The Summer of 1986 was my fourth and final season as a member of the Civitan Leopards, perennial cellar dwellers of the City of Malvern Little League Association. It’s funny how I can still feel the weight of the thick orange and black jersey on my shoulders. It was a heavy material genetically altered so that it was no longer cotton. It was more than cotton. An amalgamation of cotton dipped in a bucket of Scotch Guard.
The jersey had to be sturdy. They had to last, for they were borrowed and not purchased. I supposed the Civitan Club owned them, as they were our unseen, undemanding sponsors. I wore the same jersey for four years. Orange with black and white trim. The name CIVITAN stretched across the chest in raised black letter, like the number 3 sewed onto the back. The pants were white, and the orange and black stirrups completed the ensemble. It was and is the most handsome uniform I’ve ever worn.
Every year, Angry Mom purchased my brother (we’ll call him Bruce) and me a brand new baseball mitt. We were loyal Rawlings men, because there isn’t any nonsense in a Rawlings designed baseball mitt. No Velcro straps. No intricate “performance” webbing. Just solid leather. Bruce and I spent the weeks before the start of the baseball season dousing our new gloves in leather oil, making it soft in the correct places. At night, we jammed a baseball in the mitt’s palm and wrapped a rubber band around the mitt, as if forcing an inanimate object to commit the shape and feel of the rawhide to memory.
Practices were conducted by our coach, Jimmy Stevens. The word to best describe Coach Stevens isn’t “wiry” or “mustachioed” or “red neck,” even though he was all of these things. The best word is “fair.” Under Coach Steven’s guidance, nobody complained about playing time. Everybody received batting practice. Unless you were nine years old (the League’s minimum age), you got a chance to start. Jimmy Stevens was the best coach of my sporting career.
Practice was something I enjoyed nearly as much as the games. Fielding groundings. Shagging flies. Running bases. Admiring the wind-chime “ping” of a pitch popping off an aluminum bat. When you missed a grounder or failed to cover first base, Coach Stevens would sentence you to a “lap around the tree.” The tree was a gnarly old oak that seemed five miles away from a 12-year-old’s eyes.
As a team, the Civitan Leopards weren’t exactly the New York Yankees. Like many youth sporting organizations in Malvern, teams were supposed to be selected at random, yet it was surprising how the best athletes tended to gravitate to the same teams. The Leopards were comprised chiefly of hardworking kids without benefit of a well-positioned father. Our roster was too short. Too slow. Too uncoordinated.
As a result, every win was especially delicious to us. We hustled after every ball. We made every at-bat count. We were nearly always out-classed, but never out-played. Coach Stevens made certain of that. Loafing was best conducted on the bench.
The night my brother struck out 10 Kiwanas began as special as any other night a Little League baseball game is played. The evening was humid and hot. The stands were alive with the ceremonial Eating of the Nachos. Gravel crunched beneath hard rubber spikes. The night was punctuated by the smack of baseballs colliding with mitt leather; boys warming their arms before the contest.
Greg was the starting pitcher. Greg was an unassuming, thoughtful kid with a splash of freckles peppered across his face. He owned a side-armed delivery that he never fully mastered. Games with Greg on the mound often ended in horror, but you loved rooting for him anyway. He was a good kid.
In the other dugout lay the Kiwanas, who two years previously had defeated us 30 to 1. They were not the same team, of course. Most of the boys who had punished us two years ago had moved on to Junior Babe Ruth. But the Kiwanas who remained were still formidable, and we were still scarred by the beating.
During that particular year, I played first base. My brother played second. I was the hitter of the family; my brother the fielder. Bruce, who weighed as much as a cat and wore thick-lensed eyeglasses, was an amazingly reliable second baseman. Like his mitt, his style was nothing fancy. He got it front of the ball and lobbed it to me for the out. His talent wasn’t just confined to the infield. One year, he caught a pop fly in center field that I swore caromed off the space shuttle.
From my position at first, I endured a nice view of Greg struggling mightily with the strike zone. A consistent stream of Kiwanas visited me at first base. The Leopards on the field kicked their feet and chattered restlessly. Nothing dampens the energy of a Little League baseball game more effectively than a pitcher who has lost his command. We managed to get three outs in the first inning, but when Greg resumed his campaign of errant throws for the second inning, Coach Stevens had little choice but to alter the strategy.
Bruce was not a pitcher. He was a second baseman. Which was perfect, because the distance between his position and first base was short, and Bruce was not one to throw a ball with zip. But Bruce had harbored designs for pitching since he was ten, and sometimes I’d catch for him in the backyard. Where he sorely lacked in velocity, he nearly made up for in control. Control was the only thing that interested Coach Stevens at the moment.
After a brief consultation with Greg, Coach Stevens summoned Bruce to the mound.
My brother looked even smaller on the pitcher’s mound. Skinny. Brown from endless afternoons at the swimming pool. His sun-blond hair tailed from the back of his orange baseball cap. He tossed a handful of warm-up pitches, and the Kiwana’s reaction was immediate. Their delight could not be remotely concealed; salivation at the scent of meat.
If Bruce noticed, he didn’t show it. He concentrated on the catcher’s target and placed pitch after pitch across the plate. The umpire called “play ball” and the first Kiwana stepped into the batter’s box.
The Kiwana in question was a slovenly, sleepy-eyed kid named Kareem. He approached the plate in his usual manner: with a countenance of complete exhaustion. His navy blue jersey was only half-tucked. From my vantage point, I got the impression that his eyes were closed. Kareem rattled Bruce’s first pitch against the chain link in center field. His low energy level prevented him from advancing past first base.
“I’m getting me a home run tonight!” Kareem told me in his slow and tired voice.
“Shut up,” I said without conviction. It was difficult to doubt Kareem. Bruce’s pitches were delicate rainbows thrown by a Care Bear. I wondered if the Kiwana’s thirty-run thumping of lore was destined to be trumped.
Then something unexpected happened. The next Kiwana struck out. And so did the next. As the game progressed, undisciplined Kiwanas flailed at the plate, swatting mightily at Bruce’s juicy offerings and getting nothing but wind for the effort. The Kiwanas coach howled with irritation and demanded that his players “wait on it!”
Sometimes they did wait on it. Especially Kareem, who was testing the tensile strength of the chain link fence at assorted locations in the deepest part of the outfield. I couldn’t say that Kareem was animated, but he did seem merry every time he passed me by.
Bruce’s expression never changed. After every strike out or crushing double, he merely applied his focus on the catcher’s mitt and tossed his floating Yard Jarts. And by the time the last inning rolled around, it was clear that the Civitan Leopards were going to win.
I don’t remember the last out. To tell you the truth, I’m not entirely sure how many Kiwanas Bruce struck out that night. No less than eight. No more than twelve for sure. But the Leopards received the honor of scratching a mark in the win column, and Kareem never got his home run. When both teams met at the center of the diamond, I made sure to remind Kareem of that.
As for Bruce’s pitching career, that night against the Kiwanas proved to be his salad day. He was sometimes sequestered for spot duty, usually with horrendous results. As a pitcher, Bruce made a terrific second baseman.