The day Harry gave the Spartans their first taste of victory

April 04, 1994|By Jeffrey F. Liss

WITH another baseball season upon us, my friends are asking me the same question they always ask me at this time of the year: "Are you ready for Opening Day?" They know that, at least with me, it's a question sure to produce a smile and a warm exclamation.

I do love the game. People ask me why, and I can never really explain. I'm too prosaic with words to emulate the great baseball writers (and too smart to try).

Not too many years ago, however, I had a baseball experience at the other end of a season which -- if I can just capture it in words -- said more than I ever could about the wonders of the game.

Picture a park ringed with trees. It's late October, late afternoon, late in the season in my son Harry's Little League, ages 6-8 division. There's just enough room in this park for two kid-sized diamonds. The fields are lined, and the bright white lines stand out, even amid the orange and gold and red leaves that are everywhere -- on the trees, on the field, in my mind.

In this league, games last two innings. Coaches pitch, and every kid in the lineup hits once each inning. Outs don't matter. The trick is to get on base and come around to score. And here's the rule I like best: The last batter each inning keeps running until he's tagged out or the ball reaches home plate.

On this particular day, Harry's Spartans were playing their last game of the season. They were 0-4 or 0-3-1 -- no one seemed to be sure, but it was clear they had yet to taste the sweet nectar of undisputed, untainted, unasterisked victory. This was their last chance; it was 13-8, favor of the other team, as the Spartans came to bat in the bottom of the second, meaning bottom of the season, last time up.

One of the coaches asked me if I would coach third for this critical inning. Confident that I could master the nuances of unlimited-out baseball (or that, if I couldn't, no one would notice), I accepted.

Most of the inning is now a blur in my memory. Little people came to the plate, swung the bat and, in some cases, flew around the bases. As they arrived at my station, I gave sage advice like "Go halfway on a pop-up" and "Make sure the line drive gets through." As near as I could tell, these 6-year-olds had no idea what I was talking about.

Late in the inning, with twilight fast upon us, I was just able to recognize 5-year-old Harry (in truth, an illegal alien in the 6-8 league) 30 feet or so away at the plate. I remember that, somehow, he reached base.

Soon after came the key moment. It was 'Go!' I said to Harry, but he was already gone. 'Go! Go! Go!' I yelled after him. And so did about 10 moms and five dads and at least one grandma.

introduced by calls of "last batter": This was the guy who ordinarily would keep running until he scored or was put out. But the Spartans' senior coach explained that the batter didn't have to do that this time. Seems that the score was 13-13, with the bases loaded, and all that stood between the Spartans and undisputed victory was a 30-foot sprint by the runner on third. If he could reach home before the ball was thrown there, victory was ours.

That made my job easy. "Run as soon as it's hit," I whispered to the runner. And then I saw who it was -- Harry! Now my heart was pumping. The last batter swung. He was too anxious . . . a dribbler out in front of the plate, but a tricky one for a 6-year-old to play.

"Go!" I said to Harry, but he was already gone. "Go! Go! Go!" I yelled after him. And so did about 10 moms and five dads and at least one grandma (Harry's, down for the season-closing banquet at Pizza Hut).

And then my mind recorded, forever, the scene: my 5-year old, racing away from me, down the baseline as fast as he could go. My little big boy, legs way too long for his body, 48 inches on the way to being 6-foot-4. Three months earlier he wasn't sure which one was third base, and now he understood the baseball situation perfectly. Everything about him said he was going to score.

And he did. Harry touched down just before the ball arrived from the frustrated fielder who had coaxed the dribbler into his hands and then shoveled it back to home.

Moms and dads and Grandma and Spartans exploded. Six-year olds tried out sentences like, "You scored the winning run!" They had heard words like that, from other teams, from watching games on TV with their dads, but this was the first opportunity for the formerly winless Spartans to really use the words.

And Harry! He was beaming. And spent. And a little overwhelmed, truth be told. This hero stuff was new and strange.

I picked Harry up and gave him a hug, relieved that he was still 5 and still a little boy, and that he had run away from me for only a few seconds and only because there was a baseball game to be won. In time, he would run and fly for real, but I knew as he hugged me back even tighter than usual that I wouldn't have to worry about that for a while.

And then, as suddenly as it happened, it was over.

It was just about dark, and the swirl of people became many smaller swirls, heading for cars and dinner and Hebrew School pickups, each swirl with a happy, tired boy in the middle kicking leaves.

The day was done, and so was the season.

Jeffrey F. Liss is a lawyer who lives in Chevy Chase. Harry, now 8, plays first base for the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Astros.

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