WITH the speed of a whistling line drive, I realized: He missed the plate! The opposing runner's six-year-old feet completely missed home plate!
It was late in the game. There were two outs. The run would tie the score. With our pennant hopes on the line, my gallery of dugout subs lapsed into hysterics. "Coach, coach! He didn't touch! He didn't touch home, coach!"
I had to act. Though barely more than a child myself, I was coach of these tadpole tee-ballers. I approached the plate umpire. The runner was already in the dugout.
"Mr. Ump," I said.
"I know, I know," came the umpire's reply. "I saw it, too. He missed home."
"So, well, he's, uh, out, right?"
I waited for the response. The umpire pulled out his rule book. "In tee ball," he said. "I'm really not sure."
In those long minutes of terrible uncertainty, as the umpire turned the pages, I tried to look stern and protective of my players' dreams and thought back to how far we had come during that most improbable season. It was a season that seemed to transcend sport - a small handbook on the human predicament - and each year as baseball's opening day rolls around, the memories come back to me in spades.
I was 14 when I signed up that year to lead the White Sox through the summer tee-ball league. They were an untried crew of 12 rookies just out of first grade, and the team's first practice was a disaster of errant throws and teflon-coated grounders.
I approached our opening game with foreboding. But in tee ball, I soon discovered, quality takes on a wonderfully elastic definition. Despite 15 errors, we were glittering stars of excellence compared with the forlorn Indians, winning 39-21. The victory milkshakes after the game, tall and frosty, tasted of pure nectar.
We dispatched the A's next, 3O-22. Our wide-smiling shortstop, Chris, was emerging as team slugger. He got a hit every time. He didn't even get called out until the fourth game.
Other, quirkier standouts included Ralph at second, who tended to kick balls to first base, and Timmy at third, who preferred to field barehanded, loopily jettisoning his glove when grounders approached.
We improved steadily but couldn't shake our Achilles' heel: relays from the outfield to home plate. These usually involved a plot and cast of Biblical proportions, with 4O-day wanderings in the vast desert outfield while the coach, gnashing his teeth, issued unheeded commands. Chris, the team Wunderkind, was always tempted to intervene from shortstop. He wanted to handle the whole process solo. "No," I told him, trying to squeeze a life lesson from the situation.
"Everyone gets to play. Everyone learns on his own. That's how we get better at stuff." But it was hard persuading a kid batting one thousand.
After winning our third contest, we found ourselves alone in first place. But then defeat paid a call. Chris was called our for the first time, watching his average sink to a depressing .965. And Ralph struck out, literally missing the tee three times, a stunning accomplishment. As he slunk back to the dugout, I sensed the need for another life lesson. "You gave it your best, Ralph. That's what counts. You went down swinging."
He wiped a tear from his eye. "Thanks, coach."
The loss was good for the players, I think. Approaching the world with notions of invincibility is unhealthy, even (or especially) for six-year-olds. Sobered by defeat, the team swaggered less, but stood taller in the field.
After winning our fifth game, we were only two victories shy of the pennant. Next came the Rockets, the decisive contest. Their late-inning rally left us barely ahead, 25-24.
With two outs and bases empty, the next Rocket smacked the ball with heart-sinking force down the right-field line. And right field meant Joey, who, bless his mitt, had progressed little in his tendency to throw balls into the stands. I cringed. We needed a relay to stay alive.
Joey picked up the ball near the fence and heaved mightily. So mightily his cap came off, and the ball slipped from his hand, landing at his feet. He picked it up and this time heroically hit Bobby at first base. But Bobby, for reasons still unclear to me, threw to Chris at shortstop instead of home. By then the batter had already crossed the plate but he never touched it. He missed the mark.
My dugout subs were atwitter. I approached the umpire. He pulled out his rule book. "There's nothing in here about appealing to the missed bag," he said. "You've got to tag the runner, and he's already in the dugout."
I ruminated. "But can't we just go in and tag the guy in the dugout?"
"Hmmm. I guess you could."
I called Chris to home plate. But neither he nor I nor the rest of our team could quite remember who the runner was.
"I guess we'll just have to call it a run," the umpire said.
Then Chris turned child genius. "But what if I go in and just tag every guy on the team?" he said. "That way we'll be sure he's out."
My heart rose. The umpire scratched his head. "Well, uh ... sure, go ahead," he said.
So off to the dugout Chris went, tagging the Rockets. He tagged the on-deck batter, then moved along the bench tagging, one by one, skinny thighs and Band-Aided elbows. He reached the last player and guided the ball toward his sleeve. Everyone watched. Closer, closer. Contact!
"You're outta there!" the umpire thundered. "Somebody's definitely outta there!" The other White Sox charged off the field, doing cartwheels and mobbing Chris. We held on to win and next downed the Astros to clinch the pennant.
Twenty years have now passed since that fine championship, and I remain an inveterate baseball fan. And like others, I'm tempted now and again to idealize the game as a metaphor for life's peaks and valleys. But if a metaphor does exist, I submit it's grounded not so much in baseball per se as in the utterly youthful, awkward strivings of tee ball.
Quite often perfection, though beautiful, can be a tedious thing, and over-seriousness a dangerous attitude. Mistakes are what make life interesting. Overcoming them makes it meaningful.
So as baseball celebrates another opening day, give me the professional players with their near-flawless skills. But for life lessons, for true cosmic parallels, give me a six-year-old outfielder who stops, drops, and lobs a ball homeward, whereupon it takes a crazily circuitous route to the plate and confusion reigns. That's how one forges new strategies and boldly enters the enemy dugout for the third out. That's when cheeseburgers and milk- shakes are ordered as affirmation that, although it wasn't entirely pretty, the game went fairly well.