When You Wish Upon An All-Star
No one taught me how to be a team leader, certainly not in Little League baseball, definitely not in 1962. In the nine-and-10-year-old league I played in, a rookie became a veteran mighty quick. In my second year in that league, I was still learning to play the part.
If you saw me then, you’d see a skinny kid with glasses just a little too thick. And yet I knew enough to signal my fellow Cobras to take their places on the field, to crouch at my position at third base and to lead the team in a signature Little League ritual. From the first pitch on, we engaged in what our manager called “a steady stream of chatter” aimed at opposing batters of the Lions and Cardinals and such.
“Hey batter batter batter…hey batter batter batter…hey batter batter batter…swiiiing! You got no chance, no chance, nooo chance!”
Taunting was beyond the bounds of my usual behavior, but what seems spiteful now was just Little League lingo. Our chirping at the opposition distracted me from my fear of a line drive I might drop or otherwise bungle.
“Hey, batter batter batter…swiiiing!”
I’d been playing baseball for six or seven years. My career began in the mid-1950s with my dad patiently lobbing the ball to me in the fenced-in yard behind our apartment flat. I was already a fan of the Milwaukee Braves and lucky enough to wear the down-sized uniform of Warren Spahn, their star pitcher, with red number 21. Later, when we moved to a nearby suburb, I spent hours by myself with a baseball mitt and hard rubber ball. I rattled the garage door with titanic throws, making a quick transition from pitcher to fielder when the garage door struck back.
In my second year of Little League, I was not the best player on the Cobras; that was Stevie, our star pitcher, whose fastball froze most batters. If you had more than one pitcher like that, you could be a contender. The Cobras had only Stevie. So when he pitched, we usually won. But as the season progressed, our manager began to rely on two other players to help carry the Cobras. One was his son, Dave, who handled even the wildest throws as a steady first baseman. To my surprise, the other player was me. I could hit, occasionally, and field, every now and then. That was enough for our manager, who once called me a “pretty fair ballplayer,” high praise in those understated days.
And when the three of us clicked, Stevie, Dave and me, baseball delivered on the vision I’d developed in my parents’ driveway, when the garage door was my only opponent.
We’re in a close game, at night, with Stevie on the mound. We’re wearing gold Little League caps and matching t-shirts emblazoned with Cobras in a green script. I feel the evening breeze, catch the smell of hot dogs, and taste the cherry soda I’ll buy after the game with a dime. At third base, I pick up some loose dirt and let it slide through my fingers, acting like Eddie Mathews, the Braves star third baseman.
At dusk, the lights come on. Now, everything looks magical, every move, heightened drama. It feels like we’re in a movie. I stare at the batter, keep up the chatter. “C’mon, Stevie, chuck it in there big kid, he can’t hit.” Stevie winds up, and even though I’m 10-years-old, and he’s 10-years old, he doesn’t look like a Little Leaguer. He looks like a baseball player, one of the best I know. With all his young and slender might, this Cobra strikes. Stevie hurls the only pitch he knows, the fastest ball he can throw. Most often, the kid at the plate swings at the air. But sometimes his bat finds the ball, and then it’s my turn.
The hard-hit ground ball is at me before I can blink. But this is not one of those times when the ball hits me in the chest, the leg or the chin. It’s not one of those times when the ball is past me before I can turn my head. This is a time when my Spalding Alvin Dark signature model E-Z Flex glove—it’s less impressive than it sounds—locates the tiny little ball in the vast open space. I fire the ball across the diamond to first baseman Dave. The umpire jerks his thumb with such conviction that an alien watching from the clouds would believe a decisive human activity has taken place. It’s the third out of the final inning, the game is in the bag, and I run off the ball field as if returning from a battlefield. Our moms and dads politely clap.
“Nice play,” says our manager.
For the next minute or so, I am Eddie Mathews.
After the last inning of the last game, our manager sat us down on the splintered bench. He announced it was time to select the three players who would represent the Cobras in the All-Star game.
“I want you guys to choose,” he said. “It’s up to you.”
We gathered in a huddle near the screen behind home plate. When I looked at my teammates, they were looking back at me. I felt my face flush. For the moment, the mantle of manager was passed. Over the summer, without me knowing it, I had become a voice my teammates wanted to hear.
