Baseball Diaries

I was five years old when I lost my first tooth. My dad was hitting me ground balls on a bumpy, dirt playfield up the street from our house when it happened. My brother was there. He was two, toddling the foul line. We played here all the time. We would continue playing on this worn earth — with its bad hops and quick skips and potholes for bases — until we were in high school. We outgrew the surface. We kept coming back anyway.

We liked it here. It was our sanctuary, our space to roam. No one bothered us, no one got in the way. We were free to hit, to field, to throw. And from an early age we spent our weekends doing just that.

We’d play in the heat, in the rain, in the cold, during the day, until the sun went down on dusky, mosquito-filled summer evenings. We’d wade through sticker bushes to track down overthrows and foul balls. We’d walk away with scrapes and cuts from foolishly diving on the gravelly turf. My dad threw batting practice. We took turns hitting, my brother and I. We had one fielder to track down as many base hits as he could. Once all the balls were used up, we walked the outfield and rounded up our collection, then began hitting anew.

There was nothing we couldn’t do here. We were the best baseball players in the world in our own minds. No one judged us, no one critiqued us. We just played.

But on this day, there were tears.

I didn’t know what happened. One moment the ball was headed straight for my glove. A glove with George Brett’s name on the palm, no less. A second later I looked down and there was blood everywhere, a tooth in my hand, and a ball that had rolled off to no-man’s land after connecting squarely with my mouth.

My dad did his best Flash Gordon impression and was by my side before my eyes had welled with saline. I dropped a tear or two, then we celebrated. It was a big moment. The first sign of youthful maturation.

Everyone remembers losing their first tooth. Most people aren’t fortunate enough to lose it at the expense of their favorite thing in the world.

***

My grandma has this cane. It’s really just a baseball bat with a rubber stopper on the end and a curved handle emerging from the top of the barrel. My uncle made it for her about a decade ago.

The bat itself is a Little League-sized Louisville Slugger, thirty inches in length. Glittery letters spelling out “GO MARINERS” adorn one side of the ash canvas. The opposing facade is branded with the synthetic engraving of Alex Rodriguez’s signature. I know. Terrible, right? It’s the bat’s only flaw.

The cane, however functional it may be, is a testament to sports fanaticism. My grandma used to take it with her every time we went to a game. She doesn’t go to games too often anymore. But the cane still sits there in her living room. It gets picked up and swung every time my brother and I find ourselves in its presence.

My grandma watches every Mariners game on a 42-inch television set. Interestingly enough, my other grandma, my maternal grandma, does the exact same thing. They have matching TVs. And likewise, they’re two of the biggest Mariner fans I know. When they dial each other up, the conversation turns to baseball. When they talk with the family, the conversation does the same. They know the team inside and out. Michael Saunders won’t misplay a ball without them finding out. If the M’s lose, accountability lies with my grandmothers. Letting them down would be a mistake.

Every true blue Mariners fan wants to see this team win a World Series title. I just want it to happen in my grandmas’ lifetimes. Is that too much to ask?

***

I was 10 years old in 1995. When Edgar hit The Double and Junior slid safely into home, I remember jumping. Just jumping. For ten minutes, maybe fifteen. I had a “Refuse To Lose” sign in my hand. Everyone was standing, screaming, crying. And I was jumping.

Our seats were in the nether reaches of the 300 level, first base side, directly across from DiamondVision (aka the Big Screen), orange bleachers. It was pandemonium. Everyone was taller than me. Jumping was necessary to see anything.

I still get goosebumps when I hear the call. After Dave Niehaus passed, the goosebumps bonded with misty eyes. The two reactions go hand-in-hand now. It won’t ever change.

If I could go back, I’d still be jumping. There was nothing else I would have rather been doing at that moment in time.

***

My parents made me take pitching lessons when I was sixteen. I wasn’t really interested in lessons, but they thought it would be good for me.

So I went to Stod’s, a converted grocery store in Bellevue’s Newport Hills neighborhood. Every kid who grew up playing baseball on the Eastside knows about Stod’s. The place still exists today. It’s owned by former Mariner pitcher Bob Stoddard, hence the name “Stod’s”.

The venue is far from sexy. It’s as simple a facility as you could find for baseball. The interior still looks like a 1980s Albertson’s. Same with the exterior. Instead of aisles of canned goods, you have pitching machines and makeshift batter’s boxes. The setup is crudely quaint.

Every week over the course of one winter, I trekked down the block from my grandma’s house (she lived nearby) and went to throw with Stod. He’d catch me most days. Why hire a catcher when your most affordable backstop also runs the joint?

