Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Memoirs of a Little League Dad

Nothing like takin' in a baseball game during the summer... today's story is an excerpt from a novel and it's about America's pastime. Only, in this novel, a father becomes a little too obsessed with his only son's Little League team after his life falls apart. So, it's not all peanuts and Crackerjacks.

The author, Richard Fellinger, is a writing teacher at Elizabethtown College and a winner of the 2008 Flash Fiction Contest at Red Cedar Review. His short stories have appeared in Epiphany, Potomac Review, Willow Review, Forge, and PANK. He has an MFA from Wilkes University, and lives with his wife and son in Camp Hill, Pa., where (naturally) he coaches Little League.

Memoirs Of a Little League Dad
By Richard Fellinger

Before I tell my whole story—or at least the whole story of my son’s years in Little League, and the arduous and stressful years I spent as his coach—I must first tell this little story that helps explain why a guy like me put up with so much.

It was July 2008. A steamy evening on a Little League field in Northern Lebanon, Pennsylvania, the most rural part of a largely rural county. The directions from our home, which was a 45-minute drive to the west, said something about turning right after a barn. But it was a beautiful setting: a quaint field surrounded by rolling, green hillsides. On this field on this mid-summer night, two dozen boys age seven and eight were locked in a fierce struggle for an All-Star championship.

It was my son’s first All-Star tournament. Misty Hill vs. Susquehanna Valley. We’re Misty Hill, a blue-and-white team from a tidy suburb of Harrisburg, the state capital. Misty Hill is a small and somewhat affluent town full of smart and successful people. Population 4,399. It’s a conservative, God-fearing town built around the Misty Hill Methodist Church, perched on Main Street with a pristine white steeple visible from almost every backyard. It truly is, as folks have always said, a great place to raise a kid. Many of the boys are the sons of lawyers, doctors, business owners, and high-ranking state officials. There are salesmen, but they are the top-notch salesmen who win trips to exotic locales and have access to the best seats at professional games. And in my case, I was a reporter at the Harrisburg Patriot. We are, by nature, competitive people.

Susquehanna Valley, in red and black, is a rural league made up of a couple of large townships on the west side of Harrisburg. The boys are big and strong. They’d thumped us in the first round, 10-0, behind two flame-throwing pitchers. Our young hitters had never seen heat like that before, and they melted. Our boys even melted down on defense and in the dugout—bickering and pouting. But despite that ugly loss, we’d placed second in the first round, which got us into this best-of-three championship round, a rematch against the big red-and-black machine from S.V.

For me, our first-base coach and father of our starting second baseman, it had been a rough season. For one thing, my feet hurt. It had been a rainy spring, and our home field was not well-kept, so it was a mud pit for much of the regular season. In my worn-out old sneakers, my shoes of choice for the dirty work, I’d spent so many springtime hours brushing water and raking infield dirt that the soles of my feet ached into the summer. Besides that, there’d been a point in mid-season when the team I was managing performed so poorly that I wondered if I was in over my head against the fiercely competitive dads who managed the better teams. I’d wondered if I had the patience and personality to stay involved in my son’s best sport. I was the assistant coach on the All-Star team, and glad that I wasn’t the manager.

In Game 1 of the championship round, we’d rebounded from our 10-0 loss. It was a Monday evening, and our best pitcher had returned from vacation while their best pitcher, who had started when they thwacked us the first time, had left for vacation. S.V. still had one fireballer available for Game 1, but our young ace out-dueled him, and we won 3-1. Even so, we figured Game 2 on Tuesday was a must-win for us, because we’d heard that their best pitcher would be back from vacation for Game 3 on Wednesday. The outcome of a Little League championship can hinge entirely on someone’s vacation plans.

Game 2 was a see-saw affair, and we were losing by one run when we came to bat in the bottom of the last inning. Wrigley Marhoffer, my son, the starting second basemen, was up first. I walked out onto the field with him as S.V.’s pitcher warmed up, figuring I should pass on some words of wisdom at this pivotal moment before I went out to coach first.

