As a baseball player, I peaked at age 14 and was washed up by age 15. A has-been before I was even a high school sophomore.
But I had my moment, which is all anyone can ever really ask for, I suppose.
It dawned on me that it was 30 years ago this summer when I put a team on my back, carried it for awhile, then caught the biggest popup of my life.
I look at the photo now, taken by my father in my backyard, and the first thing that I notice is how much of a beanpole I was. The uniform was pinstriped in blue, and it made me look even skinnier than I was. The pose was a batting stance, surely copied from some Topps baseball card of the day. But after 30 years the photo remains, a wallet-sized pic in a small frame which sits on an old cabinet in the basement.
The team was Bra-Con Industries, and no, that first part isn’t short for brassiere. Long “a” please. Though I have no idea who the heck Bra-Con Industries was, or is. All I know is that they sponsored our ballteam, as evidenced by the block “BRA-CON” splayed across our chests. It was the first time I got to wear a real baseball uniform – double-knit top and pants, with stirrup socks, too. I wore #11 – Bill Freehan’s number with the Tigers. But I was a second baseman. And a pitcher. And, for the most part, a poor hitter. Until I was sprinkled with magic pixie dust for a few weeks in the summer of ’77.
We played in a league in Livonia. Our nemesis was a team sponsored by Don Massey Cadillac. Oh, how I hated those guys. They had nicer uniforms, they had equipment bags for each player, and they traveled in one big van, like some sort of commune. But they could play some mean baseball. Each time we played them, they spanked us good – the scores progressively worse every time we locked horns with them.
So first place was out of the question, but that didn’t mean we had no playoff hopes. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Our manager was a roly-poly guy who kind of reminded me of Don Zimmer as I think back on it. But with far, far less baseball acumen. Sadly, I’ve forgotten his name, but I remember his kid was on the team. The old man’s big thing was getting the equipment put away on time. Seriously. He had a fetish for gathering the bats and helmets and depositing them into their respective bags – while the game was going on. It didn’t help team morale to see the skipper putting away the gear while you’re trying to mount a last-inning rally. But as sure as I’m sitting here, that’s what he would do.
His assistant, though – that man’s name I remember. It was Mr. Nadratowski. His kid was on the team, too – John, our catcher.I think Mr. Nadratowski was going thru a divorce or something distressing at home. That, and I think he drank a little bit.
But he was a great guy, and he knew far more baseball than Mr. Equipment Manager.
The big turnaround came when Equipment Manager left the team suddenly. I can’t remember if it was a planned vacation, a resignation, or what, but all I know is the team was left under the control of Mr. Nadratowski. Thank goodness. He made some lineup changes immediately. Then I got hot.
I had been scuffling along, playing a solid second base and taking my turn every few games on the mound. But hitting at a mediocre clip, as usual. Then, for a few glorious weeks, my bat turned to gold.
I still don’t really know what happened, except to say that I was simply torrid. It got so that the parents would get extra excited whenever I came to the plate. I smacked the ball pretty good for about five or six games, lifting my batting average well over .300. Heck, it may have been over .400.
The biggest hit was a triple I drilled off a kid named Greg Everson. But Everson wasn’t just any kid pitcher. He was so good, in fact, that he became a minor leaguer – reaching AAA at one point. I looked him up on Google, and found that the Tigers, who had owned his rights, traded him for big league pitcher Jerry Don Gleaton of the Kansas City Royals, on April 2, 1990. Retrosheet.org confirmed this.
So this wasn’t chopped liver I was batting against. Yet I took him deep to left center, and legged out a three bagger. It was the peak of my hotness. Then, moments later, the next batter lined out to the third baseman, who promptly tagged the bag, doubling me off. Sixty to zero in 3.2 seconds.
I cooled off a bit, but we were still a solid second place team, trailing Don Massey Cadillac of course. The second place finish meant we would qualify for some sort of city playoff. Kind of like a runners-up championship.
The game was played at Livonia’s Ford Field (it’s still there), on Farmington Road and Lyndon.
It was a nip-and-tuck affair. Then I came to the plate in the late innings, a man on third with one out. I managed a sacrifice fly, driving in the go-ahead run.
Still clinging to that slim lead in the last inning, our opponents put a man on base with two outs. Can’t remember what base, however. Doesn’t matter. Playing second base, my eyes got as wide as saucers as the next batter popped up, high into shallow right field. It was my ball. MY ball. I waved everyone off. It felt like it would never come down. But it did, finally, and I squeezed it as tight as I could. Ballgame over. City championship won.
I was mobbed by my teammates. It was the only time any team I had played for had won anything of any significance.
We each got trophies (it’s still in the basement, too) with our names on it. But the best part was at the postseason banquet, when we received our trophies. It was held at a local pizzeria. Mr. Nadratowski, still battling his personal demons at home, got up in front of everyone and said some words. I remember him thanking us, the kid players, and then starting to sob. I think we had brightened his life somehow.
Funny, but I’m starting to tear up a little bit now, 30 years later.
Wish I had kept the damn ball.