In April 1993, the Boston Red Sox visited the Seattle Mariners for a three-game series at the Kingdome. I went to the first two games. The third game turned out to be a no-hitter. Baseball fans everywhere can relate.
The no-hitter was hardly a Sandy Koufax-like brush with perfection, by the way. Mariners' pitcher Chris Bosio walked the first two batters and then relied on some serious leather behind him. Ken Griffey Jr. made a nice catch on a sinking liner, first baseman Tino Martinez dived to smother a would-be double, and Bret Boone - our rookie second baseman - snatched a ball that glanced off Tino's glove, then rifled a just-in-time throw to Bosio covering first. It was that kind of night.
But the play of the game was the last one. With two outs, Ernest Riles, a journeyman, hit a chopper that bounced high off the Kingdome turf and over Bosio's head toward center field. Generally that's a hit. Except playing shortstop was a kid named Omar Vizquel, who raced in, barehanded the ball on the other side of second base, and nabbed Riles by a step and a half. Bosio raised his arms in triumph. The no-hitter was his.
How do I remember this if I wasn't even there? In 1993 the Mariners didn't have much to cheer about: one winning season out of 21 - perhaps the most dismal beginning of any baseball franchise ever. A no-hitter was a big enough deal to garner a half-hour special on local TV. Players were interviewed, highlights shown. And this is what Omar Vizquel, a Venezuelan, had to say about the last play:
"I had my eyes concentrating: 'C'mon, hit the ball to me, I want to make the last out.' And when the ball was hit, everything just came naturally."
Hit the ball to me. At the time, although in my 20s, I still had the Little Leaguer's aversion for the ball, so Omar's comment was something of a revelation. Hit the ball to me? What am I going to do with it? No, hit it to someone else, please. I don't need that kind of responsibility.
Cut to five years later. Omar's long gone, traded to the Cleveland Indians at the end of the '93 season. My friends and I, meanwhile, have begun playing softball every Sunday afternoon at a park near the University District. It wasn't exactly Camden Yards, this park. The outfield grass was long and, in autumn, covered with goose dung; left field was foreshortened by a kiddie playground that usually contained no kiddies. Our main audience, the homeless, often plopped themselves in the middle of the field, or, worse, demanded a turn at bat (and - even worse - hit the ball better than we did). But the field was ours on Sundays - until a tavern league began playing there regularly, forcing us to either watch or join. We joined.
Unfortunately, our first game was against the previous year's champions, who not only looked big and fierce but actually wore uniforms, as opposed to our ratty cutoffs and team T-shirts. They had fans who cheered them and hooted us. Our fans? The homeless? Nowhere to be seen. It was a little nerve-racking. I know my nerves were racked at second base. I felt as though I was back in Little League - praying no one would hit the ball my way.
Then I thought of Omar's words - "Hit the ball to me" - and this became my mantra. My fears drained away. It helped me concentrate. It put me in the game rather than outside it, where I'd be of no use to anyone.
We got killed, of course, and in fact never won a game that entire season. And it's not as though I didn't make my share of errors. But we had fun - as much fun as you can have going 0-14 - and we kept getting better.
We played .500 ball the next year and the year after made the playoffs, which we haven't missed since.
And every weekend I'm out there at second base repeating Omar's words to myself.
Hit the ball to me. One could argue that there's nothing special about this thought. Omar's a professional, after all - the best defensive shortstop over the past 10 years, a man who makes as many plays barehanded as many do with the glove - so he's supposed to want the ball. Yet it doesn't always work that way, does it? Even in the Major Leagues, particularly during no-hitters, a lot of players don't want the ball. And beyond baseball? In business and politics? Guys run from the ball. They don't barehand it on the wrong side of second base and toss the runner out by a step and a half.
I'm not big on self-help books; and I tend to cringe at posters of soaring eagles reading "Courage" or "Determination" that adorn the walls of office managers around the country. But I love Omar's words.
Hit the ball to me.