At age eight, Wrigley was a bright but somewhat sensitive kid, an only child who’d never had brothers or sisters to toughen him up. He was a little taller than average—but just a little—and a bit on the skinny side. He had big hazel eyes, a button nose and soft cheeks that still had some baby fat in them. He wore Number 9, only because our manager handed out the T-shirts randomly. He’d wanted Number 8, his regular-season number and that of Pittsburgh Pirates great Willie Stargell, but another kid got that. So, thankfully, I’d prevented a fit of extended sulking by convincing Wrigley to like Number 9 because it was worn by another Pirates legend, Bill Mazeroski, who beat the Yankees in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series with a ninth-inning homer.

Wrigley wore his pants tucked into his socks at the knees in the old-school way—a fashion decision he’d made just recently—and he had his shiny new Worth Copperhead bat. It cost $50 and was copper and silver—a nice piece of marketing by the folks at Worth. I’d originally bought the bat for his upcoming birthday because, at 17 ounces, it was one ounce heavier than the Copperhead he’d used during the regular season. Then I’d decided to give him the new bat during the All-Star tournament because he hadn’t hit hard in the first few games. I figured fifty bucks for a good All-Star showing is money well spent.

As we watched the relief pitcher warm up together, I wanted only to say something to boost Wrigley’s confidence. It really didn’t matter who was pitching, because I knew my only child always did his best when he felt his best. It could have been Nolan Ryan out there, and I’d have still said something upbeat. Forcing a serious look on my face, I watched a few pitches as Wrigley took his warm-up swings. The reliever threw moderately hard, not quite as hard as the kid who would be back from vacation if there were a Game 3 the following night.

“You can hit this guy,” I said boldly, and strolled out to first.

Wrigley swung at the first pitch in the dirt. There were groans all around from the Misty Hill side.

“Ah, Wrig,” I said in an exasperated tone. “You know better than that.”

This is one reason I liked to coach: I couldn’t keep my mouth shut on the sidelines at moments like this, but as a coach I was more or less expected to say something.

Wrigley gave a little nod, an indication he understood. He backed out of the batter’s box and then, apparently unfazed, stepped in for the next pitch. A look of intense concentration on his face. The next pitch was across the plate at the belt, and Wrigley whacked it toward the second baseman. But Wrigley hit it so hard that the second baseman couldn’t get his glove on it, and the ball zipped into the outfield, where the right fielder missed it too. As the ball skipped past the right fielder, I waved my hands and shouted: Go, go, go!

It was a triple—maybe a hit with an error or two in grown-up baseball—but worthy of being called a triple in Little League. I thrust both my arms high in the air, unconcerned with appearances. Later, my wife would tell me that my shirt was untucked and in the moment I’d exposed my belly to the whole field.

But more importantly, the tying run was on third with no outs. Our manager, who doubled as our third-base coach, leaned into Wrigley’s ear, and I could tell he was giving Wrigley detailed instructions on what to do in various situations. After all, Wrigley was a key runner, and our manager was one of those smart Misty Hill fathers who knew it’s not always easy getting a runner home from third. Our next batter hit a lazy fly to third—right beside Wrigley—and the third baseman caught it easily. With the ball in his glove, the third baseman turned toward Wrigley to see if he could tag him for an easy double play, but Wrigley didn’t bite. My son had listened, and stayed on the bag. Tragedy averted.

The next batter singled to right, scoring Wrigley with the tying run. Our next batter smoked one to right, and the ball blew past the right fielder, allowing the runner on first to chug all the way around and score as the throw from the outfield sailed over the catcher’s head. Game over. Misty Hill wins, 7-6. Tournament champs.

5 comments:

  1. Nice piece of writing. Very smooth and natural. "Professional" was a word that came to mind over and over as I read it. Looking forward to reading the whole novel once it's published (which it will be, I have no doubt).

    On a side note: Sarah, how do you feel about Richard living with your wife and son? Doesn't that make you angry?

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  2. Ha! Thank you for catching that, Gregg. Typo has been duly edited. (oops!)

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  3. I am loving the tone, the pace of this piece, Rick. It's like baseball--watching or playing. The gave gives you time to reflect and in the next second your watching the winning run cross home plate. This line spoke volumes: "The outcome of a Little League championship can hinge entirely on someone’s vacation plans." Best of luck!

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  4. Mr. Fellinger, I love your style! It's reminiscent of Stephen King's style in his novella "The Body". You're a natural!

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  5. I don't know much about baseball, but I followed this easily. Fun excerpt.

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