How a little-league highlight almost landed me in SI
Posted: Thursday December 21, 2006 10:48AM; Updated: Thursday December 21, 2006 10:48AM
"One day somebody will ask: 'Whatever happened to, ah, Whatshisname? You know, the one who was so big. The number-one fella a couple of years ago. He was famous. How can we forget a name like that?'" -- Mel Miller (Walter Matthau) in A Face In The Crowd
In the Stone Age of American sport, when basketball still had a set shot and Sports Illustrated ran a column on bridge, I was briefly Whatshisname. You know, the one who was so big. The number-one fella in Little League. A bona fide contender for Faces In The Crowd.
To appreciate how far I had to come to get there, you should know that, as an 8-year-old on Long Island, N.Y., I was thought by my fellow sandlotters to have as much of a chance of cracking the starting lineup as the mom who brought the Kool-Aid. I got in games just after the moon came up, when my coach tired of hearing my mother scream, "Play fair. Put my boy in."
I wasn't the Derek Jeter of my elementary school. I was a righthander too dumb to know I was using a lefthander's glove. I put it on my left hand. The first fly that I tried to catch bounced off my inflexible fingers, and it caught my nose and broke it.
We moved to the Philadelphia suburbs the next winter, and I was a free agent. I practiced by bouncing a tennis ball off the side of the house. I practiced so hard that by the time I was old enough to join the Penn Valley Little League, I thought I could field the best tennis ball on the Main Line. I knew I would get a starting spot, and I did. I was put at second base, where Little League coaches place players they judge couldn't stop a sentence with a period.
On the day I became a contender, I was at second. No outs, runners on first and second. The kid at the plate hit a high pop behind the pitcher. I dove and came up with the ball, like Billy Martin in the 1952 World Series. The guy going from second to third froze. I tagged him. Two outs. I stepped on second base out of confused habit and then raced for the fat kid running back to first. I beat him by four steps.
Suddenly, I was hoisted in the air and wasn't sure what was going on. I didn't even score a run. We were still losing 17-0. I realized I'd made a triple play by myself. I'd made an unassisted triple play! I would be in the record books! The umpire autographed the ball. My coach said, "Take it home, son, and tell your parents you didn't steal it."
He asked me if I wanted to be a Face in the Crowd. "Sure," I said, though I had no idea what he was talking about. Evidently, he sent a letter about my feat to SI because a week or so later someone from the magazine called my house. He asked my mother to mail a photo of me to the editorial offices in Manhattan. She picked out a remarkably indistinct snapshot -- my triple-play trophy in one hand, a box turtle in the other -- and stuck it in an envelope.
Alas, my mother was at the end of a six-year battle with cancer. She was in the hospital more than out of it. In the chaos of her shuttling, SI was forgotten. Six months later she died. Maybe sixth months after that, I found the envelope at the bottom of a pile of papers. She had never mailed it. And I was no longer the number-one fella.
It would be another 15 years before I mailed my resume to SI. The first item I listed under "Accomplishments" was "Very nearly a Face In The Crowd." Somehow, my CV landed on the desk of Gil Rogin, SI's sublimely idiosyncratic managing editor.
My interview consisted of me telling Rogin about my triple play, and him telling me that I could have the job if I could screw the cap off a bottle of orange juice. I did. Ever since, I've wondered if the real reason I had applied was to finally get my name in the magazine.