I was twelve years old when our family moved from Pennsylvania to Illinois. That life back in Lancaster was left behind in more than one way.
I’d grown up playing all kinds of sports with my brothers. One of the games we played and loved was baseball. I was a good pitcher, and at eleven years old in 1969, took over the mound during the critical second game of the Lancaster New Era Tournament and held the lead for four innings to win 8-6. We won the entire thing the next game.
Pitching was one of my favorite things to do in the whole world. I loved being in on the action every play. I could throw hard, having grown up challenged by my older brothers to do so. And had we stayed in Pennsylvania, I likely would have continued playing baseball for the high school team. But once we moved, that was not to be.
As it was, we moved out to Elburn, Illinois, a town of only 750 people at the time. I signed up for the twelve-and-under local baseball program and threw a perfect game against kids who recoiled from the speed of my pitches. The mound was just thirty feet from the plate, as I recall. Those kids never had a chance, and I didn’t give them one. I was merciless as a baseball pitcher and most other competitive sports as well. It was a product of environment and temperament for me. It was how I survived. Felt good about myself. And proved myself to others.
But that focus was threatening in such a little league. Not knowing what to do with this weird kid with the fireball arm, the local baseball magistrates told my dad there was no place for me to play. There was no Pony League team for 13-15 year olds. “All we have is American Legion ball,” I heard one of them tell my dad. My father looked over at me and replied, “I think he can play at that level.”
And that’s what happened. I turned thirteen years old that summer while playing for a club team in Elburn comprised of kids much older than me.
The pitching ace was a guy named Dale Garman. I’d later play ball with his younger brother Mike on the Elburn team. We barnstormed around the western suburbs and country towns playing baseball against other teams. It really was a scene out of Field of Dreams, and baseball remained a big part of my summer life.
In those days, there were no fall leagues or spring leagues. You signed up for summer baseball, played a schedule of games and if you were lucky, made an All-Star team to compete against some of the better players in other leagues. I pitched in that game only because my coach out in Elburn, Trent Richards, told the regional All Star coach, “Pick that guy. He’s skinny but he’s a great pitcher.”
No soccer. No baseball.
The other sport I likely would have played had we stayed in Pennsylvania was soccer. I could run forever, was scrappy and quick and my brothers had both played in high school. But the high school out in Illinois had neither a soccer program or a baseball team. Which is how I wound up going out for cross country. From there, running became a massive part of my life.
I still played summer baseball once we moved to a new town during my sophomore year in high school. I pitched to a 7-1 record that summer for the Blue Goose, a team sponsored by a local supermarket. The other pitcher, a guy named Corky Nichols, also racked up a 7-1 record and went on to star for the St. Charles baseball team.
By quirk of fate, the cross country and track coach at my new high school, Trent Richards, was my former baseball coach out in Elburn. He was the one that sold me onto the roster of the All-Star team. But he wanted me out for cross country and track more than baseball. So that choice was not really on the table by then.
Still, I inquired with the baseball coach that winter as to whether I’d be welcome on the team. Recently I found one of my personal journals that contained an entry in which I was weighing the decision on whether to run track or play baseball. I even asked both coaches if I could do both. The baseball coach talked with Trent, who was open to the idea.
But my grades were weak and the high school knew that I’d be crushed by all that back-and-forth. So the parallel life of baseball and track never really came about.
Sometimes I’ve wondered what life might have been like if running had not taken over. Of course I have no regrets. I was a decent runner who won races, helped led several teams to titles of one kind or another through high school and college, and had a productive post-collegiate racing career winning road races now and then. It was hard work and it formed my entire worldview. I’m still a runner to this day. Perhaps I’d have even gravitated to that sport had we stayed back east. One never knows.
Yet now and then I’ll pick up a baseball and wonder, “How good could I have been?”
Perhaps I’ll only know on a Field of Dreams someday.