best you can. It is part of the game, a hard game.
This now is a recollection of a natural.
The young man I am remembering had capability which was put in high relief. Athletically, you could say he was disabled. However, there is the law of compensation, or at least we like to think there is one. And in him, we were privileged to see it applied full force. I already have allowed that this stuff might not be a big deal. You forget that. It is a big deal. To us, coaches and umpires, who preside over the consistent displays of frustration and ineptitude, it is huge. As far as I can tell, all of us have a sense of something special when we see it. We don’t understand it either. Sometimes, I’ve heard it described as “God-given talent” or “he’s blessed.” So, okay, there it is: the Good Lord granted unto this kid our game of baseball, and he is indeed one of The Chosen.
And how was he so blessed? Just what here is so huge?
This kid, you understand, could hit. He could hit better than anybody.
On this particular day I describe, we had a forfeit. Not enough players showed up on coach Carlos’s team for the game to count in the league standings. When this happens, we scrimmage the kids. We add some players to the short-handed team, and we go ahead with the game. We give the kids some baseball.
This fellow I am remembering was not on a team. Probably, he had tagged along with a friend who was playing that day. He was ten years old or so – the same age as the teams scheduled. Chubby kid. I had noticed him standing off on the first base sideline. I had noticed his feet.
Standing there relaxed, his feet pointed inward toward each other, severely so, almost parallel. Now, every kid wants to get in the game, if he can. Nobody wants to stand on the sideline. Not this kid, either. This I know.
So I went over to him.
“Hey, big guy, we don’t have a game unless we add some players. You want to get in?”
He didn’t answer me. Didn’t need to. He brightened. He moved forward and came with me. He wanted to, all right. We went over to Carlos.
“I got enough people now. I don’t need nobody”, said Carlos, nodding toward two older kids, both from the higher-age league. One of them I knew – Miguel – a pitcher, and a pretty good one.
“Take him anyway,” I said. “And you’re not pitching Miguel, either. We’re scrimmaging. We want some hitting.”
Carlos would have noticed his feet. But he didn’t show it. The coaches are good guys. They like kids, or they wouldn’t be doing what they do.
“What’s your name, sport?” asked Carlos.
“Daaay–Quan! Ohhhh-kay! Our big gun! We’re gonna use you in the outfield. Get your mitt.”
Daquan didn’t move. Carlos took note.
“Use mine,” said Carlos. “You throw right, right?”
Daquan nodded. Carlos wrote him into the lineup.
I had told Carlos not to pitch Miguel because that was just what he was going to do, I figured. He might not start him, but he would bring him in to pitch once the losing started. In our league, people want to win. That goes for games, scrimmages, beefs with the umpire – you name it. I have heard of youth baseball leagues where they do not even keep score. I can’t imagine something like that. So far, during his season, Carlos’s team had been losing steadily. That was why he had forfeited. Some kids lose interest if they can’t win. They stop coming. What I expected to happen is that Carlos would get Miguel on the mound as soon as he could, shut the other team down, and then run up a lopsided score. That would make up some for his season of frustration so far. Let’em know you’re still to be reckoned with. He’d be thinking that.
Daquan came up last in the order. He was the unknown add-on.
He came up to the plate and stood in good, crowding it a bit. He had played some, or at least batted some, it looked like. A lot of kids new to the game will stand far off the plate, fearful of getting hit. Not this kid. And his feet weren’t pointed inward as much as before. This I managed to notice, never taking my focus off the ball out there on the mound with the pitcher. “Keep your eye on the ball” is an everyday expression. As far as I know, it comes out of baseball. For an umpire like me, it is an absolute duty. All the time, I must concentrate on the ball. Whatever happens to it is the game.
The first pitch came in. I watched it in. It bounced in the dirt outside. The next pitch came in better – mid-level, but still outside. I looked it in, ready to call ball two, when the bat came through. Its heavy part hit it, good and solid, and the ball went outward, faster and straighter – a hard line drive right at the second baseman. I broke toward first base, mask off. I have to get close enough to first base to make the call there. At the same time, running up the sideline, I have to stay focused on the ball. It looked like the drive would just go over the second baseman’s head. He’d have caught it, I think, but he ducked some as he got his glove up. I knew his reaction. You adjust to speed, and he wasn’t used to a bullet like this, coming right at him, maybe to smash him full in the face. He got his glove up, protecting himself, knocking the ball upward and outward behind second base. Down underneath me, when that drive left his bat, was Daquan, also breaking out toward first. I suppose what happened is that he just tipped right over forward, running and falling at the same time. He hit the ground hard. I heard it, didn’t see it. A burst of laughter cut short when he fell. His batting helmet must have bounced in front of me. I kicked it as I ran up the line. I still had a play to call at first. The relay throw was way short. The pitcher moved over and got it on the bounce. He didn’t bother throwing it to first, rather just running over and stepping on the base. Daquan was out.
