Most of the cherished memories of childhood had something to do with baseball.
If we weren’t playing baseball, we were talking about it, pretending we were our favorite players, trading cards, flipping cards, quizzing each other on card stats or at the very least, wearing our favorite teams baseball cap. When the weather permitted and we had enough players, we were at it. As soon as school was out we were either at little league fields or playing on a local field or lot. Sitting around oiling gloves, gripping, swinging or boning bats, talking about the rules or the latest game wasn’t just the way we passed time but the way we reveled in it. On schooldays during baseball season we played pick up games. We played it at school during recess and lunchtime. On weekends when we weren’t playing little league games we’d play where ever there was action. When there weren’t enough of us for a game we’d play pepper or homerun or just throw and catch for hours. When we were by ourselves we’d bounce balls off surfaces of garages and fences or would swing bats at imagined fast balls, curves and change-ups and hit imaginary homer after homer after homer. It was more than a pastime.
Most of the time when we played ball it was with kids our own age. Sometimes there would be one or two of the little kids playing with us. At other times a couple of the older guys would be team captains and show us some of their favorite finer points of the game. This story came about because my friend Jack and I played with the older guys from time to time and were driven to make a point and win a bet. We were answering a challenge, demanding equality and accountability, growing up and taking our first steps somewhere towards that field of honor.
Ed was one of the all-star older big guys that lived down at the end of the street. Ed wasn’t the happiest person in the world when he wasn’t playing ball but he could play baseball better than anyone we played with or had ever seen outside of the big leagues. Ed hit and fielded just like the big leaguers. In our neighborhood he was a legend. When Ed was around and we were playing baseball; Ed was the coach, the star player and the umpire all rolled into one. Although Ed had many fans; there was no greater fan of Ed than Ed.
Ed either pitched or caught or played third base. His arm was pinpoint accurate. His arm threw a fast ball that no matter how careful or going away from it to lessen the impact you tried; the hiss as it approached warned you of the deep sting that accompanied the catch as it hit. Ed had a saying that he repeated now and then when he struck you out, threw you out, tagged you out or called you out. “If you play you pay.” Ed pointed out to us that anyone who tried to steal a base when he was catching or playing third would be OUT EVERY TIME unless the guy at the base he was throwing to or the guy that was throwing to him muffed it. When that happened the poor target of Ed’s wrath heard about it that day and sometimes the next. Ed was famous for throwing everybody out or tagging anybody out that wasn’t paying enough attention or took a little bit too much lead. Ed said over and over, “nobody steals bases when Ed’s playing catcher or third, ever, unless somebody else makes a mistake.” If we heard it once we heard it a thousand times and had to admit that’s the way it was.
Right around the end of summer, just before school was ready to start our baseball activity was at the fever pitch of summer days almost over. We all threw everything we had into the game because we knew that it was ending for the year and we desperately didn’t want it to be over so we were cramming everything into every moment and pulling everything we could out of it at the same time.
It was that experience that many have had at the end of the day when it starts getting dark and you’re still throwing the ball, not wanting the day and the game of catch to ever end. It’s probably happened to everybody and if not with a baseball, football or basketball with whatever it was they were immersed in.
In those times we all swung harder, threw harder and always tried to get extra bases on hits. Every play we made got maximum effort to make it count. It wasn’t that we weren’t like that all the time; it was that it was intensified immensely as the weather changed and fall edged in and school was around the corner. Ed threw more people out during those days of the quickening than he did in the whole rest of summer. Everybody was trying harder and Ed kept mowing us all down. Ed taunted and challenged us continually and made us give it everything we had. He loved to remind us, “Nobody steals a base when Ed’s playing catcher or third unless someone else makes a mistake”. One thing for sure, we all knew Ed loved to remind us about Ed.
In a heated discussion during one of those games; Jack, my best friend and I were teamed up against Ed and arguing that sooner or later someone would eventually steal a base while Ed was playing catcher or third because no one is perfect. Ed became more excited as we discussed it and got louder and louder as it went on. Ed’s face got redder and redder, his eyes bugged out like never before and he kept making quick little smiles again and again that weren’t smiles at all. Finally with a bellow that echoed off the school walls at the end of the field Ed told us there was five dollars for anyone who stole a base while he was catching or playing third. Then he went a bit too far and over the top daring us to prove him wrong and mocked us all mercilessly. After that he repeated his offer that if the day ever came when any of us stole a base while he was catching or playing third he’d not only pay us five dollars but would kiss his own bare ass. Now that was it. He’d intrigued us no end and heck; he’d asked for it.
Those last days of summer went like ice on august afternoons. Ed reminded us constantly that there was a five dollar bill that would never be ours because no base could be stolen in any way, shape or form as long as he was playing catcher or third. No way, no how. Eds buddies and peanut gallery loved it and whooped it up every time Ed boasted. Jack and I wondered why none of them wanted to take a shot at that five dollars but figured maybe it was because they were Eds friends and didn’t want to mess that up. Heck maybe they didn’t want to see Ed kiss his own bare ass because it would remind them of what they’d done so many times in other ways while Ed badgered them and bullied them around.
