by Mike Babcock
A rag-tag team of leftovers from Jerome, Idaho rescues a baseball season on the brink
|On Major League Baseball's Opening Day, I've been thinking about my own baseball career; that is, if a single season of Little League can be considered a career.
It was 1981 and the best teams in Jerome, Idaho had already stacked their rosters with talent by the time I signed up with the other latecomers. Most of the established teams had Major League monikers like Yankees, A's and Reds, but for some reason league organizers hastily hot-pressed "BOBCATS" in fuzzy block letters on our jerseys. We might as well have been the Bad News Bears. In fact, like the Bears, our uniforms were yellow and white, but instead of Chico's Bail Bonds, our sponsor was Land Title and Escrow.
The Bobcats shared another similarity with the Hollywood has-beens—a winless streak. Mid-way through the summer we were enduring another lopsided defeat when Gary Hulsey stepped to the plate. Gary was already a legend in our small farming community, a man among boys who sprouted a mustache in junior high and towered over the other kids (three years later he would set the Idaho high school class A2 state discus record with a throw of 185 feet and change, a mark that still stands.) Throughout the game Gary pelted us with extra base hits and he was confidently preparing to inflict more damage when our coach, Rick Haberman, called "time!" and trotted from the dugout, his wide-leg corduroys kicking up dust in the infield.
Rick summoned us to the mound, lifted his yellow and white snapback trucker hat, and wiped his brow with a hairy forearm. He didn't have a son on the team, but he was community minded and a veritable sports nut. When word got out about the Bobcats, Rick hit up his employer for the sponsorship and volunteered to coach our rag-tag team of leftovers. He did his best to teach us the fundamentals of baseball, but the unavoidable truth was we lacked talent. Rick knew a full recovery was out of the question, but maybe he could slow the bleeding.
"We're going to walk Hulsey," he pronounced gravely.
By the way we whooped and hollered you'd have thought he'd filled our pockets with Gold Mine arcade tokens. We jogged back to our positions, unable to hide our coach's stratagem but relieved we wouldn't be victimized by another Hulsey hit. Our pitcher toed the rubber and took his stance. Forty-six feet away, Gary twirled the bat lazily like a giant handling an uprooted tree. Rick nodded his approval and we smacked our gloves in mock preparation. From my vantage point on third base what happened next occurred in slow motion. The pitcher completed his wind-up and tossed the ball high and to the outside as he had been instructed, but just as the catcher reached up, Gary took a step across the plate, extended his bat, and with a flick of his wrist, sent the ball soaring over the center field fence.
Whereas Morris Buttermaker's Bears acquired new talent mid-season and improbably played their way up the standings and into the league championship, the Bobcats remained anchored to the bottom until mercifully, only one game remained. Our season finale against A&W, the only other winless team in the league, was played under the lights as the southern Idaho summer eased into autumn. Parents and siblings siphoned into the rickety stands and patrons of the low-slung tavern on Alder Street wandered over to catch a few innings. No gleaming trophies or green participation ribbons on the line, only bragging rights.
Decades later I remember little about the game except my final at-bat. It was the bottom of the ninth, two outs, bases loaded, Bobcats down by two when I trudged to the plate, the burden of an entire season weighing on my preadolescent shoulders like a sack of Idaho famous potatoes. I surveyed the ragged Little League field, well on its way to becoming a relic of a bygone era. Planks of mint green plywood covered the chain link outfield fence, stenciled with the names of local businesses—Western Auto, King's, Sherwood Sports, The Wrangler. Opposing players in their white, orange and brown uniforms licked their lips in anticipation, just one out away from savoring the free A&W root beer that awaited the victors.
Somehow I worked the pitcher to a full count. The A&W infielders peppered me with a cacophonous chorus of "heybatterbatterbatterbatterbatter!" The Bobcats responded weakly with "pitcher's got a rubber arm!" Rick gave me the sign to swing away—he mimed a little swinging motion with his wrists—if I liked the pitch. If I liked the pitch? This was my first season of Little League. How did I know if I liked the pitch? I didn't like striking out. I certainly didn't like taking bad hops to the face. And I didn't like losing. But I did like being part of the team. As kids we already spent most of our time outdoors, riding our bikes to Circle K to play Asteroids, floating homemade boats down irrigation ditches, building tree forts and rope swings in the giant cottonwoods that stood like sentries over the alfalfa fields. Little League was just organized play.
I stepped back into the box, resolved to go down swinging. The pitch crossed the plate and I made contact. As the ball arced into the evening sky towards right field, my teammates sprang from their bases and raced for home. I just stood there, momentarily stunned. The right fielder had inexplicably removed his glove and was tossing it aimlessly in the air, oblivious to the cowhide projectile that had achieved its apex and was now starting reentry above his head.
Jarred back into reality by the angry mob converging on his position, he managed to put on his glove, but not before the ball landed in the long outfield grass behind him. I was already passing second and heading for third when I finally looked up to see Rick, wild-eyed, frantically fanning his arms up and down as if putting out an invisible fire, signaling me to get down. I slid safely into third as the winning run crossed the plate.
Bobcats by one.
It was probably my imagination, but I thought I could hear Bizet's Toreador emanating from the tinny loudspeakers as the Bobcats emptied the dugout and gleefully swarmed me in victory. We offered the obligatory "two-four-six-eight-who-do-we-appreciate" cheer, then piled into the back of Rick's pickup and headed straight for the A&W drive-in where we sipped from the frosty fountain at the expense of the franchise owner's team. At some point my teammates hoisted me onto their shoulders and paraded me around the drive-in parking lot like we'd won the pennant.
Later that fall I played one more game on an all-star team and miraculously hit the only home run of my abbreviated Little League career. Some of my friends went on to play PONY league and American Legion ball, but my days on the diamond were over. So this Opening Day I've decided to take the day off, eat peanuts and Cracker Jacks, and root, root, root for the home team. Which reminds me, I need to pick up some A&W.