Coming out of spring track into the summer of 1972, I was excited to get back to playing baseball. The Elburn Babe Ruth team had a fantastically fun team the year before. We traveled to small towns like Hampshire, Huntley and Lake-in-the-Hills. It felt like the movie Field of Dreams, with close buddies enjoying all the sensations of baseball. Roger Thompson even tried chewing tobacco in the car on the way up Route 47. When he tried to spit, the gooey saliva strung from his mouth and started floating toward the back window. From the backseat, I rolled up the glass just in time to prevent his gob of slobber from striking me in the face. A few minutes later, we pulled the car over to let him get out and throw up. So much for chewing tobacco.
That summer I made the regional All-Star team and pitched the club to a near-win in the regional championships. I loved baseball. But during the summer of 1972, that was not to be…
We held practices and got ready for the first game, a home contest on the dirt field at Lions Park in Elburn. I was pitching that day and struck out the side in the first inning, then came up to bat. After lining a hit to center, I wound up on second base, stole third on a dropped pitch and was standing next to the third base coach who eased up next to me and said. “You can steal home. This pitcher won’t expect it.”
Always up for a challenge, I began a long walking lead and then took off running toward home plate. The pitcher was indeed surprised, and tossed the ball home. The huge catcher behind home caught the ball high and leaned toward third to block the plate. I slid under his tag and he came down on top of me in a huge, slumping fall. It felt like something sharp came loose in my left elbow as I lay there under his hulking catcher’s gear. He weighed around 200 lbs and I was a skinny 14-year-old just under 130 lbs.
I think I was called out, and waited for the massive catcher to get off me. He rolled away like an elephant seal disengaging from a beach battle. Then I tried to get up. Instantly I knew that something was wrong with my left arm. I pushed myself up with my right and retreated to the bench. There I sat, dusty and dazed. A few batters later it was time to go back out and pitch. I pulled on my baseball cap and picked up my glove and walked out to the mound. The moment that I went into a windup, a sharp pain ran from my elbow up to my brain and I stopped, stood there, and dropped my mitt in the dirt.
The coaches came out and we agreed that I couldn’t play anymore that day. After a trip to the doctor, we learned that I had chipped a bone in my elbow. It was the first injury of that kind I’d ever had. And it hurt.
No more baseball
That meant no more baseball that summer. The doc put a half cast around my arm and I was out of commission for weeks. Suddenly I realized there was another problem to address. How was I going to put in any miles of cross country training with a cast on my arm?
I wrote a letter to Kaneland’s cross country coach, Rich Born. He wrote back a note of encouragement that said something like, “Get better. We’ll see you in the fall.”
I knew that my Kaneland teammates would be out there plugging away all summer. One or two of them would run 1500 miles between June and August! A few others ran 1000 miles, and plenty of guys put in 500 miles. I ran zero. Well, maybe six if you count the one run that I did before the baseball accident. I’d gone out Keslinger Road and turned on Francis. Immediately I was surrounded by a large pack of baying, snapping dogs. Yelling and fending off the dogs, I broke free from the pack and tore off in a sprint up the dirty road toward Route 38. I’d been so scared from that encounter I had not run again the entire week.
That next weekend I chipped the bone in my arm. But once I got the cast on, I learned that I could play tennis well enough. The cast kept my arm at a 90-degree angle, but I could toss a tennis ball high enough to serve. So that’s what I did. My mother and I went down to Waubonsee Community College where there were nice tennis courts, and we played. Not to keep score. Just to play. She liked playing tennis with me because I did not criticize her like my father was known to do.
Running the paper route
I still had my paper route as well. That provided exercise every morning. I’d rise at 5:30 am and ride a Huffy 3-speed bike on a 3-4 mile route. I loved having that job. I made $8.50 a week and didn’t have to “collect” because the customers all paid for the subscriptions and delivery at Smith’s Bar-B-Cue in downtown Elburn. Smitty gave me a free chocolate donut and a Cherry Coke if I wanted it. Of course, during cross country season I turned down the offer. “I’m in training,” I told him proudly. He seemed to understand.
At night I’d ride around Elburn with my friends Eric Berry and Mark Strong. We’d ride past the homes of girls we liked, hoping they’d be outside so we could stop to talk. Sometimes they’d be out on the porch braiding each other’s hair or soaking up the cool evening air. But sometimes they’d have tough older boys visiting from other towns, so we’d stay away.
As the evening cooled, we’d tool around that small town with the streetlights blinking on. Above us in the purple sky, the nighthawks fluttered about with their raspy calls and the dogs would bark at us from the houses we rolled past. I loved the feel of bike tires on the smooth tar-covered roads. Occasionally a tar bubble would pop as the tire rolled over it. That was true summer, and we lived it.
Toward the end of July that year, I was allowed to get rid of the cast. The summer sweat had soaked into the wrappings of the cast and it stunk like road kill. When the doctor pulled the cast off the last time, the arm looked tender and frail under the fluorescent light in his office. He glanced up at my worried face and said, “You’ll need to get the arm back in shape.” He knew that his words meant more than that. I’d missed running all that summer.
As it turned out, I never did much summer running during my high school years. More typically I played basketball, baseball, and rode bikes or walked everywhere I needed to go. Come fall, I’d show up and start running and wound up leading the team every year anyway. Perhaps that was native ability, but whatever, it worked for me. Perhaps I lost an opportunity to be an even better runner by failing to run much during the summer months, but the other sports kept me in decent shape anyway. Plus with 21 meets to run every year, there was no shortage of opportunities to get in shape. For the most part, those first three weeks of hard running for cross country every fall whipped me into racing condition.
Once college came around, I did put in some summer miles. But I always remembered what Coach Born had told us going into the summer months. “If you can run through the heat in the month of July, you can run through anything.” That’s a thought that I’ve never forgotten, and sometimes while running on a hot July day, I think back to being a kid and realize that being a kid is what I needed to do at the time.