A most persistent Little Leaguer

By JOSEPH TINTLE

The year was 1961. Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris were chasing Babe Ruth’s single-season record of 60 home runs. But in Fords, New Jersey, there was another watch going on in the lower ranks of baseball. Deep into the season, Sam Klinger was still trying to get his first hit.

Sam was a part-time right fielder for our Little League team. The problem was that he just wasn’t cut out for the game. Whenever a fly ball came his way and he tried to back pedal a few steps, the ball dropped 15 feet in front of him. When a ground ball bounced his way, he waited for it to stop before he picked it up and underhanded it to the center fielder because he could not throw.

Sam came to our team untested. It was clear to even the untrained eye that he had no clue about playing the game. The first time he drew a walk, he took third base and was thrown out. Sure, we tittered about his lack of knowledge. We howled when he struck out at a ball thrown behind him. And eventually we gave him the cold shoulder when he made an out in an important situation.

But Sam hung in.

I’m sure he must have gone home and cried every time he failed at the plate or in the field. Our lack of camaraderie had to have stung.

But Sam hung in.

He was a quiet boy, a nice kid. But he just plain stunk and his nine-year-old teammates let him know it. One of our pitchers kicked dirt on him. Another dumped water on him.

But Sam hung in.

There was the time when he walked and eventually reached third after two other teammates walked. With bases loaded and one out, our heavy hitter came to bat. He drove a fly ball to center that was caught. We expected Sam to tag and score what would have been the winning run, but Sam thought it was the third out. He trotted back to the dugout where the opposing team’s third baseman tagged him for the final play of the game. His teammates growled after their eventual loss and Sam slowly slipped off in the twilight feeling lower than low.

But Sam hung in.

Two days later, we were playing the Orioles and Sam came to bat. It was our twelfth game and up stepped Sam to hit. None of us on the bench recalled Sam ever connecting with the ball all season long, even during practice. So we sat back and waited for the inevitable breeze. Sam worked the count to 2-2. There was a perfunctory cheer from a few of the parents who felt bad for the kid and it must have jump started Sam. On the next pitch, he hit a ball off the end of his bat and it twisted its way down the first base line.

Happily, Sam could run. A natural speedster, he took off because he smelled a hit. The first baseman that day wasn’t playing Sam deep; he just wasn’t paying attention and he got a late start fielding the ball. As Sam raced past the rolling ball, his teammates stood and cheered.

Then a powerful voice blared across the field. “Don’t touch that ball,” the opposing manager ordered his first baseman. The manager didn’t do it so Sam could get an easy hit, the manager knew the terrain of Woodland Field. To this day the field remains as it was 53 years ago: a choppy, pebble-strewn infield where strange bounces take life.

Meanwhile, Sam reached first, and seeing no fielder had tagged the bag, he raised his hands believing he had his first hit. But no sooner had he celebrated than the ball that was twisting its way toward first base struck a pebble and was redirected into foul territory. Silence. Sam slogged his way back to home plate and struck out.

He never got a hit that summer, but when the next season started there was Sam leading off for another team. Was his manager nuts? Apparently not. Sam had spent the better part of the fall and winter in his basement working on hitting with his father. And as he stepped to the plate on Opening Day, all of us on the opposing team witnessed a transformed athlete. Now, he didn’t go on to become a Little League sensation, but he developed into a more than capable player.

Because Sam hung in.

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