Stevie had been talking with his parents, and now he walked toward our convocation. I waved him off. He was obviously one of our All-Stars. He grinned and turned away. As a dozen sweaty faces looked at me, I offered Dave’s name as our second All-Star. Maybe his father didn’t want to name him an All-Star, and maybe that’s why I was the stand-in, but I knew Dave deserved it. That choice made, Dave pointed at me, but before he could utter a word, I heard a different voice, a young voice that registered as an alarm. It sounded like the voice of a nine-year-old. It sounded like the voice of our nine-year-old catcher, Jimmy, exclaiming something that made me wince.
“Me as All-Star catcher.”
I turned and stared at Jimmy. He edged close to my right arm and looked up at me with dark eyebrows raised and wild eyes. His mouth opened, and the same unthinkable notion again struck my ears.
“Me as All-Star catcher!”
I’d been manager for five minutes, and during that time I’d felt an unusual confidence. I’d been smiling, as if in taking on the role of our manager, I could be fair, wise and whatever else it took to make an adult. But now, my maturity was tested. I could not believe this kid was campaigning to take my spot as All-Star. The notion was preposterous. We’d spent all summer watching Stevie’s fast balls whiz past Jimmy’s catcher’s mitt and hit the screen behind him with an unseemly clang.
Jimmy folded his hands as if in prayer and pushed his face up toward mine. He pleaded, wheedled; he was impudence unleashed.
“Me as All-Star catcher, me as All-Star catcher, please please me as All-Star catcher.”
Nothing had prepared me for this moment. It was the line drive I could not handle. I felt like screaming at Jimmy. Instead, the 10-year-old gave the nine-year-old the nod.
So, I wouldn’t be an All-Star. But a few days later, my mom called me from the corner of the kitchen. She held the phone out to me. Jimmy spoke in a wisp of a whisper, like he was being strangled.
“We’re, uh, my family, uh, we’re going on vacation,” he said. “I guess you can be the All-Star.”
“Yeah?” I said, my voice rising.
“Yeah,” he said, his whisper descending.
My dad took me to the All-Star practice. I hung back in foul territory at first, watching all those All-Stars in green and yellow and red and blue uniforms, tossing baseballs to each other with easy smiles. We had a scrimmage. When it was my turn at the plate, I was surprised to see that the pitcher didn’t throw the ball any faster than I did. I turned on the first pitch and hit one of the hardest balls I’d hit all season.
It was the most satisfying double of my life.
The next evening, the night before the All-Star game, Jimmy and his father showed up at our front door.
“Jimmy is pretty down about the fact that he won’t be able to play in the All-Star game.” Jimmy’s dad was a rough-looking man, and he wore a cap like a train engineer. “We’ve decided not to go on vacation. It’s probably fair that he play in the game.”
Jimmy’s father had spoken so quickly that I hadn’t even opened the front-porch screen door. We stared at each other through the mesh. The humidity of the night steamed in and curled up around my ears. Jimmy stood behind his father. My father stood behind me. He was the man who had started it all, tossing a ball to me just after I learned to walk, playing catch even when his sore shoulder was acting up, teaching me the game and how to love it. But now I wished that he, or our manager, or some other actual adult would step forward and make this clear:
You must be kidding. Mark is the All-Star. He’s going to play in the All-Star game.
But no one said that. It was another line drive I couldn’t handle.
That was my last act as a Cobra. I played one more year in Little League, a rookie in a league for older players, before family obligations hastened my retirement from organized baseball. For many years, my near-miss at fame left a gap in my resume. “Were you ever an All-Star?” I asked myself. “Not really,” I answered. At some point, the obvious occurred to me: I could have selected myself. I could have said “no” to Jimmy. I could have played in that game. But then I would not be able to say something today that few major league All-Stars ever could say. Not Warren Spahn or Eddie Mathews. Not even the great Henry Aaron.
By age 10, I voted myself off the All-Star team.
Mark Lucius is a writer, songwriter and speechwriter in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His longform memoirs have appeared in Great River Review and Best American Sports Writing. His work also has been published in Cafe Lit, the Flipsides Anthology series and elsewhere.