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Little League Moments and Fears

Varelitas

By Julio R. Varela

Something is definitely wrong. I'm starting to reminisce about my childhood as if I am no longer a child.

This week's childhood memory is of Little League. (Last week, it was my fear of not playing tackle football with the older kids on the block because then they would think I was some kind of classical music freak.) Everyone who has ever caught a baseball has Little League moments. Some of my friends still have those cheap, puny trophies with the miniature baseball player posing on top stored somewhere in their rooms. No one wants to forget.

But it's different when I look back now. When I was younger, Little League was life, pure and simple. All I recall now--since I'm no longer a child--is how stupid playing baseball turned out to be.

Sure, there were a lot of good moments. It's funny, but whenever I think about the days when baseball was THE SPORT, so many details pop up. Like the smell of Glovolium, this magical oily-like substance that I used to rub on my Carlton Fisk catcher's mitt and then on my Jim LeFevebre (whoever he was) infielder's glove every day in February. I really don't know what the Glovolium did to my gloves; I just thought every major leaguer did it.

And the bats--wood ones, of course. There was this one bat (Johnny Bench model, 30-ouncer) that I made sure was always properly placed in our team's equipment bag. I almost hit my only real home run (you know, when the ball actually goes into the trees on no bounces) with it. The pitcher was this short loudmouth who looked like Emmanuel Lewis with a James Brown hairdo. I hit the ball into the center field trees and began my first true home run trot, just like the big leaguers. But as I rounded second, the umpire told me to stop, ruling that the ball bounced into the trees for a ground-rule double. Bummer.

There were other images that I can still see: the hot dog guy who would park his stand right next to the field; my first pair of cleats; a real blue-and-yellow uniform; and Richie Rivera, the meanest pitcher in our league. While everyone else was 10 or 11 years old, Richie was 12 and very big for his age. Once, he was so mad at himself that he hit a batter in the shoulder with a fastball so he could leave the game. That batter was me.

Sometimes I wish that getting clocked by a Richie Rivera fastball was the most painful moment in my brief Little League career. It wasn't.

Well, it does have to do with an injury. I was catching for my team, the Flyers, during the last week of the regular season. We were playing the Apollos, the division's first-place team, and losing really badly. Yes, by more than 10 runs. In the sixth inning, a kid named Pat Kenney (who looked a lot like Steve Balboni) hit a shot into the gap that would have been a home run for anyone else. But Pat wasn't that quick, so we had a play at the plate.

The throw was high, and I had to leap for the ball. Thinking I could still tag Pat, I slammed my mitt down on the plate. I jammed my thumb instead.

Fortunately, it wasn't broken, but it was really swollen and had to be heavily taped. I didn't catch in the last game of the season. Coach wanted to rest my thumb so it would heal for the playoffs.

The post-season rolled around, and we were perhaps the best team in the league next to the Apollos. Coach wanted me to catch in the first-round game against the Comets. I told him that the thumb still hurt and I would have to see how it felt on game day. He still penciled me into the lineup.

Before the game, I tried to catch; I couldn't even grip the ball with my mitt. That's when I went to Coach and told him that it would be a big mistake if I caught.

He started cursing at me. Told me that I was screwing up his entire lineup. Said we would lose for sure and it would be all my fault. He was serious. I started at third base with tears in my eyes.

The Comets jumped out to an early lead, but we did load the bases up with two outs. The guy who replaced me behind the plate was up. I was on deck, trying to adjust the grip of my bat so that it would lessen the pain in my thumb. He struck out, and before I could turn around and get my glove for the top of the inning, Coach ran up to me and said something like this:

"If he wasn't so tired from catching with all that equipment on, he would have struck out."

I didn't know what to say. I just went out to third base and started crying again. We lost big. The Flyers were out of the playoffs.

After the game, I didn't even bother to change out of my cleats in the dugout. I just ran home. For the first time in my life, I thought baseball was the stupidest sport in the world.

Now, I can only ask: Was I too rash? Did I take Coach's words too seriously? I still do not know. One thing I have decided is that, yes, I will manage a Little League team after I graduate, no matter where I wind up.

Someone has to tell children that it's only a damn sport.

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