October 5, 2010

It's all in the details

In my last post, I asked the question - why do you love baseball? I then invited people to send me their stories. One of the first to respond was a friend of a friend named Woody Berry.

Why is baseball great? It's because when you ask someone why they love the game, they're apt to tell you. Here's Woody's story:

I was a 10 year old living in Corpus Christi, Texas in 1963 and my parents finally agreed (after begging them since I was 7) to pay the five dollar entry fee for Little League baseball. I was drafted by the "Major" Yankees in the Gulf Coast L.L. Over half the guys in the major division were already 12, most of the rest already 11 and only a very few 10 year olds made it.

Suffice it to say I felt like a real Major League draft pick when coach Curly Mellenger called my dad and told him he had picked me. We were; by far, the worst team in the league that year, losing our first 13 games in a row before we finally eked out a win against the lowly Pirates.

At the end of two rounds of seven games each, we stood a whopping 1-13. It bothered me greatly to lose; but hey, I was a 10 year old playing with and against guys I thought were pure gods. I remember our worst loss; a 30-1 drubbing against the Braves (there was no such thing as a mercy rule back then).

I watched Richard Rios of the Braves hit not one, but TWO balls over the light pole behind me in center... in the same inning that night. We were beyond awful; we were just pathetic really.

Then.... the miracle that is baseball began to happen. Our 12 year olds began playing like All-Stars, our 11 year olds finally caught on and we started winning games. Jeff Johnson and John McNeil actually hit a couple of balls out of the park and our two lefties, Richard Wise and Steve Cazstecka, began throwing nasty curves that nobody could hit.

We somehow went 5-2 in the last round, which was significant because each round winner automatically qualified for the playoffs. But the Cardinals also finished 5-2 so we had to turn around and play them in a "play in" game the next night after our last game.

They pounded us like the 1-13 team we had recently been and took a seemingly insurmountable 10-1 lead into the bottom of the 6th; our last at bat. All of the planets must have been perfectly aligned that warm, clear night in May because we started to rally.

A hit here, an error there, a walk here, a hit batter there, seemingly 3-4 Cardinal pitching changes, a tantrum by their catcher - Bill Kirk Jr., son of their loud mouth and mean coach, Bill Kirk Sr., who pulled his own son off the field late in the inning after his 67th passed ball.

It was 10-7, then 10-8, then 10-9 and the bases seemed to be constantly loaded. I got to watch all of it from the first base coach's box, having been pulled from the game during the rout.

Up to the plate stepped 12 year old Emilio Longoria, who had been our hottest hitter in the league during the third round; hitting frozen ropes all over the park. He hit the first pitch he saw just to the left of the center field scoreboard; once again on a line, with what I swear had a white hot tail trailing it as it disappeared into the Corpus Christi night.

It was a walk off salami, to win 13-10, to cap a 12 run rally, by a kid who had never homered in his life, nor would he ever again. Moms were crying; dads were crying; Curly's pregnant wife was crying. Hell, everyone was crying.

Turns out the Cardinals made the playoffs anyway. As the rule was the team with the best record to not win a round got in too. So guess who we played the very next night in the playoffs?

We thrashed the Cardinals 8-2 in a game that wasn't nearly s close as the score and just like that, the 8-15 Yankees were in the championship game against the mighty Tigers who had manhandled us all three times we had played them.

As a result of Little League pitching rules and the extra game, we were completely out of pitchers, so Curly came to a skinny little 10 year old with a pretty solid arm (me) and told me I was getting the ball for the big game.

Don't be getting ahead of me here because this is where reality came crashing back to earth, just like baseball tends to do.

I don't recall even getting out of the first inning, but I do know I walked about 3-4 batters and hit a big kid named Randy right in the helmet. Their ace - Mac Adams, actually stole home on me as I stood on the mound kicking the dirt, wondering how in the world I could be so bad.

In the end, I think we lost 12-2, but the crowd gave us all a standing ovation at the end of the game as Curly made us all come out on the field to take a curtain call. I can honestly say it was the only game I've ever been associated with where I didn't feel bad after a loss. For just a moment, we actually stole all the thunder from the champs. It was heaven on earth.

Why do I love baseball?

Why have I spent most of my adult life as a volunteer coach? Why did I coach each of my three sons through their Little League years, including talking my way on to a U.S. Air Force base when we lived in England, just so they (and me too) could play Little League ball? Why did one of my sons play four years at UCLA and become a two time Major League draft pick?

For the same reasons I can remember names like Curly Mellenger, Richard Wise, Steve Cazstecka, Richard Rios, John McNeil, Jeff Johnson, Bill Kirk and especially Emilio Longoria, just to mention a few of the guys I played with 47 years ago.

For the same reason I came home to Corpus from college at SMU in 1974 to attend the funeral of my former battery mate as a 12 year old (yep, I got converted to catcher at 11 and never played another spot), Joe Ramirez, with whom we went 9-1 when he pitched with the Yankees two years after the miracle in 1965. He had a heart condition and never had a chance.

Why do I love baseball? Because; like Yogi said, "It ain't over, till it's over." Because there's just nothing that emotes quite like baseball. Nothing.

Sometimes, you just gotta believe and that's what that miracle game against the Cardinals taught me back in '63. Never give up; ever... in anything.

Respectfully submitted,
Woody Berry
Richardson, TX

Thanks Woody. That was a heck of a story.

More to come...

In the mean time - keep those stories coming (see the post below).

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