THE DEFIANT HERO

By JOSEPH TINTLE

All of us can recall an adult during our youth who made our lives difficult. But there was only one kid I knew who delivered an eight-ounce glass of payback juice to his adult nemesis. That boy’s name was Freddy and he played on our Little League team in Fords, New Jersey during the 1960’s.

Freddy was a nice kid, a slick athlete who could roam the outfield like few players his age could. He had a good bat as well, yet our manager could not stand him because at age 10, Freddy spoke his mind. He was never disrespectful in words or tone. But we knew what he was thinking. And, more often than not, he was correct in his assessments about daily life.

One day the manager was addressing the team after a win. He said we were going to play a team called the Gray Sox and he went on and on talking about how tough the team was and if we didn’t win, well, that wouldn’t be so bad because our current record was 12-3 and we could still find our way into the championship game.

“Hey, Coach,” Freddy chimed in, “aren’t you supposed to be telling us why we can beat this team?”

The manager gave Freddy a glare that would have melted most kids. Freddy didn’t blink. And the manager lost it. He screamed at Freddy and told him to keep his mouth shut.

“When I’m talking, you listen,” he shouted. “You think you’re so good and have all the answers. Well, you don’t. So shut up.”

Freddy drew in a small breath and said no more.

What seemed to bother Freddy the most was not what our manager had said, but the harsh tone he took. Freddy’s teammates could tell he was hurt and after the post-game meeting he just slipped away from Woodland Field and wandered home.

Things weren’t the same afterward. Sure, Freddy played well in practice, but he seemed to lack spirit at times.

Well, the coach was right. We did lose to the Gray Sox the next game and back into panic mode went our manager. He was overbearing during our next two practices, especially toward Freddy, but the kid seemed to shake it off. Still, something was amiss with our center fielder.

Finally came the game to decide our championship fate. Our manager was ecstatic. He had been coaching Little League for more than a decade and he was now at the doorstep of a title. Visions of a team trophy danced in his head. In fact, the night before at a Dairy Queen ice cream stand, he went on and on to my father and me that this was a special moment for him. I thought the whole thing was rather silly and when I saw Freddy later that evening I told him about the conversation.

“It’s just a game,” Freddy was saying now.

“Don’t tell that to Coach,” I said. “He’s mad enough at you.”

“Well, I’ve just about had it with him too.”

The next day the two teams met at Woodland Field for the game that would determine which team would chase the championship trophy. Woodland Field then, as today, is a rock-strewn piece of acreage filled with gaping holes. Every game is a misadventure. Amazingly, however, both teams played excellent defense throughout their game and by the bottom of the sixth (the final inning in a Little League game) our team was leading 2-0 when our opponent’s first baseman cracked a run-scoring single in the bottom of the sixth.

The score was 2-1. Then, with one out, up stepped their right fielder. He moved the runner to second with a walk. Coach was at once nervous and giddy. Would he punch his ticket to the championship game?

Up stepped John Rachel. Now here was a bruiser of a 12-year-old player. He stood 5-feet, 9 inches and weighed about 155 pounds. Big for Little League then and now. Donnie, our pitcher, fired a strike on the outside corner. The coach started pacing the first-base line because there was no dugout at Woodland Field. The next pitch was in the dirt, but our catcher blocked it.

Rachel stepped out of the batter’s box and exchanged a laugh with his teammates. Then he resumed his stance. Our pitcher tried to quick pitch Rachel but he was not fooled. He lofted a deep fly to centerfield and Freddy gave chase. Woodland Field had no fence and so Freddy just kept running. The ball must have traveled 235 feet but Freddy was able to reach out and make the catch with his outstretched glove. He stumbled a little on the bumpy turf and regained his balance.

Our manager leaped in the air. The moment he had been waiting for was only an out away. Then the opposing manager yelled to our coach, “Hey, Coach, what’s your center fielder doing?”

Seems that after Freddy caught the ball for the second out with two men on, he decided to keep on running with the ball away from Woodland Field. He ran across the playground, down the street, and out of sight.

The runners on base just froze. But Freddy was nowhere to be seen so they could not be thrown out. Using his right arm as a windmill, the opposing manager signaled to his players to run home. They did and we lost 3-2.

While many of his teammates disliked what Freddy had done, we understood his actions.

But the manager had no clue. He paced the outfield kicking up clods of dirt, cursing. No one would go near him. He had missed his chance at Little League immortality and it was tearing at him.

No one saw Freddy for the rest of the summer. The story was that he had moved to  Massachusetts two weeks after our loss.

I think about Freddy at times and what he did that day only brings a smile to my face. That was one nervy kid.

So, Freddy, wherever you are, no hard feelings.

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