When I was a kid, I wanted to be a great athlete, a baseball player or basketball player, maybe a famous quarterback for an NFL team. Though I knew I would never be any of those, I still had dreams.
One day I had an idea. I placed two cinder blocks (one of them big and thick, the other thin and long), one on top of another, by the brick wall of the house. The big one went on the bottom and became the base for which the thin one sat on in a somewhat leaning manner. This was my ‘strike zone.’ The upper block was what I considered between the knees and chest—the strike zone of the major leagues when I was a kid.
Back then there was a store on State Street in Triangle Plaza called Dodds. It was a dime store (though, trust me, everything was NOT a DIME). They had great things for kids, like a bag of marbles for a buck and slingshots—yeah, you could purchase a slingshot at what amounts to a Dollar General by today’s standards. They also had red rubber balls that were about the size of a baseball.
My brother and I spent our summers at my grandparents’ house on the Mill Hill near the river. Occasionally, my grandmother would give us a quarter or two and we would go down to Brown’s Grocery (no relation, folks, but if you’ve read any of my work, then you probably recognize the name—I like to pay homage to the mill hill every chance I get) or to the Gamecock Theater (after saving up three quarters, man those flicks were expensive), or to Dodds. Whenever we went to Dodds I would pick up a couple of red rubber balls for less than a quarter. I had to buy two at a time, not because they came in packs of two, but because, after a while of smashing the ball against a wall or the block ‘strike zone,’ the rubber would crack and the ball would split in half. There’s nothing more disappointing than pitching a no-hitter against the Yankees only to have the game end in a rain delay because the ball split in half.
On days where we stayed home instead of going to my grandparents’ house, I would get one of my dad’s tape measures and mark off sixty feet, six inches from wall to where the pitcher’s mound would be in a baseball game. I would take a thin board and put it at the end of that measurement. This would be my pitcher’s rubber, where my foot would go before each pitch.
I spent hours on end, glove in hand, looking in at invisible batters (usually the hated Yankees or Dodgers), shaking off a nonexistent catcher until I got the pitch I wanted to throw. I had a curve ball, knuckle ball, a not-so-fast fast ball, a two seam fastball, a slider that wasn’t very good, and a straight fastball. Yeah, I had a bunch of so-so pitches. I even had a Dan Quisenberry-esque sidearm pitch that rose on the invisible batters, causing them to flail uselessly at it.
The way it worked was simple: If the ball hit the upper block, then it was a strike. If it nipped the side of the top block, it was a foul ball. If the ball hit the wall and not the blocks, it was a ball. If the ball hit the bottom block, I would consider that a ball in play and field it. I’d have to glove the ball and make the throw to first (which was nothing more than the same two blocks by the house) before the runner got there. If I bobbled the ball, it was an error. If i didn’t hit the blocks with the throw, it was an error.
Though I did this for hours and hours, I never became a great pitcher. You see, the imagination is an amazing thing, and though I struck out a lot of nonexistent batters and took my team to a World Series championship (beating the hated Yankees in the process), facing live batters was completely different.
Now, I will say this, I learned how to throw and throw hard by doing that. I could play a mean third base and ended up playing fifteen or sixteen years of third base in softball. Sadly, I was not a great hitter in either baseball or softball.
My dreams of being a big leaguer ended truly before they got started. I left baseball behind for basketball, a sport I was extremely good at. But for a couple of summers, I was a big league pitcher, and a good one, at least in my imagination.
Until we meet again, my friends, be kind to one another.