BETWEEN the major-league-baseball strike and Ken Burns's recent baseball documentary to end all documentaries, a lot of reminiscing and story-swapping is going on across the country. I am reminded of my one shining moment in my favorite sport, on a Little League diamond in Kalamazoo, Mich.
Actually, I was reminded of this earlier this summer, when one of the Boston Red Sox players made an unassisted triple play. This is one of the rarest plays in baseball, rarer even than golf's hole in one, but I did it one evening. And not only that, I almost repeated it the next inning.
To make an unassisted triple play, several things have to happen. You have to be in the right position: shortstop, second base, or third base are best, although I suppose others could pull it off. The team at bat must have two or more players on base, so that there is a force out at second or third. The batter has to hit a fly ball or a line drive, and you have to catch it. The runners have to not pay too much attention to what they are doing.
But something else is necessary: You have to understand the game well enough to make the play in the first place. This was my edge over many other Little Leaguers. A lot of parents give their children a baseball mitt, play a little catch, do a few practice swings, and send the poor things out onto the diamond, where they dodge pitches and fly balls.
But my dad understood something about baseball and he wanted me to understand it, too. I'd watch baseball games with him and he'd explain the plays. We'd play catch and talk about where to throw the ball with men on base. We practiced bunting and talked about where to play different positions.
I knew all the players on the Detroit Tigers circa 1961, and can still name most of them: Al Kaline; Charlie Maxwell (a special hero because he came from Paw Paw, Mich., just west of Kalamazoo); Rocky Colavito; Norm Cash; Dick McAuliffe; Jake Wood; Frank Lary, the Yankee-killing pitcher; and Jim Bunning, who later later a congressman.
I read books about baseball rules. I collected and traded baseball cards (boy, do I wish I hadn't lost that collection) on the backs of which I read about Ted Williams's long home run to win an All-Star game in Detroit for the American League and about the tragedy of Roy Campanella.
I read a biography of Joe DiMaggio and discovered to my surprise that he had a brother, Dominic, who played for the Red Sox.
In the library, I found another book by famous players about how to play their positions: Dom DiMaggio was there, recommending that outfielders go down on one knee to stop ground balls.
My friends and I played variations on baseball whenever we could: We'd hit each other fly balls; we'd take turns pitching to each other, arguing balls and strikes; we invented a two-man version of the game using a Whiffle Ball in the narrow yard along the side of my house. And all of it accompanied by a running commentary a la George Kell and Ernie Harwell, who called the Tigers' games on radio and TV.
The teams I was on my first two years of Milwood Little League were awful: Our records both years were something on the order of 2 wins and 18 losses. Game after game was a heartbreak.
But there I was one night playing shortstop in the Little League minors. There were men on first and second and nobody out. The pitcher flung the ball in the general direction of home plate and crack! It came right at me. My dad always taught me to think about what I would do if the ball came to me, and I did - this time at least.
I caught the ball just to the left of second base. One out. I charged across the bag, doubling off the runner and ending up on the first-base side of the bag. Two outs. I looked up and couldn't believe my eyes. Here came the runner charging down the base path toward me. I reached out with both hands on the ball and tagged him. Three outs. Pandemonium in the stands and on the bench.
Next inning it almost happened again. Two men on, nobody out. A line drive straight to me. I caught it again. One out. I tagged the base. Two outs. And then....
And then memory fails me. I can't honestly remember if 1) the player on first went back to the base; or 2) he came to second and slid under my tag. It doesn't matter. An unassisted double play is pretty good. And one unassisted triple play is enough for any career - even if it's only Little League.