By Rich McIlhenny
As I rounded third I heard the ball buzz past my right ear, after being thrown from Jesse, the third baseman, to the catcher. “This will be over his head or in the dirt, and I can score standing up, and this game will all be over,” I thought to myself as the crowd started to cheer at my brazen attempt to score from first base on a fielder’s choice…..
Let’s back it up a bit. It’s a hot summer night in late June, most likely 1974. I am playing in a Little League game at the Water Tower on the back field near the train tracks. My fellow Giants — Jim Reilly, Steve Schultz, Louigi Bruno and Jimmy Carroll — and I were playing against the Seamus Sharpe and David Shelly-led Pirates. With the bases loaded and our side down by 3 runs, I cracked an opposite-field grand slam home run that rolled up the hills that we would sled down in the winter, and the whole team jumped on me after I crossed home plate to give us the win.
As I sat on the bench during my 9-year-old son Jesse’s Little League practice on that same field last month, I looked over at those hills and tried to bring back that memory and make it more vivid. I started thinking about my white cleats with red and blue stripes and how the left fielder in the other game going on in the other field almost got run over by the Pirates right fielder on the way towards the hills chasing down my home run.
I then glanced towards the wall of the Recreation Center behind the left field fence and remembered when a home run would hit off it only once in a great while. And when it was, it would be talked about in Holy Cross, Houston and OMC schools for at least a week afterwards.
“Hey Parents! Let’s all play a scrimmage with the kids! We’ll choose sides!” I heard Jesse’s coach, Paul Ruddick, shout out. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I got off the bench and stood among the other middle-aged moms and dads and their kids, anticipating showing them that I still had some skills left in my creaky, swollen body. I was picked to be on my younger son Daniel’s team and headed towards the mound, having been chosen to pitch. I was pretty impressed with my aim, except for the one that got away when I plunked a young player in the back. We made it through the top of the first without giving up a run, though.
When it was my turn to bat, a boy looked up at me and said, “How far are you going to hit it?” I told him that I had once hit one up in them thar’ hills where we go sledding in the winter, but that it had been quite a while ago.
Standing at the plate with a bat that felt as big as a coffee stirrer in my hands, I tried to sidestep the first pitch from a 10-year-old named Max that was headed towards me. Not having the reflexes that I used to, I was unable to get out of the way as the fastball smacked off the inside of my right knee. Doubled over in pain and reassuring the other parents that I was OK, I refused to take my base as I wanted to prove to myself and show the crowd that I could still hit. I laid into the next pitch, roped a single to left and trotted out to first base, wishing I had gotten under the ball more and hit it over the wall, as Billy Kalkbrenner did back in the day.
I glanced at the bench, thinking that maybe I would have Daniel pinch-run for me, but saw he was wearing a helmet and didn’t want to mess up his at-bat. Before I had time to think of asking someone else, the next batter hit a slow grounder to second. I started lumbering towards second and looked back to see that they were throwing to first base and were paying no attention to me. Deciding to put on a bit of a show for those watching, I kept going to third where my other son, Jesse, was playing. The crowd started to cheer, and my glory days were coming back to me as I watched the ball head towards Jesse.
I rounded third, not expecting that Jesse had caught the ball, and that is when I felt and heard it buzzing past my ear and heading towards the waiting mitt of a young boy whose name escapes me at the moment. All I know is that I don’t remember him catching a ball before and that I had no time to think as it landed right in his glove. I so wish I had that moment back.
The admirable thing to do would have been just to let him tag me out. My son throws me out, and this kid tags me, both feats they have never achieved in their short lives before, and I look like a hero. Everybody wins. Or maybe I stop and get in a cute little rundown and get out that way. Not having thought out the what ifs of this situation, I went with my natural instincts and tried a shuck-and-jive move that I last successfully pulled off during the first Reagan administration.
“In your face, 10-year-old! Don’t you know that trapped inside of this deceiving body are legendary dekes and weaves that burned many twice your age with skills beyond your imagination on these same fields, and the ice and courts of my yesteryear? Don’t you know that you have no chance against me?” I thought to myself in that split second before I made my moves that would leave him in awe and cause all those in attendance to roar in amazement.
Faking to the left, I felt my knee on that side, which has been operated on twice and has dislocated about eight times, about to give out, and I immediately shifted directions to the right. That was all I had in me as I plummeted towards earth with my right arm extended outwards to break my massive fall. I could hear the rotator cuff shred as the weight of my body came down on my palm, and I could also hear the cheers from the crowd turn to groans as what I had expected to be a graceful fake turned into a mortiying thud three feet short of home plate. When the dust settled and I struggled up, several parents asked if I was OK, and I said “sure I am” with a weak smile. But I knew I wasn’t and that I would be in much more pain later on.
Four weeks later and with little improvement, I finally got an MRI the other day and a message the next day from the doctor that the LARGE rotator cuff tear and bicep tendon retraction would require surgery and that it would not heal on its own.
I would like to place this moment in my top five of ones that I would like back. I learned my lesson the hard way that I am no longer in my 20s and need to accept the fact that I will never make the big leagues in any sport and need to just observe the young ones do what I once did. And if anyone is keeping score, I was tagged out for the last time in my life.
Rich McIlhenny is a realtor with Remax Services, former base stealer and lifelong resident of the Chestnut Hill/Mt. Airy area. He can be reached at RMAC88@aol.com or 215-275-6303.