My long relationship with the sport of running actually began on a baseball field in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. That’s where the coach for Local 285, the union-sponsored baseball team for which I played from the ages of 10-12, assigned us to do pushups behind home plate, then run to a light pole in centerfield and back again. As fast as we could.
That’s where I found out I was good at running. I actually liked the feeling of stringing myself out for as long and hard as I could. And I also liked beating people in races.
But it would be a few more years until the sport of running replaced baseball as the centerpoint of my young athletic life. Playing for Local 285 was a family tradition, for my next-oldest brother had played for that wonderful coach Charlie Siegel as well. The team focused on fundamentals. They taught players the game in all its nuances. We learned to slide properly, hit and throw with greatest efficiency, and steal bases, to name a few.
Pulling a Jordan
I did not make the team the first time I tried out. That only made me more determined to make it the next year. We went on to win the Lancaster New Era Tournament, a competition sponsored by one of the major newspapers in town.
We played games out on Armstrong field, a set of baseball diamonds built on property owned by the Armstrong tile company. Those games were often dusty and hot the way baseball games should be. Our team that first year was at its peak with players that performed well beyond their years in skill and knowledge.
The first game of the tourney we beat a team 26-0. It was not a happy day the way you might think. Our coach took out the best players in the second or third inning. When I came up to the plate in the fourth inning, coach pulled me aside and said, “I’ll never ask you to do this again, but try to strike out.”
Instead, I accidentally ripped a double up the middle, then stood out on second base and shrugged my shoulders. I swung up at the ball trying to miss it on purpose, but the pitch was so slow I connected.
On the mound
The next game was more competitive, but by the third inning our coach decided it was wise to save our best pitcher for the final game. There was discussion around the bench and suddenly Charlie told me to grab my glove and meet him on the mound. I remember fellow players whispering, “Shouldn’t we be pitching Tommy?”
But Tommy was a wild-armed first baseman and I knew that coach Siegel wanted someone reliable on the mound. Someone that could get it over the plate. Because we had some of the best fielders in the league, and he was confident I could do the job.
So I came into the game and we won 8-6. I still recall the sensation of digging at the dirt in front of the pitching rubber to get that feeling that I could push off to my liking. And I threw hard. Struck some people out. Forced some grounders and fly balls. And we won.
That put us into the championships. We won the final game that week and it was off to the Dairy Joy on Lancaster Pike for free ice cream in celebration. We celebrated that way after every win.
Rewards and doubters
I was naturally excited about winning the championship, so I ordered both a milk shake and an ice cream cone. One of the other players muttered, “Look at that pig. He didn’t even do anything to help us win the game.”
But that would be forgetting the work that got us there, and the pitching I’d done against a far better team than we played in the finals. At the age of eleven I’d learned that if nothing else, I was a gamer and able to rise to the occasion.
That moment taught me a life lesson of sorts. The snarky comment from my teammate hurt. it showed me that people can be narrow-minded. And it drove me to be even more determined in all that I did in sports and life going forward.
Carry that weight
That next year the 285 team was depleted due to players moving up to the next age level. That left me and another pitcher named Mike Heller to handle the load. And I pitched well through the first half of the season winning most of our games. But then my arm went dead. Flat and weak, I got knocked out of the game by another union-sponsored team, Local 928. They were fearsome and determined as we were the year before. One of my close friends played for the team. He hit a hard line drive that glanced off my left shoulder at the pitcher’s mound. That reduced me to frustrated tears.
After that summer my father moved us out to Illinois where the baseball league was not so structured. At the age of thirteen, I pitched a perfect game against kids my age so they moved me up to the American Legion team that started at age 16. For the next few summers I played baseball with a rambling team that traveled all over the region playing games against town teams in Hampshire, Huntley and Lake-in-the-Hills. It was true Americana baseball.
Our coach that summer was a fiery little guy named Trent Richards. He was 5’7″ and high jumped 6’5″ in college at Illinois State University. Thus he wasn’t afraid to push kids to make themselves better. And we’ll get to his significance in a minute. Those of you that have read this blog for a while already know the answer to what comes next.
