(I wrote this several seasons ago, when the memory of a painful experience washed over me.)
By A.C. Haeffner
I was sitting on my back steps the other day, soaking up some sunlight.
The family cat was lying nearby, alternately cleaning himself and batting at the blades of grass growing long at the base of our chain-link fence.
Beyond the fence lies our garden, or what remains of it. Weve only planted a few rows of vegetables this year; the rest lies fallow, yielding weeds and little else.
It was a hot day, relieved only by an occasional breeze working its way up the hill to our rural New York home.
My attention was focused for a while on the cat, but was soon diverted outside the fence to the garden. Little clouds of dust were kicking up with each wisp of air from the west. And settling. And kicking up. And settling.
Its funny, the things that trigger memory. Those dust clouds were the catalyst this time took me back to the day Richard beat me in Little League. To the day I learned a lesson.
I remember a number of things about that long-ago childhood day, but especially the heat and dust of late afternoon little swirls of dust, kicking up in the scant breeze.
We didnt have lightweight baseball uniforms back then. Nothing about our apparel eased the discomfort caused by high temperatures. We had flannels that clung to us; that itched. We had those heavy hats that let in no air that rumor said had caused baldness in more than one big league ballplayer.
You dont believe me? Richard would say. Just look at Harmon Killebrew. Or Eddie Yost. Theyre as bald as cue balls.
Richard was a friend of mine, a year behind me in school but a summer companion in swimming and golf but not in baseball, not that summer. Somehow, to my misfortune, we had landed on different Little League baseball teams.
Richard was a natural athlete, good at everything in a fluid way. I was coordinated, but by no means natural. I struggled to succeed.
The equalizer, I think, was that a competitive fire burned in me but usually only flickered in Richard. We were, as a result, nearly on an athletic par. Coincidentally, we were both pitchers the primary starters, in fact, on our respective ball clubs.
My Little League team was the Tigers, a thoroughly popular name in our suburb north of Detroit. Richards team was the Yankees, the worst thing you could be.
It was therefore only right that my team was the best in the league, on the way to a championship. We had made it through almost our entire 12-game schedule unbeaten; only a couple of games remained. The Yankees one of our last two obstacles, and our next opponent were good, but three games behind us with just the two to go, in a format with no playoffs. The winner of the regular season was the winner, period.
Were no match for you guys? Richard said, seemingly shocked that I would utter such a thought as we baited each other a few days before our two teams met. Thats what you think. We are gonna bury you.
Bury us? I said. You and what army?
Richard ignored the question, and leaned in toward me.
And when youre up to bat, he said, youd better duck.
Oh, is that a threat?
No threat. A promise. Im gonna put one in your ear.
Now it was obvious that somewhere in there Richard had taken extreme exception to the idea that the Tigers were the better team and as a result his flickering fire was starting to burn with alarming intensity. If Id been smart, I would have noticed; would have humored him. But I was blinded by success.
Nobodys gonna touch us, Richie old boy, I said. We havent lost yet, and arent about to. You havent got a prayer.
Richard looked at me with what I think, in retrospect, was a trace of pity.
Just watch your head, he muttered.
When the day of the game came, it was as I said quite hot. With those little dust swirls. And the clinging uniforms.
Richard and I were the starting pitchers. The Tigers were the home team, so I took the mound first.
Memory tells me the plate umpire was inept a fellow with a perpetual (and alarming) squint who had an unerring knack for calling pitches completely wrong. If it was down the pipe, he called a ball. If it was outside, it was a strike. On the corner, ball. In the dirt, strike.
I probably should have thrown everything out of the strike zone. But I didnt; that would have been giving in to his skewed sense of reality. And so I walked a couple of batters, and then gave up a couple of hits, and then suffered through a couple of teammates errors on the way to a 3-0 deficit before we got to bat.
I was grim as I strode to the plate in the bottom of that first inning with one out and the bases empty. Being a decent hitter, I was placed high in the order perfectly capable, I thought, of starting a rally that would get us back in the game.
But its hard to do anything with a ball hurtling toward your left ear, which is where Richards first pitch was directed. I hit the dirt to avoid it, landing hard on my bottom. But I bounced up just as fast, pointed my bat toward the mound and shouted to the ump over my shoulder.
He did that on purpose, ump! He tried to bean me!
Richard just stood out there, grinning.
Play ball, intoned the ump.
But he tried to hit me!
Richard had made his point. He was intent on winning this thing. He had promised to throw at me, and did. And he had promised to beat me
With the help of three more wildly errant pitches though none near my skull (and, remarkably, called right by the ump) I managed to draw a walk, but was stranded on base. In later innings, I had a couple of singles, but got around to score only once.
My pitching improved as the game progressed and so did the umpires calls as the setting sun started to dim and his squint lessened.
But the Yankees werent going to be denied. We got within a run, 3-2, and had runners on second and third in the final inning. But our last batter, our power hitter, struck out.
Richard lorded it over me for a few weeks, and no doubt justifiably. His barbs were relatively painless, though; he was, after all, a friend.
I couldnt really be too disheartened, anyway. Although his Yankees had dealt us what turned out to be our only loss in a championship year although they had handed me my only loss in seven pitching decisions it had on sum been a good season, one worth savoring.
Thats what I told myself in the wake of defeat, anyway.
But that Yankee game was the only one I replayed in my mind the rest of that summer. And its the only one I remember from that season with any detail today.
Yes, I remember it but not because of the frustration it caused, or the magnified sting of a lone defeat, or the sense of failure that lingered afterward.
I remember it because of the lesson in humility that it taught me a lesson that life has confirmed time and again in the ensuing years.
Its a simple lesson, really, in two related parts.
First, I learned that no matter how good you are, or how good you think you are, theres someone out there capable of doing better.
And second, I learned that if you take good fortune for granted if you maybe get a little too pleased with yourself someone just might knock you on your butt.
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