It was 1965, championship game. Jackie Robinson was commentating, with ABC’s Wide World of Sports televising the event.
There were 25, 000 people in the stands, uncounted numbers on the hill, all there to watch the Little League World Series.
Our coach, Bert Carrigan, taught us to hustle all the time, believing it kept you in the game every second of every play. When the ball is not in play, which is a lot of the time, that is when true ball players and lovers of the game are, in effect, playing chess with each other — trying to decide what will happen next, what percentages are that it will happen, and how can you influence those percentages. This critical game of chess is played within seconds of each pitch and the game can be decided on one pitch, as we all know.
I was Stoney Creek’s shortstop. Coach Carrigan taught us what we call “the thinking position,” a relaxed state of mind in between pitches. If you are in the zone, the thinking position can win or lose you ball games.
That point was driven hope in the 1965 Little League World Series. As part of the Stoney Creek team we were leading 1-0 with two outs in the fourth inning. Joe Palango, our pitcher and great athlete, had a curve ball to knock your socks off, but his fastball was not as quick as our opposing pitcher from Connecticut. They were getting around on Joe’s fastball. Karl Betz, another great Stoney Creek athlete, went on to play baseball in California.
He was probably going to guard the line at third with a quarter to half-step. There was a man on first and second, a base hit ties the game.
I had only one question going through my mind: what am I going to do if the ball is hit to me? My decision was if the ball is hit to my right I would go to third, if the ball goes to my left I would go to second, and if it is hit right at me second base would still be the easier play.
Feet always move first
I always focused on the batter’s feet and bat. Feet always move first, before the hands. Yes, we were only 12, but we practised three times a day and our memory boxes had seen every conceivable situation 100 times. I think this helps focus. To call upon a split second what the brain already has been repeatedly trained to know.
The other valuable lesson came from our gentle manager, George Bender and our fiercer coach Carrigan, who stressed your teammates were more important than you. So if you have to take the ball in the teeth to prevent a run, then do it ... we were all on board.
I remember before the start of games, Carrigan would wait until the opposing players sat on their bench to watch before he we would begin our infield practice. Talk about playing chess! Coach Carrigan was a big, 230-pound firefighter who believed that if you were going to be a firefighter or a ditch digger, be the best you could be. Don’t cheat yourself.
Practice, practice, practice until you get it right 100 per cent of the time, our coach would preach. Not one player on our team had made an error or even a mental error, all the way to the championship game. We would never, never, beat ourselves — winning was a by-product of our characters.
Carrigan would say, “take the field,” with the other team and all the fans watching. We sprinted on the field and took our positions. That was when the hustle started. Even our alternates were up on the bench, hustling and chattering. Carrigan was the last out of the dugout, a maple bat in hand with no label.
Remember the saying label up, so you don’t break the bat? Well, our maple bats had no labels, but were turned on a lathe especially for our team. You could hit the ball anywhere on this solid hunk of hardwood, and it would not break, but more importantly, the ball would come off it like a rocket.
Of course, coach Carrigan would run to home plate, what did you expect? Picture this big firefighter, with a Westpoint brush cut, white t-shirt untucked, and a pocked face, probably from acne when he was young. A serious face and one giant hunk of maple wood attached to his hand, and oh yes, only two baseballs.
Little league has only 60-foot bases, and the ball can get to you pretty quick off the bat, and that’s exactly what Carrigan wanted. He used to smash the ball at us -notice I did not say “hit it to us.” In fact, he used to try to hit it so hard that the ball didn’t get a chance to hit the ground. Or sometimes it would take those short hops that ball players dread, even 12-year-old boys.
The fans in the stands — this is not poetic license — would go silent. Other than our teammates supporting each other with chatter, all you could hear was oohs and aahs from the stands, like they were afraid for us little kids.
What everybody didn’t know was that we had done this drill three times a day, seven days a week. It was second nature to us and we were not afraid, though the opposing team was!
At the end, we would finish off every practice with a drill called “bring it in.” For other teams, it would consist of hitting the ball directly to that player, throw it home, run in, have a ball rolled to you slowly as you are advancing to home plate, catch it and throw to first, then run or walk off the field to the dugout.
But his wasn’t Carrigan’s way. He played smash the ball at you until you miss it, as long as it took until he got the ball by you. So if you took the ball in the face and you were bleeding from your mouth but the ball was still in front of you, you had better be up and ready because the next ball was coming at you just as hard.
We were so well trained that getting the ball past us was not easy. In fact, it became a competition between coach Carrigan and you. Carrigan never liked losing, and if you stuck in there like we all did, he would get madder and madder.
His face would scrunch up, and he would be sweating profusely. So the ball came faster and faster, all so he could win. But if you try to hit a ball harder and faster, the location on which you are hitting it moves, hence diving catches and bruised bodies, even before the game started.
I have seen some of the greatest catches ever made during our infield practices, and all the kids could make them. So the game was over for the other team even before it started.
Play for the ages
Here is the scary part. I can remember it to this day. I saw the ball come out of Joey’s hand in slow motion, headed toward the plate. The pitch was a fastball, looking a little down and inside. Most little leaguers put their front foot in the bucket, which I saw the batter’s front foot turn and do.
As a shortstop, you still can’t move or cheat, other than the steps I had already taken toward third, because if the batter is late and goes inside-out on the ball, he still can hit it in the other direction.
I saw the bat in slow motion come through the strike zone, not yet making contact with the ball, but I could feel with — no anxiety — that he had passed the point where the ball would be hit in the opposite direction. I started to move toward third just before contact.
The ball was hit hard between third and short. I had gotten a good jump on it — call it a sixth sense — but knew it was coming to the hole too quickly for a chance to catch it clean, so I dove, ball still clearly focused in my eyes.
When you dive (and many of my teammates did) you were taught to get both arms out to help you spring quicker, and move importantly. If you dove with only one hand, the throwing hand would be underneath you and would crush it by falling on it. So, even if you made the catch, you could not throw it. What good is a great catch without a great throw? But I did it right with both hands. I made the diving catch that anybody on our team could have made, and threw the runner out at third.
We were still winning going into the fifth. On my way back to the dugout I could see coach Carrigan grabbing and pulling the fence off its hinges like he normally did in intense situations. He walked over to me and whacked me and said, “nice catch.”
That was it. His head was now back into focus on the fifth inning. I guess we learned that there is plenty of time after the game to pat yourself on the back, but while the game is on, you better have the ability to stay in the zone. No matter if good or bad plays happens, keep hustling!
Wide World of Sports showed the catch, which they played over and over again in slow motion. The great Jackie Robinson couldn’t stop talking about me.
After that, to me, nothing was left but the crying, and cry we did. We lost 3-1 to Windsor Locks, Connecticut. The catch didn’t mean anything to me then.
They won the red pin and we won the blue pin. It’s a half-inch square little league pin. That’s it. The champions of the world got the same size pin as we did.
I guess we played for the love of the game.