That summer at the age of fifteen the regional teams from out in the country got together to choose an All-Star team to compete against the suburban Chicago teams. Tryouts were held at a lonesome field way out at Central High School (an oxymoron if there ever was one) near the little town of Burlington. We hit and pitched and did all the baseball things you do at tryouts. When it was all said and done, the coaches gathered around to decide on who should make the team.
I distinctively remember Trent Richards telling the other coaches, “He’s a skinny kid, but real competitive and he really throws hard…” and there were a few more words about a good curve and such. They were going to leave me off the All-Star team, but Coach Richards pitched me back on.
Then we played a hotshot team over in Naperville and our big lefty pitcher got rocked for three runs in the first two innings, so the coach yanked the kid and put me in the game. There were no more runs scored against me for several innings, but then a batter got hold of a hanging curve and the ball launched toward left field and a sure home run. But my left fielder was a member of my regular team and a 22-foot long jumper in track. His vertical leap was probably 30″ and he jumped straight up and caught the ball before it went over the fence.
We didn’t win the game. We caught up in runs but I mixed up signals with my catcher in the last inning and threw a screwball instead of a curve and they scored on a passed ball after a walk. It was an ignominious ending but the triumph of succeeding where the hotshot lefty had failed was enough for me. I’d proven Coach Richards right.
On the move again
The following spring my dad moved our family again and I didn’t know where to take my baseball skills. I finished up the track season at Kaneland High School after a couple truly valuable varsity seasons in cross country under a coach named Rich Born. And through those experiences, I realized that my life was likely headed toward being a runner, not a baseball player.
But some instincts die hard. So I traveled back that spring for a tryout back at Kaneland and did not hit a single ball in batting practice. It was a horrific ten minutes. Like a nightmare from which you can’t wake up. Not a single hit.
That sent me to a baseball tryout back in St. Charles. And I now realized that my heart had to move on. So I tried out for the Blue Goose baseball team in St. Charles and went 7-1 that summer while another pitcher on the team, a kid named Corky Nichols, had the same 7-1 record. He went on to pitch for the Varsity baseball team two more seasons while my career veered off toward running full time.
That summer of baseball was a strange struggle at any rate. Going into my junior year in high school, I’d grown another couple inches and my speed disappeared for a month o so that summer. That meant a potential home run that I’d lined between the fences in centerfield saw me getting thrown out at home instead. It was an embarrassing moment in front of all-new teammates, and I heard one mutter, “I thought he was a runner.”
Then came fall in St. Charles where I’d link up with my former baseball coach Trent Richards who coached cross country and track at the school. A part of me missed my former teammates, but the part of me that knew life would bring changes no matter what I did was cool with the new environs, new school and new opportunities.
That fall we won a District championship in cross country and went 9-1 in dual meets. Those guys are still some of my best friends in the world.
Then came college and even more running. I was no longer a baseball player at all. Beyond college came road racing and the heady atmosphere of early-80s running boom. That was when everyone in the sport was “all-in” and ready to kick each other’s ass whether it was the track, the road or the practice run.
Whispers of baseball
I’d still get that intense feeling whenever my feet crossed an infield or saw the telltale stripe of lime on a grassy patch where baseball was played. And somewhere during college my throwing arm came into play during a Superstars competition in which I threw a softball 310 feet to help win the competition. Everyone in the contest doubted the measurement. So I threw it again, this time even farther. Don’t fucking doubt me, you assholes.
Finally, in my late 30s, I signed up to play league softball with a bunch of former college baseball players. After the inaugural season in which we worked to gel, our team won the league seven seasons straight. It felt good to get out there and run the bases and play outfield. There was no need to go to the mound, because pitching was not what the game of softball was all about. I even used my speed to get a home run.
Then one September day when the skies were metal gray because autumn was fast approaching, I caught the last white “pill” of the softball season as it fell from the sky toward my position in right field. I knew that was the last game of baseball or softball that I’d likely ever play. And as the ball thumped into the leather of my mitt, I closed my eyes for a minute and then jogged toward the dugout from right field. My still-skinny runner’s legs carried me over the green grass and again over the soft dirt of the infield. I felt the ground beneath me puff up in dust the way it had done so many times growing up. And while I was no longer a child, I knew that the trip around the bases of baseball and life, for that moment, was complete.