Below is another article in a series of blog entries I’m writing as a candidate for president of Red Sox Nation.
Before every little league game I coach, I remind myself that what’s about to unfold on the field might be forgotten by me and other spectators within a day, but that for one or two of the kids playing that day, something might happen that will be carved in their memories forever. The memory might be marvelous (home run), and it might be torturous (bonehead error), but it will endure in the player’s mind the rest of his days. If you ever played organized baseball at any level growing up, you know what I’m talking about.
One of those baseball memories I’ll always carry around is of a game that took place my sophomore year in high school, in 1984, as a member of Brookline High’s JV baseball team. I was a skinny kid with a decent glove and strong throwing arm, but no bat. I was either the last or second-to-last player to make the team (and I still have the stubby stick I picked up off the ground and rubbed like a good luck charm as Coach Cohen read the names of players he was keeping on the last day of tryouts), and I knew I’d see very little playing time that year. That was OK with me. I was happy just to wear the uniform, to go to baseball practice after school every afternoon, and to sit on the bench with the guys, munching sunflower seeds and talking baseball.
Little did I know I wouldn’t see any game action until midway through the season, and that when I did finally play, the game’s outcome would depend on my individual performance. That moment came on a wet, overcast afternoon at Amory Field in Brookline, which is located just off of Beacon Street, about a half-mile from Fenway Park. It was the top of the last inning, we were ahead of Waltham High by one run, and they were batting with two outs and the tying run on second base. A beefy left-handed hitter approached the plate as I blissfully played catch with another sophomore behind the bench.
“Crawford!” rang Coach Cohen’s voice. I was jolted by the sound of my name and it took a full second for me to realize the coach needed me to do something. Pick up the helmets or straighten the bats, I assumed. But there was urgency in his voice. “Crawford! Get in there for Jeff in right field. His arm’s sore. And if the ball comes to you, throw it home!” I grabbed my glove, pulled my hat on tight, and glanced over at my father, standing in his usual place behind the backstop. He smiled, winked, and pumped his fist, communicating wordlessly his faith and encouragement.
I sprinted towards right field, imagining myself to be rocket-armed Dwight Evans. “Two outs, Rob!” said Justin Walker, the second baseman, as I chugged by him. (Justin, front row, second from the left, later went on to an acting career and had a major role in the 1995 movie, Clueless. By some amazing coincidence, that BHS JV team’s first baseman, Joe Reitman, back row, far right, next to me, also went on to an acting career and also appeared in the movie Clueless.) It wasn’t until I reached my post in right and turned to face the diamond that I realized the dreadful mistake I had made before taking the field.
As I peered towards home plate from my unfamiliar post in right field, everything looked foggy. I blinked, but the fog remained. Suddenly, my heart stopped. My God. I forgot to put on my glasses. The reality of my plight spilled over me like icy water. My saliva tasted metallic and my legs wavered. I was too embarrassed to call time out. Oh God, please let that big lefty hit the ball to someone else. Please God, I begged silently. But God had already finalized his plans for that big left-handed hitter, the baseball, and me.
The big Waltham kid swung at the first pitch. Ping! The ball shot up into the sky and, to my horror, it entered the air space above me. All eyes turned to me as I jerked forward, believing the hit to be a shallow bloop. But three running steps forward and a new perspective on the white blur above me revealed a drastic error in my calculations: the ball had been socked, not blooped!
Trying to change direction, I slipped on the muddy turf and fell to one hand and one knee. But I kept my eye on the hurtling white puff and bounced to my feet. Back, back, back I stumbled until I hit another wet spot and lost my balance. I fell backward, with my glove arm outstretched. Then, at the same moment I landed flat on my back in the cold, muddy outfield – plunk – the ball fell into my glove, and I squeezed.
Rising to my feet, I held the ball proudly above my head, showing the umpires, my teammates, my coach, and my dad that I had caught it. We had won. Within seconds I was mobbed by my screaming, disbelieving teammates. What a moment! My father, who retells this story every time our family is together, recalls that, as Coach Cohen walked over to the Waltham coach to shake hands, he put his hat over his face as if to say, “Did we just see what we just saw?”
What does this story have to do with Red Sox Nation? Maybe something about how we all wonder how we would perform under the same pressure our Red Sox heroes face regularly. Or maybe it’s about the snapshots we all carry around about our own triumphs and failures. Or how the Red Sox bring out the dreamer in all of us. I don’t know. Maybe you do.