"I hope we don't get the Gooden Machine tonight," said a meek voice from the back seat of the car as I drove my nine-year-old son and two teammates to their baseball game. "Me too!" said another. "It throws too fast and the ball makes me nervous."
I had to smile. The boys were about to face an electrical pitching machine at Marshall Field in Kirkwood, Mo., one that fired fastballs right down the middle of the plate at a hittable 55 miles per hour. However, acting as pitcher for both teams, the machine had struck out 34 batters in seven innings the previous week and had been immediately dubbed the Gooden Machine, after Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden. (We later learned that the machine was not properly adjusted and was firing the ball at about 65 mph.)
"Dad, do you think we'll get the Gooden Machine?"
"I don't know, boys. But you can hit it. Think positive!" I said, offering typical paternal encouragement against insurmountable odds.
As I spoke, my mind drifted back 30 years to a similar conversation about another pitching machine, not an electrical one, but a living, breathing hard-throwing legend from Barling, Ark., named Tommy (Fishhook) Smith.
"Just remember, boys, he puts his pants on just like you do...one leg at a time," my father said from the driver's seat of our 1954 Pontiac.
"Yeah, Dad, but just look at the legs he's putting in those pants!" I said.
Laughter erupted from the back seat where my brother, David, Joe Stafford and Tommy Shockley nervously pounded their fists into old ball gloves.
Our annual trip to play in the Boys' Club tournament at Lion's Park in Fort Smith, Ark., was the highlight of the summer. Compared to our rocky, dandelion-infested field behind the Greenwood Elementary School, Lion's Park seemed like a miniature replica of a major league ballpark. It had an outfield fence, real dugouts, stands for our parents, plus a manicured grass infield with a real pitcher's mound.
However, our joy on that particular evening was tempered by the knowledge that Tommy (Fishhook) Smith would be on that mound. He was big for his age—a hulking 160 pounds—and he had picked up his nickname not for his intimate knowledge of fishing but rather for his wicked, downward breaking curveball.