Friday, January 3, 2014

The Great Little League Home Run Race

In 1999, I was a freshman in high school.

* Stops typing, stares off into the distance for an hour, sips scotch, resumes typing * 

I had a study hall in the band room the first semester of the year where I met a couple of friends that would make an impression on my life. The first was my dear, dear friend Jocelyn, whose name you may remember from my novel Sid Sanford LIVES! She gave up coaxing musical talent out of me and would eventually take me to her senior prom. I’m going to owe her some kind of royalty if my book ever becomes a hit.

The second was a lanky son of a bitch named Dante Cimadamore who oozed creative charisma. He wrote in my yearbook that if someone asked him to review something I wrote he’d reply with, “it gave me a stiffy.” He’s still a pretty badass musician.

The reason I’m telling you this is that I used both their names in a story I wrote that year about baseball. The story originally revolved around this washed up writer who attempts to interview an old baseball star to revive his career. However, I didn’t get very far with that premise and tried something different. I ended up writing it like it was a documentary of a baseball player so special he changed the game. The plot was broken up by quotes from characters from various periods of the ballplayer’s life. I ended up handwriting a couple hundred pages before eventually abandoning it. If I had had today’s technology, I probably would have created fake Twitter accounts, staged YouTube videos, and posted the whole thing to Tumblr.

I found the entire novel recently while looking through old files at home during the holidays and I plan to share several of the chapters throughout 2014. Some of them I ended up using in other places, including Sid Sanford LIVES! The first chapter of that novel depicts Sid and Jocelyn meeting in his backyard during a Wiffle ball game. Its structure is more or less the same as the first chapter in this faux documentary. The chapter in Sid also shares this novel’s title: Pastime.

All the back story you need to know before you read this chapter is that Dante the baseball player is in Little League and is about to have the season of his life.

The Great Little League Home Run Race

“The two things that baseball fans can’t help but watch are Little League baseball and a home run. You put both together, you got dynamite.”—Major League Baseball commissioner Thomas Russell. 

To anyone else, Dante’s first two seasons would have been cause for concern. To Dante, he was right where he wanted to be. His rookie year included a .120 batting average and 15 strikeouts. Jocelyn would never let him live it down. His offensive stats were much like the Phillies’ season: in the gutter.

“The freakin’ Chicago Cubs could have beaten us that year.”—Phillies manager Tom Doyle 

With only seven wins in 21 games, the Phillies weren’t making any postseason plans. However, the end of the season brought with it the end of an era. Five players were graduating, including several that brought about the team’s demise with their poor attitudes. Their departures not only opened the door to more talented players, but also instantly raised the morale of the team.

“With those negative attitudes, we couldn’t make any progress. When they left, there was no way anyone could stop us.”—Phillies outfielder Matt DiVenere 

Of course, the addition of the new rookies didn’t make the team a threat the following season. In rebuilding year, the boys achieved a whopping 11 victories, the highest total in team history. Dante hadn’t exactly broke out like many had expected. However, his average rose to .253 and he was becoming more and more sure handed in the field.

“If anyone was more of a sure out than me at that point, I need to meet him.”—Dante Cimadamore. 

The Phillies made the playoffs by the skin of their teeth. They had one shot to knock off the best team in the league. It was a shot that they missed.

“We were so close. We had that team running into itself. When we eventually lost the game, it only made us more hungry.”—Team mother Morgan Wauhatchee 

The players that steamy summer night tried the best they could to walk off the field with their heads held upright. Even Dante, who later in life would say he enjoyed losing in the right circumstances, felt fate had unfairly punished the team. Unbeknownst to them, fate had other plans.

Dante: 0      Tim: 0 

Opening Day.

Dante was in supreme command of his team. Something had clicked in his brain during practice making his skills seem limitless. The other players fed off of that.

“Coach Doyle taught us the game; Dante taught us heart.”—Phillies teammate Derek Jones. 

However, what was going to be Dante’s season turned out to be a town’s legacy. Another face entered Dante’s life, one that he would never be able to get rid of. It was a presence that nearly snatched away all of Dante’s dreams.

Timothy Nix had moved into town at age 12 after spending 11 years in Oklahoma. His parents were rich beyond belief. At a young age, Tim had baseball force-fed to him. The game was something that kept him out of his preoccupied parents’ hair. He went to overnight retreats, expensive camps, and indoor batting cages that all manufactured his skills.

“If I hadn’t gone to those camps, I would have driven a school bus.”—Tim Nix 

Tim’s parents Richard and Mona move to Dante’s town in order to see more of the “country.” Really what they did was take over. Richard became the owner of the paper company, while his wife ran the Board of Education with an iron fist. The only family Tim had was baseball.