As soon as I made the call, I turned to see what had happened to him. He was back up on his feet. Carlos was already out there, running out from behind the cage. People were quiet. I picked up his helmet.
Carlos was crouched down, his face in front of him, looking closely. Dirt was stuck to the right side of the kid’s head.
“You okay?” he whispered.
He didn’t answer. He didn’t nod either. He took the helmet from me, turning toward the bench. He brushed away the dirt as he walked back around the cage. He just kept his mouth shut. If he was hurt a bit, we couldn’t tell. Carlos sat down next to him at the far end of the bench. Carlos might have been thinking about that burst of laughter. He would not have liked that either. Myself, I didn’t see it. I guess trying to run as hard as you can on feet like that, trying to make what you can out of what you’ve just hit, can look funny, at least to the other kids. Maybe to everybody.
He was not hurt, it turned out. When he took the field with his team, he was running. Now, he had my full attention. He could run some – not fast, but he could run. And he looked real eager. I glanced over at Carlos, and I could see that he was eyeballing him too. I’d have bet that, now, Carlos was thinking about that gorgeous line drive we’d just seen. Nobody else had blasted a screamer like that. About twenty kids had batted in front of him, and nobody had come even close. I’d have bet that Carlos was thinking that he’d found something to save his crummy season so far, that maybe he’d better try to get this kid added in permanently.
We kept going with the scrimmage. The pitching didn’t get any better. On the ten-year-old level, so few pitches are strikes that we use a four-walk rule. After the fourth walk in an inning, there are no more walks and only strikes are called. This is better for the game, but it takes a while to get enough pitches over the plates. Batting tenth, Daquan didn’t get up again until the game was almost over.
This time, he looked looser, practice-swinging between pitches. We had already used up the four walks – pitches coming in all over the place. He could wait for a good pitch, same as the one he’d blasted earlier. I called it a strike. I have to move the game along, and he could have reached it, as he had before. Then, he did get a good pitch, chest-high and right down the middle. Looking it in, I saw the bat come through, and out went the ball, higher and harder than the last one, another line drive. He’d have gotten his full weight behind this one, slugging it. The ball went out on that line, not far over the left-fielder’s head, but hard and straight enough that his only play on it was to turn around and start running after it. We have no fences on our field. There is a ditch out there at the edge of left field, and some woods behind it. The ball bounced in there somewhere.
“Home Run! Home Run! God a might! Home Run!” Carlos was screaming it, clapping his hands and jumping up and down, moving sideways out toward the plate. As ump, I am supposed to do something about this - a coach out in the base path is an interference. But this was different. There wasn’t going to be any play at the plate. Not only was this a home run, the ball had been made to disappear.
Daquan was running up the first base line, arms and legs moving hard. From where I was, he seemed to be arched backward some – it didn’t look normal – like he was making sure he didn’t fall forward this time. Then, he rounded first, and got to see the left fielder out in the woods, he slowed down and straightened himself. Had he wanted, he could have slowed down to a walk. The left fielder was still out there looking for the ball when he got round third.
Carlos was there waiting, and he started up again: “Best we’ve seen! Best we’ve seen! Where’d you learn to hit like that? Nobody’s hit nothing like it! Where’d you learn to hit like that?”
Carlos stooped down a bit and shook Daquan’s hand, pumping it up and down, a big smile on his face, backing up as he did it, so Daquan could tag home plate.
Carlos was not acting. He was excited. And he was right. Nobody ten years old had hit something like that. Nobody in our league anyway.
Some of the other kids came out and shook his hand, too. When he got to the bench, other kids shoved over to make room for him. They were smiling. That Daquan was sure not a talker. He still did not say anything. But he was smiling. That we could see.
From guest contributor Tony Judge