The Red’s season started with promise. They won four of their first five games and started losing. They just didn’t lose, they were humiliated. It was too much for some of the players to bear. Several decided to give up and quit. Rich didn’t blame them. The parents stopped attending. Rich empathized because he sat out the previous year. The joy of playing the game somehow did not overcome a 0 and 14 year he experienced the year before that.
Rich loved playing baseball and everything about it, but this is how he gave up:
Rich dreamed of playing professional baseball. He watched the Major League games on TV. He collected a drawer full of baseball cards, that numbered over two thousand. He read the box scores every day and got the Sporting News every week. When living in town, he was always the first kid at the diamond in the morning and didn’t leave until it was nearly dark. He tossed the ball up in the air and caught it when walking home from the park.
He started his first year of Little League at shortstop and midway his second year moved to first base. He played first base his final year of Little League and the first year of Pony League. The infield was fun for him. It’s where most of the strategy takes place. It’s the difference between playing the melody or playing the background. Learning to play the infield was like learning to play music. It was more than knowing what notes to play on an instrument. It was taking any note, even if it is the wrong note, and making music from that note. It was taking a ground ball, any ground ball, and turning it into a symphony.
Rich was having that feeling again.
Now he was playing third base. Every ground ball was his and it came to him as if it were meant to be. The throws across the mound to first base were crisp and sharp. The motion, compact with little strain on the arm. It actually felt good to throw. It was like the feeling when you hit a ball solidly with a bat. You can feel the bat bend and release its energy. The throw, if all the elements are present, seems to give the ball energy beyond what is exerted. When the ball arrives at the first baseman’s mitt, it’s like cracking a whip. Every throw smacked hard into the first baseman’s mitt as if drawn by a magnet. Every sport has its symphony, baseball is the infield ground ball and a perfectly executed throw to first, as the runner stares in amazement at how quick and easy he became an out.
Rich’s game begun to suffer just past mid-season. Up until that point, there was a vigor for the game that had long laid dormant.
That dormancy began the first game of the season two years earlier. He begged his dad for cleats. It was his first year of Pony League and the first year a player was allowed to wear steel cleats. Rich was the only one on the team without them. He told Mr. Larsen they could be purchased for $5.99, but when purchased they were $6.99. That didn’t make Mr. Larsen happy. Rich joked with him and said that if he had bought them when he first started to pester, he would have saved that buck.
Mr. Larsen did not attend Rich’s first Pony League game.
Rich made two errors at first base and struck out three times. It was devastating. The coach, a high school student, told Rich there were thirteen more games to play and not to allow it to get him down. He took a little time to give a few batting tips on how to handle a curve.
Rich dreaded going home and telling his dad.
He rode his bike from City Park to home; three miles of pleasant tree-lined streets. Homes lined the streets with cheerful children playing in the yards. All hearts seemed full of hope and promise.
Rich thought that a bad message, if delivered positively, is better than one delivered negatively. Boyish optimism did not make the beautiful ride any more pleasant because anxiety, shame, and fear of disappointing his dad was still present.
He arrived home, leaned his bike against the house and walked inside. Mr. Larsen was in bed sleeping. Mr. Larsen got home at about three every day. He napped until about five or five-thirty. If Mrs. Larsen was not working that night she prepared a meal, otherwise, Mr. Larsen might put together a sandwich. It was after eight and Mr. Larsen was still sleeping.
Entering the bedroom Rich tried to make a little noise to wake his dad gently. He was sound asleep. Rich sat on the bed next to him and nudged gently, “Dad, Dad.”
He woke with a snort and yawn. “What time is it?”
“It’s about eight-fifteen,” Rich said.
“You got to be kiddin’ me,” he said slowly raising to rest against the headboard and rubbing his eyes. “Why didn’t you wake me up for supper?” he said as though it was Rich’s duty.
“I had my first game today,” Rich said.
“I can’t believe I slept that long,” Mr. Larsen said.
“I didn’t have a good game,” Rich said with his head hung. “But the coach said I did pretty good for it being my first Pony League game. Most kids don’t start at my age.”
“How’d ya do?” Mr. Larsen asked.
“Well, I made some contact. They were foul balls. I struck out three times.”
“How’d ya do at first?”
“I missed a ground ball. They said it was an error, but it was really a bad hop and I missed a pick-off throw from the pitcher. I’m not used to them yet. It surprised me.”
“What!” Mr. Larsen yelled and his body stiffened.
Shamefully Rich blurted, “I struck out three times and made two errors, but I dug two throws out of the dirt.”
“What did I spend seven dollars for?” He bellowed, cursed, and pounded the bed with his fist three times. “For you to go out there and make an ass of yourself. For cryin’-out-loud, why did I buy those cleats?” Mr. Larsen gritted, cursed, and growled like an animal in anguish. He grabbed the sheet and pulled it up and slid down into the bed. He turned away from Rich and waved. “Now get out of here and let me sleep.”
That was the summer of 1960 and from that day forward Rich thought of that time before every game and every time he tied his cleats.
Mr. Larsen also helped coach the Pony League team that summer but was asked not to come around because of the alcohol on his breath and tirades with umpires. That, in a large part, had much to do with Rich not playing the summer of ‘61.
On a vacation that summer to see Mr. Larsen’s older sister, she gave him a tongue lashing for his antics. His sisters were the only persons able to effectively talk to him and get results.