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DUST OF THE FIELDS BEHIND US

The Right Fielder
By Robert Lee Mahon

Some years ago, I took my son to his first Little League practice, an occasion guaranteed to tap the spring of memory, the gusher of nostalgia for those April afternoons long past. Such, in fact, is one of the lesser-known perks of fatherhood.

I lounged against the bleachers, watching the boys school and eddy under pop flies, choke up manfully on too-big bats, dig grounders out of gloves huge as coal scuttles, throw wildly to earnestly gesticulating first basemen. I remembered.

Then, late in the practice, I noticed the right fielder.

He was slouching carelessly, glove hanging, gawking innocently at the sunset-haloed trees beyond left field, almost totally oblivious to the youngster at the plate. He already knew, after two hours of his first practice, what every ten-year-old right fielder knows: no one will ever hit him a flyball. Ain't gonna happen. It is an immutable law of nature, and he is not unhappy in this knowledge. Young right fielders know early the consolations of philosophy: the attention of a flyball is attention no one wants him to have, least of all himself. He is content to lounge undisturbed, observing the game or not, daydreaming; meditating, perhaps, upon the vicissitudes of a natural order that endows some with athletic prowess, while others get glasses.

I know, because during my first year of Little League, I played right field.

Let me now praise young right fielders.

Or at least tell you about the time that baseball almost fulfilled one of its clichés, and taught this one something about life.

Thankfully I was young, so much of the lesson bounced off. Had I had more of Holden Caulfield in me, it could have resulted in an authentic initiation experience. Since it was my first real exposure to the vagaries of officials, the ambiguity of rules and grown-up conflict, it might have been positively traumatizing to my Tom Sawyer world of baseball and childhood. But it didn't turn out that way.

It all began because Ferris Fain, the Chicago White Sox first baseman in 1954, committed three errors in a single game. In a clubhouse rage, Fain declared that he would be damned if he ever used that unprintable mitt again. Morris "Lefty" Martin, a journeyman pitcher for those same Sox, and our area's single live big leaguer, picked up the mitt when Fain made it clear that he was serious in his anathemas. Mindful of my membership in that exclusive fraternity of southpaws, Lefty gave the mitt to me, the son of his rabbit-hunting buddy.

For a while the glove elevated me to dizzying heights of status in the neighborhood. There were gloves and gloves, but I possessed a holy relic, a glove that had actually graced the hand of a major leaguer, that had caught major league balls hit by major league hitters. Unfortunately, while the mitt immersed me in reflected glory, it did not transform me into Ferris Fain. The next spring, when my first Little League season opened, even its huge pocket could not save me from banishment to right field.

To look at it, that huge, black, lobster claw attached to my wrist should have, to mix a metaphor, transmogrified me into flyball paper, but it didn't work that way. It is, remember, in the nature of things that the young right fielder will see few flies, and those he does see he won't catch. No mitt can change that, or so the league officials must have reasoned, for they graciously allowed me a dispensation from the rule that no one except a first baseman can use a first baseman's mitt.

"He can barely lift the thing, to say nothing of catching with it," is the way one of them put it to my father. "No problem." And so there I served, standing and waiting, glove hanging and empty; and the laws of nature held sway.

As May gave way to June, and June to July, it looked as if the official line would hold. While my team prospered (we eventually won the county championship), I didn't—at least not beyond the bounds of propriety for an uncoordinated, nearsighted right fielder. I stopped and/or missed a few groundballs that made it through our more gifted infield, but I made not a single putout. I (mis)handled blessedly few flyballs, catching none of them.

And then the miracle of rare device.

Late in July, Marty Averbeck, a switch-hitting .500 hitter, stepped to the plate. (Good Little League hitters of that era started in the .400s, and averages in the low .600s were not unknown. Of course, such prodigies were rare, and we right fielders more than compensated. I, for instance, hit .117 that year, and that's because our team's scorekeeper credited me with a hit every time I struck the ball safely, regardless of the fielder's contribution.) He swung at the first pitch, and lined a sure homer over my head.

Except it didn't make it over my head. Naturally, I thought it would—as did Marty and everyone else watching. But I took two stumbling steps backward, stuck my long arm up in the air, and watched the twain converge: that enormous appendage of a mitt swallowed that baseball as if fate had decreed a meal for it. I still remember looking inside the glove, incredulous, half-expecting the ball not to be there.

Once Averbeck's team recovered from the shock, of course, they began to protest their fate vigorously. My catch reinvigorated clichés: "He was robbed! That mitt's illegal as hell!"

Meanwhile, I had tossed the ball back into the infield and was trying to figure out how someone who's just made a spectacular play was supposed to act. I chewed my gum frantically, trying to look nonchalant, trying not to smile and yell and caper about unprofessionally. I acknowledged the plaudits of my teammates with as much restraint as I could manage. I even remember feeling sorry for Marty—I, after all, could well imagine how he felt, having had some experience in that line. Still, it was, I decided judiciously, better all in all to be a winner, imagining how the loser felt, than the reverse.

But "early though the laurel grows, it withers faster." After a few shining moments as Cinderella, I was waved in by my manager. The conference in front of home plate had swollen to include both umps, the managers, coaches, the league president, and my protesting father. Their decision was what, even then, I suspected it would be:

My catch was disallowed and, because I had no other mitt to play with, I was removed from the game.

I sat on the bench, my father's angry consolations in my ears, and cheered mightily when Marty, doubtless in shock, struck out on three pitches.

I did not, to be honest, feel at all bad. I had, after all—luck or not, Ferris Fain's mitt or not, catch allowed or disallowed—made the catch.

The next week I was back in right field with a brand-new Gus Bell fielder's mitt. The next year, equipped with glasses and a year's seasoning, I took my place in the infield—as a left-handed shortstop. And, during the final two years of my career, I actually used Fain's mitt as an authentic first baseman—one year I even made the county all-stars (second team).

But it will always be that catch that I remember most fondly. Partially, I admit, because it seems a classic example of the lowly rising, if only briefly, to compel the attention of opponents, spectators, and teammates—the right fielder's revenge if you will.

But mostly, I like to think, because that catch and its aftermath taught the lesson sports is so often reputed to teach, but somehow, so seldom does: it really isn't whether you win or lose—it really is how you play the game.

That catch, in short, was its own reward: its delight untouched by officials' decisions; its purity unsullied by the furor it stirred; its joy undiminished by adult malfeasance.

To catch that ball was everything.

 

So there I sat, thickening to middle age and watching the right fielder. The sun was setting, and he was idling away this last inning, dividing his attention between game and sunset. His manager yelled at him to concentrate.

I smiled. He was concentrating.

—EFQ

ROBERT LEE MAHON teaches English at East Central College in Union, Missouri. He roots for the St. Louis Cardinals, considers Stan Musial the most underrated player in baseball history, and, of course, damns the Yankees (and Red Sox).

© 2005 Robert Lee Mahon

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