When I was a boy, playing Little League baseball, I dreamed as most boys did back then of someday getting a call from the Major Leagues.
"Son," I dreamed the Major Leagues would tell me, "you stink. We're kicking you out of Little League." I would have been grateful. I was a terrible player. I was afraid of the ball and fell down a lot, sometimes during the singing of the national anthem. So in 1960, I hung up my Little League uniform for good (it immediately fell down), and I had no contact with organized baseball for the next 40 years.
Then, recently, I was asked to participate in the Joe DiMaggio Legends Game, which raises money for the Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital in Hollywood, Fla. I said yes, because a) it's a good cause, and b) because they were asking ME to play, I figured it would be a relaxed, low-key event, like those company-picnic softball games where beer is available in the outfield and as many as six people play shortstop simultaneously.
Imagine my horror when I found myself at a real stadium, with thousands of spectators in the grandstands. Imagine my further horror when I found myself in a locker room containing several dozen former major league baseball players. Some were older guys, such as Minnie Minoso of the White Sox, who I believe once caught a fly ball hit by Magellan. But there were also some guys who had played big-league ball recently and still looked capable of hitting a baseball all the way through a human body.
I expressed concern about this to one of my teammates, the great Orioles third baseman Brooks Robinson, who gave me some reassuring advice.
"Don't play in the infield," he said. "You'll get killed."
I was on the American League team, managed by former Yankee John Blanchard. He gave me a nice little pregame pep talk, which I will reproduce here verbatim:
BLANCHARD: You should see how these guys hit the ball.
BLANCHARD: Oh, Lord G-d. Are you wearing a cup?
ME: I don't OWN a cup.
BLANCHARD: Oh, Lord G-d.
I did pretty well for the first few innings. This is because I was not in the game. Then Blanchard sent me out to left field to replace Mickey Rivers, which is like replacing Dom Perignon with weasel spit.
I trotted out of the dugout wearing the stiff new glove I'd bought that afternoon. When I brought it home, I removed the price tag and spent a few minutes fielding grounders thrown to me by my wife, who was nine months pregnant and thus could not put a ton of mustard on the ball, which dribbled my way at the velocity of luggage on an airport conveyor belt. That was my preparation for this moment, for standing alone in deep left field, with vivid Little League memories swarming in my brain memories of praying for the ball not to come to me, and memories of falling down when it did.
So I'm standing out there, and for almost two innings, nothing comes my way. Then it happens: George Foster, five-time All-Star slugger for the Cincinnati Reds, rips a ground ball between second and short. I get a good break on the ball, going to my left, running hard. Foster is rounding first, trying for a double, and the crowd is roaring, and suddenly I realize, with a sense of elation, that I'M ACTUALLY GOING TO GET TO THE BALL. Yes! I can see it clearly, and I have the angle, and I'm closing fast, and I'm going to make it! I'm almost there! And now I'm there! And now OH, NO, I RAN PAST THE BALL. THE BALL IS BACK OVER THERE. OH, NOOOOOOO . . . .
And, of course, I fall down. I've seen a video replay. I look like a man whose lower and upper body halves are being operated by two unrelated nervous systems. I make a pathetic, longing gesture toward the ball as it zips past to the outfield wall, where centerfielder Dave Henderson retrieves it. After he throws it in, he puts his arm on my shoulders and says, "You're supposed to catch the ball in your glove."
I also got to display my batting prowess. The pitcher I faced was Al "The Mad Hungarian" Hrabosky, who still looks as though he has just been kicked out of the Institute for the Criminally Insane for being a little TOO insane, and who can still throw pretty hard (by which I mean "faster than light"). He struck me out on three pitches. I was still swinging at the last one when Hrabosky was in the showers.
So it was a pretty humiliating experience. But mark my words: I'll be back next year, and that's going to be a different story. Because next time, I'll be ready to "play with the big boys." That's right: I'm going to be wearing a cup. TWO cups, in fact, because I'm assuming you need one for each knee.