The last week before school started the best game of the summer for all of us happened. A bunch of Eds friends showed up at the field and all of us younger kids were already there hoping for a big game. We had enough players for full teams and a whole afternoon to play a full nine inning game. Ed was the captain of one team and his friend Randy was the captain of ours. Ed announced he’d also be the umpire since he had the “eye” and was the only one that could make the close calls. Randy and Ed had an argument about that when the game started, but Ed yelled louder and louder until Randy agreed. It didn’t matter to us. We were about to play the best neighborhood game of summer and nothing could be better.
As the game got going everybody was hitting real good and fielding great as well. It was an exceptional close game that went back and forth until in the ninth inning was all tied up. In the top of the ninth Jack was on third base with two outs. Randy had lost the toss before the game and we were the visiting team so this was our last ups. Randy was in the batters box and took a pitch that went right off Eds glove and into the dirt. Jack took off for home running like the wind as Ed scrambled behind home trying to pick up that passed ball. Jack slid into home and Ed got there late with the tag. We all saw it. Jack had stolen a base and not because anybody else had made a mistake. Ed had let a ball get by and given Jack the chance to score. Jack had beaten Ed to the plate by seconds with a clean slide. Ed was yelling louder and louder, “you’re out, you’re out”, as we all looked at him and each other with raised eyebrows and grimaces. Randy argued with Ed but stopped when Ed said something to him we couldn’t hear. Randy shook his head and turned to go grab his glove for our turn in the field at the bottom of the last inning. Ed and his team didn’t score that inning so we went into extras. After three more scoreless innings; Ed’s team scored a run and won the game. Jack had a real bad look on his face during those three innings but didn’t say a word about the five dollars he’d been cheated out of or losing the game we had actually won. He didn’t need to say it; I could see it written all over his face.
The last thing Ed yelled at everybody as we were walking off the field in every direction was, “Jack was close but there is still five dollars that says no one will steal a base while I’m playing catcher or third, no way, no how”. With that he walked his Ed walk off the field with Jacks five dollars in his pocket and his ass in his pants unkissed by his own loudmouth lips. Jack had never been that quiet as he was on the walk home.
Those following last days of summer hummed by and hissed like a fast ball with loose threads. Jack and I went over and over the events of Ed’s umpiring and the stolen base that only Ed made out as a stolen base. We couldn’t believe that the whole thing had happened and that the bet wasn’t won and paid for fair and square just because Ed said so. Jack would sit pounding a ball in his glove and slowing shaking his head for long periods of time until the day before school would start when he suddenly looked at me, smiled, and told me the best idea he’d ever had.
That afternoon the older guys always played their traditional last game of summer at the local field. Randy, Buzz, Brownie, Murph and a whole bunch of others including Ed would all be there. They’d warned all of us younger kids that the diamond was theirs that afternoon. We were welcome to come and watch and catcall and cheer them on, but that was it. The diamond would be ours for a late afternoon game after theirs was finished. As Jack explained his plan; I realized how simple and perfect it was and also how dangerous, but it had to be tried. We had to do it. Jack was smiling jubilantly for the first time since Ed cheated him with that big goofy all Jack smile. We laughed and laughed and then stopped with a start. We both gave each other serious looks as we came to grips with the fact that this could either be one of the best moments of our lives or the worst.
Jack and I walked to the field going over the plan time after time. When we arrived we alternately would either laugh or get serious every time our glances met. Everybody was there in the neighborhood and for this game one of the older boys dads was home plate umpire and another was infield umpire. That made our plan less dangerous since there would be someone there to keep Ed from killing us but at the same time there would be an extra person or two to dodge and avoid at the moment of truth. The stage was set, they were playing the last game, the time of truth and consequences was upon us.
As the game got going we watched in a daze of anticipation. We were yelling and screaming with everybody else so we were just part of the crowd until it was time for the first part of the plan. Every time Ed touched the ball, came up to bat or looked in our direction we gave him the thumbs down signal and made faces at him. At first he didn’t know what to think about it. Then he began trying to threaten or intimidate us with hard looks and shakes of the fist but this was our day and possibly the last chance we’d ever have to straighten things out with Ed. Throughout the entire game we didn’t give Ed a moment of peace. At one point in the 8th inning, the plate umpire, Randy’s dad, told us, “I don’t know what you two are up to but I think you’d better get out of here as soon as this game is over. Ed isn’t ok with what you’ve been dishing out. I know about the problem Jack and Ed had recently and I don’t think this is a good way to deal with it”. He turned and went back behind the plate and we hoped he was wrong. Jack and I traded looks that said with no words there was no way we’d quit the plan.
The last inning of that game was beautiful. Ed was so mad at our constant banter that he was continually making mistakes. No one had stolen a base while he was playing but everything else that could have possibly gone wrong had gone wrong. It was the bottom of the ninth and Ed was in his stance playing the baseline at third. The next to last batter of the game approached the plate with two outs and a man on second. At the same time Jack and I looked at each other, got up and got ready to take the plunge into the plan of plans.
