The summer of '87 was without a doubt the most memorable summer of my childhood. it was that one magical year where everything just seemed to come together perfectly. I wrote about it briefly following the death of Kirby Puckett, but I've been needing to make a more complete record of it for some time, so, since I didn't have a blog in 1987, and I don't have any grandchildren to tell this story to, pardon me while I bore you to death with some more tales from my youth.
Wait...back up. Let's start in 1986. Little League tryouts were underway in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. I was nine years old and my dad asked me if I wanted to sign up. My best friend Erik, who lived across the street from me, was already a year ahead of me, a seasoned veteran, while I was just a rookie, but I was determined to prove myself to him. So we both rushed down to Skippy Field to try out and we each got a phone call later in the week telling us which teams we had been assigned to.
The St. Louis Park Little League consisted of 9 through 12-year olds and there was both a major league and a minor league. Only ten through 12-year olds could try out for the major league and each team picked only two 10-year olds. There were a total of six teams in each league so that meant that only twelve 10-year olds made the cut. Erik didn't make it that year so we were both assigned to different minor league teams.
The difference between the majors and the minors seemed as vast as the difference between Barry Bonds before and after
steroids his new training program. There were two fields located right next to each other behind city hall: Skippy 1, where our games were played and Skippy 2, where the major league games were played. After our games, or on our off days, we would frequently race over to Skippy 2 to check out the major league action. They seemed so much faster, stronger, and bigger than the guys in our league. We fantasized about one day being good enough to play in Skippy 2.
The two fields were just as different as the leagues. Skippy 2 had real dugouts while we only had a bench behind a fence. The outfield fence was full of billboards advertising every business in St. Louis Park which gave it a much more official look. Everything was bigger, brighter, and better from the chalk to the scoreboard. Even the grass seemed greener on Skippy 2's side of the fence.
Baseball was the only thing that existed that year. We would sometimes put on our uniforms at noon for a 6:00 game and just play ball all day. We'd ride our bikes down to Skippy two hours before game time when they were chalking the fields and playing the quintessential baseball song from the P.A. system. Game time would roll around and it would be Game 7 of the World Series every night. The only distraction was the sound of the game going on over in Skippy 2 at the same time. The crack of the bat and the cheers seemed so much louder coming from Skippy 2, but it drove us to play harder in the hopes that someday we would be among the chosen.
Words can't describe how bad I was that year. Erik was a pretty good pitcher and he thought he had gotten a raw deal not being picked for the majors, but I knew that I was destined to ride the bench in Skippy 1 for the rest of my childhood. They stuck me out in right field so I would do as little damage as possible. I only got two hits the entire year and one of them was a swinging bunt. I became known as "the K-man" in our circle of friends because I struck out about 90% of the time. I laughed about it and tried not to let it get to me, but deep down it hurt more than anything. I desperately wanted to prove myself, especially to Erik who was sure to make the majors the next year while I was sure to be stuck in right field in the minors for the remainder of my Little League career.
The 1986 Little League season ended and life went on as usual. We continued to play home run derby and hot box or anything else we could think of with a bat and a ball until it was time for football season. I was glad I didn't have to bat against Erik that season. It was bad enough having to be called the K-man from the bleachers, but for him to prove it on the mound would have been more than I could bear. He continued to prove his dominance over me though in everything we ever played from home run derby in the back yard to
touch tackle football in the street. He was always ready to prove that he could run faster, throw harder, or hit farther than me and the fact that he was a year older than me didn't seem to factor into the final decision. I would always try my best to match him at everything but at the end of the day it was clear who was the best athlete on Yosemite Ave.
Well, we ended up getting into some trouble the following spring, like boys tend to do when they have too much free time on their hands. I don't remember exactly what happened--might have been the cigarettes or the stack of magazines we discovered as we were perusing the inside of our neighbors' garages--but it was bad enough that my dad forbid me from hanging around with Erik anymore. Erik took it personally and thought it was my decision to stay away from him. Whenever he would see me outside he would make sure I knew that he was still the superior athlete and I was still the K-man, only now the insults took a decidedly vicious turn. My athletic career on Yosemite Ave. had ended and now I only had the upcoming Little League season to look forward to, if that was possible.
