Thinking Mans Softball – By Michael Vaughn – The Good Ol Days
By Michael Vaughn
It could be that looking forward to the present season causes one to look back on all of the previous seasons. That said, I think I'll indulge in a little nostalgia and relate some of the baseball stories that always come up while I'm lifting brewskis after tournaments.
First stop is my first championship celebration. T-ball league, nine years old, Barber's Point Naval Air Station, Hawaii, a dozen little kids and two Marine Corps coaches jumping around like a bunch of idiots. Funny thing is, I don't remember a single other thing about that season - just the party at the end. But hey, it was a good way to start a baseball career.
It became readily apparent that I was hooked on the sport, championships or no. My family was transferred to Monterey, CA just in time to miss the beginning of the season. I was appalled. No baseball? I don't think so. I put on my best abandoned-orphan face and hung out at the practice field until the coach of the minor-league Tigers let me catch batting practice. Then take some grounders. Then take some swings. Within a couple of weeks, one of their players got transferred elsewhere (that's the Navy) and I replaced him.
The next year, I was on the major-league Dodgers (painful, yes) and began to become aware that there was another major league, this one for really good adults. Bay Area fans take a lot of guff for being mamby-pamby about their allegiances - you would never catch a Chicagoan rooting for the Cubs and the White Sox - but I really had no choice. Back in Hawaii, my dad took me to a car dealership that was hosting an appearance by the Giants, and I ended up with autographs from Mays, McCovey, Marichal, Bobby Bonds and Chris Speier. I wouldn't know the real value of these items until years later, but Mays was enough for any kid's collection. Once I arrived in California, we went on a Little League trip to Candlestick Park, and I couldn't quite believe I was in the home stadium where Mays and his buddies played. I remember it was very cold, and that the pitcher was Steve Stone.
I also had a thing for the Reds, especially since they were playing the roustabout A's in the World Series. I kept a scrapbook of the newspaper clippings from that Series, and after watching the feats of the hometown heroes - Joe Rudi's catch against the wall, Gene Tenace's completely unexpected home runs - I swapped my loyalties, and signed on for one of the most unlikely dynasties of all. I've been a 50/50 Giants/A's fan ever since.
A year later, we were shipped a little bit north to San Jose (the Moffett Field Air Station), and I joined the Sunnyvale Pioneer Little League Twins. My actions on the field had much less impact on my middle-of-the-road team than on my social life. Previously, Navy schools guaranteed a sort of Darwinian egalitarianism. You didn't pick on the new kids, because you were next. Not so in our first civilian school. I was a lamb led to slaughter. I didn't really gain full acceptance with the sixth-grade mafia until the day I hit a pitch over the left-field wall. The next morning, one of the boys said, "Hey, Vaughn, I hear you closed your eyes, stuck your bat out, and the ball went over the fence!" In sixth-grade parlance, this was the highest of compliments. Because really, that's how shallow sixth grade is. "Oh, he's okay - he can play ball."
Things got even better the following week, thanks to a complete fluke. My coach - perhaps detecting a bit of the playmaker in me - waved me over for a pre-at-bat conference and said, "I want you to fake a bunt, then pull it back and chop one through the infield." So I faked the bunt, drew in the infielders, pulled the bat back - and proceeded to hit the longest home run I have ever struck in my life. I remember a friend taking me to the landing spot the next day, a patch of ivy fifty feet past the fence, and me thinking, There is no way that I hit a ball that far.
The next couple of years brought me to senior league, which felt sort of like being Shoeless Joe Jackson playing in the Venezuela fall league. We dump a whole lot of attention on our 12-year-olds, it seems, and then we sort of let them drift for the next few years, until they make the varsity team in high school. We played at a diamond behind an abandoned Silicon Valley industrial park, and were lucky if we got three parents to show up at the same game.
My fondest memory was of our coach, Rudy, who was a relief pitcher for the actual major-league St. Louis Cardinals for eight years. Rudy's principal coaching technique was to teach us all the dirty tricks that he had learned in the bigs. If someone slides into second, for instance, and the ball skips under your glove and into center field, you can still use your glove to trip up the runner so he can't make it to third. Now that's education.
That was one of my favorite seasons, mostly because our catcher, Eddie Shriver, hit .500 in the three-hole, and I was the cleanup hitter. Rudy seemed to understand that I could hit anything, that the only thing that really messed with my hitting was this whole balls-and-strikes idea. (I was Vlad Guerrero before there was a Vlad Geurrero.) So he flashed the hit-and-run, Eddie took off, and if the ball was three feet outside I hit it anyway. I had me some monster stats that summer.
Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year veteran of the softball diamond and author of the softball novel The Legendary Barons, available through amazon.com. See outronovel.blogspot.com for his latest.