“In the games he played, not once did his parents show up. If they had, Tim would have been much better than he already was.”—Orioles coach Bruce Rice 

In the opening game of the season, the highly rated Phillies squared up against the mediocre Astros. With the score knotted at three in the third inning, the ninth man in the batting order came to the plate. Dante had struck out in his first at bat with the bases loaded. He was now faced with the same situation. The fans, knowing Dante’s lack of offensive production, were more interested in the fight that had opened up among a group of teenagers. All save one.

“I knew in that moment my boy was going to come through.”—David Cimadamore 

The young, cocky Astros pitcher gave Dante a fastball right down the middle. Dante swung effortlessly and set the ball into orbit.

“I almost pissed my pants when I saw the ball go over the fence.”—Dante Cimadamore 

He would add another home run toward the end of the game, giving the Phillies an easy victory. Game one had gone the Phillies way.

Dante: 10      Tim: 6 

Through five games, the two boys had more home runs than the rest of the league combined for the last several years. Whispers started that Dante had a chance to topple the town’s record of 22.

“This competition with home runs was way bigger in town than Sammy’s and Mark’s chase in 1998.”—Phillies outfielder John Machado 

Dante’s unblemished Phillies and Tim’s balanced Orioles met that afternoon in June. It would be the first clash between these two young heroes. Eager to meet his challenger, Dante approached Tim in the visitor’s dugout.

“Are you the one who is trying to steal all my thunder?” Dante asked. At the time, Tim was a shy kid, so he just nodded and gave Dante a weak smile. “Well, I’m glad it’s someone who appreciates the game as much as me. Good luck today,” Dante said.

They were words neither player would ever forget.

“I knew about how Tim’s parents were. I knew he was missing what I had. I made sure he knew someone supported him. Unfortunately for him, that someone was me.”—Dante Cimadamore 

On that day, Tim went on to hit a record breaking four home runs. Dante had a poor showing in comparison, but the Phillies managed to pull out a win with the help of one pitcher’s arm. Patrick Russell limited the Oriole’s damage to Tim’s four homers, and delivered the game winning hit in the end.

“On a team full of winners, you never know who is going to come through for you on a daily basis. It just sort of happens.”—Tom Doyle 

Dante: 17      Tim: 15 

Where was Jocelyn in all this, you ask? When her bitterness over not making the team when she was better than all the boys faded, she accepted Coach Doyle’s offer to become the team’s official scorekeeper. She also became the team’s biggest fan.

“I don’t know who yelled louder, my mother or Jocelyn.”—Dante Cimadamore 

“I yelled the loudest.”—Jocelyn Nocera 

She rarely sat on the bench. She was too busy jumping up and down, pacing the length of the dugout, and pressing her face against the protective screen in nervous anticipation.

“I wasn’t worried about disappointing Coach Doyle as much as I was of letting Jocelyn down.”—Phillies infielder Chris Baxter 

She was there every step of the way with Dante, being his guardian angel and harshest critic in equal measure. He came to her for batting tips and fielding observations before he asked Coach Doyle.

“I went to Coach Doyle when I needed encouragement. I went to Jocelyn when I need the truth.”—Dante Cimadamore 

The Phillies had won all 17 of their games and were just four games away from becoming the first undefeated team in the town’s history. Dante and Tim’s home run race made the season 10 times more exciting. Every team got to play a game under the lights at the main field. The Phillies opponent was the scrappy Pirates team that had bounced them out of the playoffs a year ago.

The Pirates were still a team to beat and had a pitcher named Nick Lachance who made Cy Young look like a minor leaguer. With less than a handful of games remaining, the game was a must win for the Pirates if they wanted a first round bye. Dante and his teammates had other plans for them.

Right away, one could feel the momentum was anchored with the Phillies. John Machado hit a lead off home run off of Lachance’s fastest recorded pitch of the season. The boisterous crowd hushed as the ball clanged loudly against the center field scoreboard.

“Let’s just say I couldn’t do that again if I threw it up in the air to myself and hit it from the pitcher’s mound.”—John Machado 

Dante would hit two home runs of his own, leaving him four shy of the record. He watched Tim the next night belt three out of the park. Tim was now only one behind Dante. The stage had been set for a heart-stopping finish.

Dante: 21      Tim: 21 

On the final day of his final Little League season, Dante could have cared less who broke the record. He cared more about having fun and winning than anything else. After all of the pressure coming into the league and disappointment of his first two years, Dante was finally the player he wanted to be.

“Jocelyn may have lit Dante’s passion for the game, but those three Little League seasons fueled it.”—Lily Cimadamore 

If the two boys had their ways, each would tie and break the record together. They’d go into the books together. However, there were still games to be won, especially for the Phillies who needed just one victory for perfection. Tim’s team had clinched a playoff spot, but was eager to get Tim as many at-bats as possible to come out on top.