Once again, I showed up for tryouts in late April expecting to hit a few balls, chase a few pop flies, and get assigned to another minor league team. Erik on the other hand, was sure to catch on with a major league team this year so I wouldn't have to worry about facing him during the season.
Wait...back up. I almost forgot to mention the glove. One of the tragic things about my rookie season was the glove I had which was as hard as a rock and impossible to catch anything in. I suffered through an entire season in right field with this uncomfortable hunk of
leather plastic that couldn't catch a cold. All year long fly balls were bouncing off of my glove and landing for extra-base hits. I did everything I could do to try to break in this cheap $15 piece of crap--putting it under my mattress at night, taking it in the bath with me, putting it under the tire of my dad's car so he'd run over it in the morning--but nothing worked.
Then one day, during the fall of '86 when Erik and I were still friends, we were riding our bikes down by Skippy Field and I discovered an old glove that somebody had abandoned in the dugout. It was an old Ted Williams brand glove with plenty of mileage on it. I slipped it on and it fit...uh...like a glove. I quickly fell in love with it and took it home and claimed it as my own. Perhaps this would be the end of my defensive woes when the '87 season began.
So there I was on tryout day with my new Ted Williams glove and another year under my belt. Now if only I could find a magic bat that would help me hit the ball once in a while...
How does a 10-year old who couldn't get a hit or catch a fly ball to save his life the previous year get picked as one of only twelve 10-year olds in the entire city of St. Louis Park to make the majors?
Well, a funny thing happened on my way to being assigned to another minor league team in my second year of Little League. One of the coaches who was watching me take batting practice came by and gave me a couple pointers like, "Don't close your eyes when you swing," and "Find a bat that doesn't weigh more than you do," and a few more wise pointers that my first year coach never considered sharing with me. And that was all it took. A five minute conversation and suddenly I'm smacking balls all over the outfield. With my newly discovered hitting ability and my new Ted Williams glove, apparently I made a good impression that day and I got a phone call later that week telling me to report to practice for my new major league team.
I didn't know whether to be excited or scared. I considered turning down the offer because I didn't think I could compete in that league. But my dad urged me to go for it so I did. I knew they weren't going to expect much of me as one of only two 10-year olds on the team so my plan was just to stay out of the way and not embarrass myself.
In the week following tryouts I went outside one day and saw Erik proudly wearing his new Little League hat. I could tell by the colors that he also had been picked by a major league team. I shouted across the street, "Hey, you made the majors, huh?" "Of course," he replied, in a proud, self-assured tone. "Me too," I said. I'm not sure he believed me but I thought it better to keep quiet after that rather than writing any checks my bat couldn't cash. Suddenly I realized that there was a very real possibility that I would have to face him from the batter's box this year. The very thought sent a shiver down my spine as I grabbed my Ted Williams glove and headed off to practice.
When I showed up for practice the first day I received my new uniform (complete with stirrups) which was much sharper looking than last year's powder blue. It was black with yellow trim and a yellow number 3 on the back. I didn't feel worthy to wear it, nor did I feel worthy to be playing in Skippy 2. I was sure that sooner or later they were going to realize they had made a mistake and somebody was going to tap me on the shoulder and tell me that I didn't belong. But there I was on opening day, warming up with the rest of the major leaguers and trying my best to fight off the butterflies.
I didn't get much action in the first couple of games but when I got in there I did manage to get a few hits and avoid any costly errors. We were scheduled to face Erik's team twice that year. The first meeting came early in the season and as expected, I was not in the starting lineup. I watched from the bench and tried not to let Erik see me because both he and I knew I had no business being on that field. In about the fourth inning the coach called my name and told me to take over in center field. My heart sank into my stomach when I came back to the dugout for the bottom of the fourth and saw Erik warming up on the mound in relief. I was scheduled to bat fourth that inning.
Please, please, please, don't anybody get on base! Oh for the love of God, please don't let anybody get on base!!!!
Well, somebody did get on base because a few minutes later I found myself in the batter's box facing my former best friend on the grand stage of Skippy Field. I was so nervous that I completely forgot the coach's instructions not to swing at the first pitch and I swung right through it for strike one. I could hear the moms of the other team screaming from the bleachers, "Come on, Erik, strike this guy out!" For a moment I almost forgot about the magnitude of the situation and wanted to run into the bleachers and smack some moms with my aluminum Easton.
