His name was McKenna and he was without question the best pitcher in the league. He was a lefty with an amazing fastball and a curve that seemed to fall off a table.
McKenna played for our rivals. He crushed hitters. Our teams were rated one (his) and two (mine) by the New York City newspapers that covered local sports.
I was a part of a recruited team—yes, recruited, as the coaches scoured the City for the best players they could sign up—playing in one of New York City’s elite baseball leagues. I think I was 15 years old and most of the players were a year or two older than I. Didn’t matter. I batted second and played shortstop. I was a damn good player even in the elite leagues.
We played McKenna’s team midway through the season. Both of our teams were undefeated, which was amazing because so many of these recruited teams were good and it was hard to stay undefeated.
My father always attended my games. He’d give me advice. I’d listen intently. He knew his stuff. He was a good father and a good coach.
So our undefeated teams met at Marine Park in Brooklyn. They beat us 1-0. Why did they beat us? Because of me; completely and utterly because of me. That’s right. I struck out three times with runners on base. I made the error that let in the one run that lost the game for us. I was awful. I was embarrassing.
I didn’t know McKenna as a person; he was an opponent. The third time I struck out—looking as if I should never have left the stickball games in the school yards—I could see the sneer on his face. He had a cold, hard face. He was a good-looking kid, just like the cool, blond villain that the girls liked in the movie Karate Kid. He had his beautiful girlfriend at the game. She laughed and cheered, especially when I went down on strikes. I didn’t have a girlfriend.
I just couldn’t hit the damn guy. It was as if his pitches had magic.
After that third strikeout I couldn’t find my father in the stands. I looked out and way in the distance I finally saw him. I walked down the third base line and shouted to him, “What are you doing?”
“I’m digging a hole,” he said.
I had to laugh a little. I could certainly throw myself into a hole. Just bury me.
Striking out three times—three times!—was a disgrace. It meant the pitcher dominated you. Today’s players don’t seem to be upset as they ring up strikeouts one after another but for me? I was, despite laughing at my father’s quip, ready to hide from the world. Yes, indeed, dig me a deep hole.
And we’d have to play his team again at the end of the season.
No one beat us the rest of the season, so in our last game we had only one loss. I was having a good hitting season and my fielding was excellent. The error in the McKenna game was the only error I had committed the whole season.
McKenna’s team lost one game during this time—a game he didn’t pitch—so both of our teams were tied with identical records. Everything hinged on this game; this one finalgame.
In the month between my total humiliation and this upcoming decisive game I thought of McKenna a lot. I thought of his sneer. I thought about how embarrassing my first run-in with him had been. Strikeouts, the error that cost us the game…the worst I have ever played a game. I could see his girlfriend laughing and jumping up and down as he destroyed me.
Now the encore:
In the car, driving to the game, my father said, “Baseball gives you a chance to come back and redeem yourself. You will own McKenna today; you will own him. Oh, and I left my shovel at home so you have to own him.” Did my father really believe that? Would I be even able to touch the ball as it flew towards me? Did he really leave his imaginary shovel at home?
I knew that on McKenna’s fastball I kept swinging under the ball. I had to get my swing level with the pitch. How to do that?
I had read about Ted Williams saying that when you go up against a fast pitcher, you have to swing for the very top of the ball; even try to miss over the top. On a fast pitch, swinging for the top or above the top of the ball would mean the swing would actually land in the middle. In short, if your swing can’t get up high, then aim higher!
I practiced that at a local batting cage – spending all my hard-earned part-time money on a 100 mile-per-hour machine at the Rockaway Avenue Batting Range. Swinging high allowed me to own the machine. Of course, McKenna wasn’t a machine.
But what of McKenna’s curve ball? That damn thing was impossible to hit —seemingly impossible. My father told me that Joe DiMaggio had said that the curveball was easy to hit if you could pick up the spin of the ball. So in batting practice I would have the pitchers throw nothing but curve balls to me. I learned to see the spin.
Now the moment of truth came calling as I walked to the field. This game was being played at the Parade Grounds in Brooklyn, the premier field that had fences and plenty of seating for the fans—and (wow!) there were plenty of fans at this game! It had been written about in the papers as the ultimate New York City baseball confrontation.
And here’s how it went:
I had anticipated being put at the end of the batting order, perhaps hitting seventh or eighth due to my previous encounter with McKenna. My coach came over to me.
“I’m changing the batting order,” he said.
Okay, I was prepared for this. I had failed miserably in my last confrontation against McKenna so down I’d go in the batting order.
“You are not hitting second today; you’re hitting third today. You’ve been creaming the ball lately so third you are!” he said.
And the game began. We were the home team and McKenna’s team came up first. It happened right away. Our pitcher loaded the bases with two walks and a single. There was one out and we were playing the infield in to try to stop a run. With McKenna pitching, one run could be the game—as it was last time.
A wicked line drive was hit to my right. I dived, caught the ball and then threw it with all my might to the third baseman to get the runner scrambling back to third base. A double play to end the inning!
McKenna walked our first batter, nicknamed Speedy because of his, yes, speed. Immediately Speedy stole second base. McKenna struck out the second batter and then it was my turn. Did I just see him sneer as I took my place at home plate? He was probably thinking he had destroyed me in the last game and he’d destroy me in this game too.
The first pitch was a blazing fastball and I swung above it. Bam! Into the outfield it went, a single, and Speedy scored from second. A double play ended the inning for us.
I hit two more singles that day, one off McKenna’s curve ball. I made several great plays at shortstop. Each of my singles—each one!—allowed us to score a run. We won 3-1.
In the previous game McKenna dominated me; today I dominated him. As my father had said, “You will own him today.” I did.
That season taught me that you often do get second chances in baseball and in life, but you just have to work hard to take advantage of them.
Frank Scoblete’s latest books are I Am a Dice Controller: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Craps, Confessions of a Wayward Catholic and I Am a Card Counter: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Blackjack. Available from Amazon.com, Kindle, Barnes and Noble, and at bookstores.