Forty-one years ago, I picked up my baseball mitt for what I thought would be the last time. I was 12 and I was the guy who batted ninth in the Pepsi Bottling Company’s Marysville Little League line-up.
Back then I was fortunate to have some very understanding little league coaches, Mel Edstrom and Don Hatch, Sr. I say understanding because they never said one negative thing to me, no discouraging word to the kid who batted .094 for the season.
I’m certain there were many times when they wanted to yell something to me about getting my bat around fast enough. Or to open my eyes when I erratically swung away at pitches that were well outside of the strike zone.
But they never did. They were men of patience. And for that I am forever grateful.
In spite of my less-than-productive plate appearances, I have fond memories of that last year of playing baseball. But I knew that year that I was done with baseball. I couldn’t handle the pressure of being at the plate in front of what seemed like a big crowd that used to show up to watch the games under the lights at Cedar Field.
And that last year, I was relegated to the outfield every game.
I’m sure it was for good reason that I never saw an inning in the infield. So left field was my home in the summer of 1973.
The summer of 1973 was also when my first hero, Larry Christenson, made his Major League Baseball pitching debut for the Philadelphia Phillies at the young age of 19.
Christenson, a kid from Marysville, had made it to the big leagues quickly. Only a year earlier he had been playing baseball for Coach Darrell DeGross and the Marysville Tomahawks. Only a year earlier I had addressed him as “Mr. Christenson” when I approached him in the locker room and asked for his autograph.
It is in my autograph book right next to Pluto, Goofy, Mickey and Minnie Mouse.
That first year with the Phillies, Christenson, who had to bat ten times because he played in the National League, went 0 for 10. I know the feeling. I wasn’t much better. Of course, Christenson was in the MLB for his arm, not his bat. And at that time, he was the youngest player in professional baseball.
And now it’s 41 years later. Larry Christenson is 60. I’m 53.
Christenson, after pitching over 1,400 innings in the major leagues and having a winning percentage of .539, as well as a World Series ring, has been out of baseball for 31 years. He lives in Philadelphia and has established himself as a successful investment broker. I, on the other hand, must be trying to exorcise some demons from the past because I have agreed to play baseball this summer in the Puget Sound Senior Baseball League.
What prompted me to pick up the baseball glove and cleats after all of these years away from the game is a question I am hearing too often.
I don’t have an answer.
But I am enjoying the consequences of contacting the president of the league and explaining that I wanted to spend the summer reporting about life in the area’s premier senior baseball league. (Full disclosure: PSSBL has allowed me to participate in the league at no cost in exchange for stories about the experience.)
In my first practice game with the Teton Ravens — Teton is the division designated for the recreational players over the age of 35 — I again found myself assigned to the outfield.
It was at the plate that I noticed a difference. Sure, I may still be a little intimidated by the hardball, but now, I’m just going up there swinging. Regardless.
And the results are encouraging. In my first at-bat, I hit a grounder that produced an RBI. The second time up, I worked the count deep before I ripped an outside pitch down the right-field line for a bases-loaded triple. My final time in the batter’s box, I dribbled one down to third base and almost beat out the throw to first.
Not bad for the first time at the plate in 41 years. My former coaches and teammates would have been impressed. And shocked.
Thank goodness we don’t have someone like Larry Christenson pitching in this league.