But that thought quickly vanished as I swung through strike two. I could feel Erik's cocky gaze from the mound as he sought to finish off this at-bat and prove to the rest of Skippy Field what he and I both knew. I tried not to make eye contact and just pretend that he was someone other than the kid who laughingly refers to me as the K-man while I'm waiting for the school bus in the morning. But my heart was beating like a locomotive and my palms were so sweaty I could barely grip the bat. How did I get myself into this? Erik took a look at first, then back towards home, and delivered...
I tried my best to fight back the tears as I returned to the dugout. I AM the K-man I thought as I trotted out to center field trying not to show anyone that I had been crying. I had my chance and I blew it. Maybe I should just quit right now and go back to the minors.
After the humiliation at the hands of my arch-enemy on the hallowed grounds of Skippy 2, I was ready to pack it in and head back to the minors. Even though I was becoming a pretty good hitter now I knew that I could really be a superstar if I could just decrease the talent level around me. The minor leaguers seemed so slow and untalented in comparison that I salivated at the chance to hit against them.
But my teammates wouldn't have any of it. A couple of the older kids on the team took me aside and told me that I could really be good if I just didn't give up. The coach took the time to work on things with me the way my previous coach had not. Probably the only reason I stayed was because I really felt like I was part of a team here. The coach treated us like young men rather than just a group of kids he had to babysit. My teammates all rallied around me because it was a source of pride to see the 10-year old make good. And so I stayed.
Slowly but surely I began to develop into a pretty good hitter. I was getting on base two or three times a game and catching the coach's eye with my defensive ability. By the middle of the season the coach put me in as the starting second baseman and I started every game from then on. He even put me in as the lead-off hitter on a few occasions.
Then one day in practice we were screwing around and trying to bat left-handed during batting practice when I came up and started smacking hits all over the field. I didn't think anything of it, but, as I would find out later, my coach took careful note of the fact that I could bat left-handed just as well as I could bat right-handed which was a distinct advantage since the vast majority of pitchers in our league were all righties.
The next game on our schedule was the dreaded rematch with Erik's team. I thought about faking an injury or something so I didn't have to risk humiliation again. But the thought occured to me that I might just have a chance against him this time around. Then again, he may not even be pitching in this game. I listened to Herb Carneal call the Twins game on the radio that night as I lay in bed wondering if I would get another chance to redeem myself.
It was a perfect July day, the sun was shining, and there wasn't a cloud in the sky as I made my way to Skippy Field for the game. After warming up and taking some fielding practice we all jogged back into the dugout to hear the coach give the starting lineup. I sat on the end of the bench, in the far corner of the dugout staring intently out at the field wondering which pitcher I would be facing that day. We were the visiting team so that meant we would be coming up to bat first. As the grounds crew finished chalking the field the other teams starters all ran out to take their positions. My stomach did a big somersault as I saw you-know-who taking the mound for warm-ups.
What I heard next almost made me lose the bologna sandwich I had for lunch. "Micah, you'll be leading off and playing second base." And if that wasn't enough, as I was standing in the on-deck circle the coach came over and told me, "Micah, I want you to go up there and bat left-handed like you did in practice the other day. You were really able to get a hold of those pitches left-handed and I want to see what you can do in a game!" As if I didn't have enough things to think about, now I had to shift all of my strength to the opposite side of my body.
As I stood there in the on-deck circle, afraid to even take a practice swing left-handed, I wondered what I had gotten myself into. The seconds felt like hours as I waited for the ump to signal the start of the game. I could hear the ball wizz through the air as Erik finished taking his warm-up tosses, no doubt putting a little something extra on them just to intimidate me as I stood there in the on-deck circle trying to hide my fear.
The moms were starting to fill up the bleachers now as the ump shouted "Play ball!" and the fielders tossed in their warm up balls. I walked toward the batter's box realizing that I had crossed the point of no return. Fine. If this is how it's gotta be, then this is how it's gotta be, I thought to myself trying to muster up some measure of courage. The P.A. announcer called my name and all eyes in Skippy Field were on me.