The bullpen was constructed in what appeared to be a former loading area. A radar gun sat halfway between the pitcher’s mound and home plate, right about where sacks of potatoes once laid, I imagine. On good days, I’d hit the upper-eighties with my fastball. On bad days, I’d still hit the upper-eighties, I’d just hit Stod in the knee or the shin once or twice, too. I threw pretty hard in spite of my size, but had little control. And when I tried to maintain control, I didn’t throw all that hard. Rock, meet hard place.

I rarely pitched for my high school team. Occasionally, I’d do it in the summer or fall leagues I played in. Pitching lessons were a way to stay busy when nothing else was going on.

I’ll never forget what Stod told me one day after our weekly throwing session. I walked off the mound. He rose out of his crouch. We met halfway between the slab and the dish, the splitter’s diving point.

“Ya know,” he began, “when you first walked in here, I thought you kinda sucked. But after all these weeks of pitching, you’re not bad. You definitely have some talent. You don’t suck.”

I smiled. He was serious. I still smiled.

***

When I was little, I wanted to play baseball every single day. One time, my grandma (my maternal grandma) was watching me when I had the urge to taking some batting practice. I was maybe six or seven or at the time. I talked her into going into the yard and pitching to me.

She underhanded the ball with impressive accuracy. I made solid contact a few times before lining a shot off my grandma, herself.

She was okay. Bruised for weeks, but okay.

***

I was a senior in high school when my coach told me I’d be making my first ever start on the mound for the Bellevue Wolverines. I was a third baseman by this time. Pitching was something I did on my traveling teams. This was foreign to me.

We were slated to face the juggernaut that was the Newport Knights. Their lineup featured six or seven guys that would play at the next level. I got the honor of serving up their breakfast because my coach didn’t see the value of wasting one of our aces on a squad that could bomb on anybody.

I walked into the game with confidence. By the second inning, I walked out of the game shelled.

A gangly freshman came into relieve me. He had just been called up from the jay-vee squad a few days prior. He was a talented kid. By the time he was a senior, he’d earn First Team All-State honors, then go on to play briefly for the University of Washington. He was also my brother.

Relieved by your kid brother. Well…yep.

***

Tim Lincecum pitched for one of our conference rivals, the Liberty Patriots. I faced him three times during the high school season. He struck me out three times.

The third time I faced him, we had a runner on first, nobody out, and I got the bunt sign. I was a damn good bunter, which in turn meant I wasn’t the world’s greatest hitter. I never failed to get a bunt down, though. It was my niche.

Lincecum and I were both seniors that year. He knew enough about me and enough about the situation to know that I’d be bunting. His fastball hummed in the low-nineties. At this stage in his fledgling career, he didn’t really need another pitch all that badly. With his awkward motion and penchant for hiding the ball, that deceptive delivery seemingly added an extra five-to-ten miles per hour to his four-seamer.

I squared to bunt expecting a fastball. Curveball. Devastating. Fell off the table. I offered at it anyway. Missed. Strike one.

F**k, I thought. Who the hell throws a curveball to a slap hitter in a bunt situation? I bet he wouldn’t do it again.

I squared to bunt again. Another curveball. I offered again. I missed again. Pitch fell off the table again. Like trying to capture a firefly.

F**k! Two strikes. The bunt sign was off. He had me off-balance with back-to-back hammer curves. He’d come at me with heat here. Probably bring it up and in. Waste a pitch. Back me off a bit to set up another curve.

I dug in looking fastball. Lincecum delivered. Pitch was right down broadway. I took a monster hack. Pitch fell off the table. Curve. Dropped like an elevator.

Three straight curveballs. I walked back to the dugout shaking my head. What a dick.

7 thoughts on “Baseball Diaries”

  1. My worst fear was that you would quit the baseball team if your brother played varsity…..Why? because that’s what you said you would do. BUT….you surprised both your father and me, pleasantly I might add, because not only did you not quit, but you ended up being his biggest supporter. I think you were the best big brother a kid could have, and like we ALWAYS told you, Cam would never have been as good as he was if he didn’t have you to always always play with and compete against. thanks………

  2. Alex – Did you play for Bellevue in 12 year olds? If so, I will unfollow you on twitter.

  3. Too bad your starting debut couldn’t have been against the mighty Sammamish Totems… your career could have thrived from then on!

    Shoutout to Bannerwood Park!

  4. I spent so much time as a young girl WATCHING my brother have pitching lessons at Stod’s. But I’ll admit, I loved that place.

    Also as a former Liberty Patriot I can’t help but get excited about Tim Lincecum. He led us to our only state championship title in a relevant sport. (Sorry, men’s 4×400)

  5. Rebecca is a Liberty Patriot? She is even more awesome now.

    Btw – There is no rivalry between Liberty and Bellevue. Liberty is just superior.

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