Jack walked over to the first baseline side where Ed’s teams dugout was and I headed along the fence up the third baseline side to take my position near Ed and third base. Jack slipped into the empty dugout and made his way over to a bag at the end of the bench. I watched as Jack bent down and opened the bag. He slipped something out of it, tucked it under his shirt and casually walked up the steps out of the dugout and took his position for the coming stunt. Here we go, so far, so good.
At this point I was trying my hardest to be invisible. I was back to the fence, behind Ed and ready for the next part of the plan. Jack reached under his shirt, pulled out Ed’s lucky Davey Crockett coonskin cap and put it on. He yelled, “Hey Ed, look at this!” Ed turned, saw Jack and twitched as it hit him that Jack was wearing his prized lucky coonskin cap that was always in his baseball bag. Ed yelled at Jack and threatened with, “take that off or else” as Jack did an outrageous dance. A moment later the pitcher pitched, the batter swung and the ball made a nice little noise that I can still hear through the grass right towards Ed. Ed moved like a cat but was a step too late as the ball went by him and then slowed down a few feet into the outfield. By the time Ed got to the ball the hitter was on first base. The runner on second had started to run but thought better of it and returned to second base. Two outs and the winning run on second base. Jack was screaming and pointing this out to Ed as he danced and swung Ed’s coonskin cap around by the tail. Ed’s jaw was set and twitching but he didn’t have anything to say. He just looked at Jack and smiled one of those smiles that weren’t a smile at all. Jack gave the hat a couple more spins and gave it a toss. The coonskin flew and perched on top of the backstop fencing. Ed was turned away from me and I wished I could see his face. Jack could see him and suddenly that big goofy grin washed away like it had never been there.
At that moment the pitcher pitched, and the batter wagged his bat readying for a moment of truth which would be more of that than anybody knew except Jack and I. The next moment the sound of hardwood on horsehide announced a high high popup and somehow, better than we’d planned, everything had fallen into place far more wonderfully than we’d ever imagined. As the ball jumped into its climb I knew it was to Ed and I moved like lightning to the third place bag. I grabbed the bag, lifted it and slashed the strap with my penknife which was razor sharp and ready for the moment. I jumped up bag in hand and saw Jack jumping up and down as Ed got under the ball finally falling from the sky. Before that slap of the ball hitting the mitt sounded I was off the field and running as fast as my legs would carry me around the back of the backstop. Everybody who’d seen what I did were watching me thinking I was completely bonkers. I’d stolen third base and was out of bounds before Ed caught the ball and ended the game with a win for his team. That was OK with Jack and I.
Ed’s team cheered after he made the catch and then noticed third base was missing. The look on his face was priceless because although he knew something was up at that moment he had no idea what it was. He turned and yelled something unintelligible as he ran towards Jack who was laughing so hard he was bent over holding his knees. Everybody that knew what was up raced to Ed and Jack so that things wouldn’t get out of hand. Some people were cheering, some people were yelling things and some had strange looks on their faces and didn’t have a clue what was going on. I ran over to Ed and Jack struggling as team mates separated the two of them with third base in hand. Randy was looking at me with amazement that slowly became a big toothy smile. Jack was laughing like a hyena. The plate umpire, Randy’s father put a hand on my shoulder and asked me what the hell I thought I was doing. I told him I thought he’d understand if he’d come over and listen to what I had to say to Ed. He loosed his grip and said, “ok, this better be good”. As we approached Ed still being held by his team mates and Jack still laughing uncontrollably I could hear Ed in a rage screaming, “it’s a good thing we won this game because I would have pounded those two blankety blanks. Jack grabbed my lucky coonskin cap and threw it up on the backstop and Jimmy stole third base, right off the diamond before the game was even over”.
At that point Jack reminded him about his promise and that he’d just admitted that I’d stolen third base while he was at third. He reminded Ed that he was playing third base and that “nobody would steal a base while he was playing third, no way, no how”. Ed stammered something and Jack started laughing again. Randy reminded Ed that he didn’t say steal the base in any specific way and that it looked like Ed owed somebody five dollars with a whole field of witnesses for backup. The veins in Ed’s forehead and neck said more than he did as he went to his baseball bag, got his wallet and then handed me a five dollar bill. I handed the five dollar bill to Jack, still laughing so hard he could barely breathe. After all, Jack had stolen a base first, fair and square, long before I had and Ed owed him for it. Ed said something under his breath and started to walk away. Jack suddenly stopped laughing and said, “Hey Ed, how about the other promise you made?” Everybody there who remembered the rest of the bet started howling as Ed’s face turned the color of a gravenstein apple, red with some green.
Jack and I didn’t stick around to see Ed pay up the rest of the bet but our imaginations had a field day with it. That was between Ed and the rest of them. These days, when I think of what that must have been like, although it isn’t a baseball memory; it’s almost as good.