I always liked being the first one to step into a freshly chalked batting box. It's kind of like being the first one to drive on a fresh snowfall. But this was my first time stepping into the left batter's box. I immediately noticed that the holes weren't as deep because it wasn't used nearly as much as the right side. It made me feel a little bit taller though. As I dug in and kicked the dirt around I wondered what Erik must have been thinking. I'm sure it probably raised his confidence a bit to see me batting lefty. This was sure to be another easy strikeout, he must have thought.
For the first time in my life I was in a situation where I was unable to cry out to mommy and daddy for help. It was just me against Erik, right here, right now. I was so focused now I couldn't even hear the moms in the stands screaming out their annoyingly unoriginal cheers. Nobody could have possibly imagined the complexity of thoughts that went through this 10-year old boy's mind at that moment. There I was, standing in the wrong batter's box, with the potential to either erase a year's worth of insults or invite ten times as many more with one swing of the bat.
I stared out at the mound now and tried to focus all my energy on the ball rather than the pitcher. I decided that Erik would probably try to come right down the middle with the first pitch because he knew that my best chance to get on base was with a walk and he didn't want to take any chances leaving anything out of the strike zone. I made up my mind that I was going to swing as hard as I could at the first pitch no matter what. I raised the bat off my shoulder and focused every ounce of energy I had on the upcoming swing as Erik started into his motion.
The windup...and the pitch...
Baseball, it is said, is only a game. True. And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona. ~George F. Will
The ball just seemed to hang there like a pinata. It couldn't have been more perfect if Erik had walked up to home plate and put it on a tee. I leaned into it and began my swing with every ounce of strength that was in me and felt that sweet sensation that goes through your hands when you know you got a hold of one. Unfortunately my timing was a little off since this was the first left-handed swing I had ever taken in a game and I caught it a little late. It landed just inside fair territory down the left field line and skipped into the corner. I pulled into second with a stand-up double which probably could have been a triple if I hadn't been Carlton Fisking my way down the line.
But the satisfaction of that moment didn't come in the form that I had expected as I stood there on second base just a few feet away from the person who would no longer be allowed to include the phrase "K-man" in his vocabulary. Our entire dugout was hooting and hollering over the fact that their switch-hitting 10-year old had just tagged one of the best pitchers in the league for extra bases. Nobody else on that field knew what had just happened except me and Erik, but for some reason the satisfaction I found in rejoicing with my teammates became the main thing on that afternoon. As I rounded third a few pitches later and touched home, suddenly Erik became just another pitcher; but this team, in our black and yellow Citizens State Bank uniforms became the reason for celebration on that day.
In the bottom of the first Erik came up to bat and ripped a ground ball up the middle which I dove for and made a spectacular Ozzie Smithlike play, probably the best defensive play of my career. Once again my teammates raved from the dugout. Even the second base umpire walked by me and whispered, "Nice play number 3." Somehow the joy of succeeding against my arch-nemisis became overshadowed by the joy of succeeding for my team. By the end of the game Erik was just another pitcher on another team, a team that stood in the way of my team's glory.
Like all 10-year olds, I mistakenly thought that all my summers would be as 1987 was. It's that perfect age when you're old enough to enjoy life but too young to know how hard it really is. When I watched the Twins win game 7 of the World Series over the Cardinals that fall I just thought that this was the way that it was always going to be.
My parents decided to move out to the country that fall, a move which I never adjusted to, and I slowly realized that I was not going to grow up to be the next Kent Hrbek or Kirby Puckett. I played baseball up until my seventh grade year but it was never the same as it was in Skippy. Going from Skippy Field to a baseball field out in the middle of nowhere with a dirt infield and no outfield fence is like playing your Atari when you know your friend has a Nintendo. I still had some fun, got some big hits, and helped my teams win, but nothing was ever able to capture the magic of 1987.
I never saw nor spoke to Erik again after that fateful July day. I wonder what he's doing now and if he even remembers it. I'd love to catch up with him someday and reminisce about old times, maybe take him to a Twins game, and bury the hatchet for good. I'm sure he too has learned that life goes on and 1987 doesn't last forever.