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Little League was new to Grandville, Mich. the year we moved there from our farm, but Grandville boys soon began playing their way into the top echelons of the greater Grand Rapids Little League. Within three years, in fact, we were playing for the district championship.
I say "we" because by then, as a four-eyed 14-year-old with a stack of baseball magazines and a zeal for presiding over others' jumping jacks, I was an assistant coach. I was also a friend of our town's principal Little League organizer, a college boy with a shared desire to succeed in athletics beyond his body's capabilities. For the district championship game, he named himself manager and me third base coach.
The opposing team came from somewhere in the city; such details didn't concern me as I had other things on my mind, like trying to memorize the manager's complicated signals. I was also worried that my kid brother, Jim, would embarrass me. Jim played rightfield for Grandville and batted ninth, glaring testimony to an ineptitude that the few close followers of Grandville Little League believed to be genetic.
Despite my misgivings, the game went well. Jim struck out three times, but his teammates were accustomed to that, and by the end of six innings the score was tied. A quick conference called by the umpire before the seventh began resulted in the decision that, because of dusk and gathering mist, each side would receive one more turn at bat, and that would be the game. Our opponents went down feebly in the top of the inning. Now we had a chance to break the tie.
Even at that age, I understood that baseball was a special kind of sport because it offered so many possibilities, and they often arranged themselves in a way that made for high drama. I was not surprised, therefore, when we had the bases loaded with two out and a Grandville hitter at the plate with an opportunity to become celebrated. But what distinguished this scene from those of my imagination was that the hitter was not me. It was my brother.
Jim has a fair complexion. Standing at the plate that evening with the mist above his head, he looked paler than ever. He gripped the bat fiercely, giving heart to Grandville's few fans in the third base bleachers. Only I, his blood relation, sensed his awful fate.
He swung mightily at the first pitch, a good cut but late, his bat whizzing past the catcher's glove at about the same time the ball arrived there.
Past the catcher's glove!
For 6? innings, I had been transfixed by the opponent's catcher. He was a small boy, even by Little League standards. The chin guard of his mask hung down at throat level. But what attracted my attention was his fearlessness. Never before had I seen a catcher squat so close to batters with such insouciance.
Suddenly, my fascination gave way to an idea. I waved for a time-out and ran to my brother. Pulling him up the baseline, I hissed into his ear, "When you swing at the next pitch, don't step forward with your front foot. Step backward with your back foot!"