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.

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.

Athletes, fans ain’t what they used to be

By JOSEPH TINTLE

What’s with today’s athletes and fans? They are one of a kind.

A baseball player hits a pop foul ball that is caught and his teammate advances to second base. The batter heads back to the dugout giving high fives like he just got the news his wife delivered triplets.

A football player catches a pass in the end zone and he whoops it up by moonwalking across the field. Meanwhile, in 30 seconds his team will walk off the field on the wrong end of a 36-6 shellacking.

Even the fat fan who catches a home run in his two-quart bucket of Orville Redenbacher popcorn looks around to pound his loser friend’s chest as if they had something to do with the 450-foot drive.

Yes, things are a bit different in sports than they were 50 years ago.

(“Are you writing another blog spouting your old-man opinions?”)

That’s my wife, Kathy. Can’t put anything past her.

Now, let’s see, where was I.

Oh, yes, the good old days. Of course, the good old days were never quite as good as many of us claim. What was good about Vietnam? Violence in the streets? Drugs? Nothing. But when a player hit a foul ball that was caught, advancing the runner to second base, he merely chugged back to the dugout, head low, disappointed that he didn’t get a single. And there was no announcer claiming that the player had a “quality at-bat” like we’re reminded of so often today.

No, the player from yesteryear made an out and the runner did his job by reaching second. That was it and the fans in the stands just nodded approval because it was good baseball.

Can you imagine a Green Bay Packer trying to pull off some ego-driven dance step and dunking a football over the goalpost crossbar after a touchdown? Coach Vince Lombardi would have skewered him in front of a national audience and he’d sit longer than Siddhartha under a tree waiting for some profound insight.

Now we come to the fans.

During the 1950s and 60s they came dressed up to the ballpark. Men often wore suits and ties and the women dresses. Now I’m not proposing a return to that old dress code, but I would like to hear a lot less abusive language. I hear the expression “You fuckin’ asshole” at Yankee Stadium so often that for a while there I swore it was a new chant that the team was encouraging.

And remember those New York Jets fans years ago heckling women as they were coming down the escalators at Gate D in MetLife Stadium in 2007 and asking them to reveal the body parts that most attracted them. It didn’t matter to these galoots that the women were with their children. Not to worry. It took the Jets just a few weeks to put a stop to that boorish behavior.

Whether we’re talking players or fans, sportsmanship has vanished in America faster than three Papa John’s pizzas at Rex Ryan’s house.

I’ve just resigned myself to the fact that it’s all about a new-found attitude. You know: My team’s better than your team, so go screw yourself.