Phillies vs. Yankees: 3rd Inning 

Dante stepped to the plate, tapped the rubber with his bat, and dug in. His only thought was to get on base. Everyone wanted him to hit a home run. Dante wanted to do what was best for the team.

“If Coach Doyle had given me the bunt signal, I would have done it. Whenever I led off an inning, I knew it was my job to get on base so we had a chance at more runs. I was aware everyone wanted me to tie the record. I wanted to be like Tom Selleck at the end of Mr. Baseball and throw everyone off.”—Dante Cimadamore 

After taking two outside pitches, Dante got a pitch he could hit. He concentrated, kept his head down, and swung. The pitch landed over the fence. He had tied the record.

Orioles vs. Pirates: 1st Inning 

Tim’s first at-bat came with the bases loaded and nobody out. All those instructional camps weren’t paying off at the moment. He swung wildly at the first pitch and lunged for the second. He couldn’t get the thought of him trotting around the bases triumphantly out of his head. He had heard the crowd swell after Dante’s first dinger. That didn’t help.

“You could tell he was pretty anxious. He was dancing around the plate like Michael Flatley.”—Orioles coach Bruce Rice 

Tim would have never gotten over those nerves if something close to a miracle didn’t happen. Taking signs from the third coach, Tim caught a glance of something alien in the crowd. His mother and father were at the game! His father gave him a thumbs up. Tim wasn’t sure how to respond, so he stepped back into the batter’s box.

A couple of minutes later, Tim and Dante were tied at 22.

Phillies vs. Yankees: 5th Inning 

Huge masses of energetic kids ran from field to field, anxious to see which player would break the record first. They kept parents watching each game updated on what was happening. The town had never experienced such an intense buzz at a Little League game.

“I had more heart palpitations watching those two games than I had giving birth.”—Mother 

The Phillies entered the fifth inning contently in the lead. Dante was at the plate for what turned out to be his last at-bat. Once again, he was more concerned with getting on base than anything else.

“There is no such thing as a safe lead in Little League. We only had a 10 run lead. I would have much preferred a 20 run lead.”—Dante Cimadamore 

Calmly, he called time out and motioned for Jocelyn. She looked more nervous than he did.

“Big moment, huh?” He asked.

“You could say that,” She replied. “You wanna bet that you won’t break it?”

“No, because I’m about to. Now kiss my bat for good luck already.”

She sighed and did just that.

“See you in a minute,” She said. “Don’t hot dog around the bases.”

Dante stepped back into the batter’s box and knew instinctively that there was nothing the pitcher could throw he couldn’t hit. The Yankees’ pitcher released the ball and it began its split second journey to the plate. Dante began his stride and made contact. He was rounding the bases moments later.

“No yelling, no dancing, no arm raising, nothing. He was all business and class.”—Tom Doyle 

His teammates on the other hand were eager to celebrate at home plate. Once Dante touched the base, they mobbed him. For some reason, one of his teammates took off his helmet and hurled it up the baseline. When he emerged from the pile, he was smiling.

He knew Tim had one more at-bat.

Orioles vs. Pirates: 6th Inning 

The Phillies game ended soon after Dante’s feat. The entire congregation of fans lined the fence of the game next door to see if Tim could keep pace.

 Tim would have given anything to be an ant in Africa. He felt every eye on him.

“Just do your best, son!” His father screamed out. “We’ll be proud either way.”

For the first time, Tim believed them.

He tapped home plate with his bat and stared at the pitcher. The tension mounted as the pitcher delivered two pitches outside the strike zone. Tim took the next pitch for a strike. The count was now in his favor. Ball three then skipped past the catcher. Tim swung at the next pitch and sliced it foul. The count was now three balls and two strikes. It was baseball’s greatest stage.

“I wanted to get up there and hit the ball for him.”—Orioles coach Bruce Rice 

He never saw the next pitch. He was by him before he could get his arms moving. Before Tim could put his head down in defeat, he felt Dante’s arms around him. Dante had hopped the fence the second the umpire called strike three. He wrapped Tim in a brotherly hug.

“Have you ever had more fun?” Dante asked.

“Nope, have you?”

“Not even close. Let’s keep it going during with the All-Star team, shall we?”

“There are moments in life when you know you’ve accomplished something great. That was the first of many of those types of moments between him and I.”—Tim Nix 

Final Season Stats: 

Dante: 23 Tim: 22 

Phillies: 24-0 Regular Season & Playoff Champions

1 comment:

  1. This was great, Dan. I feel like a real winner.

    ReplyDelete