While visiting my parents' house in New Windsor, Md., I discovered treasure buried up in the attic. There, in a musty King Edward cigar box, was a grass-stained baseball, a washed-out Mike Garcia bubble-gum card and a box score from The Frederick Post dated June 21, 1955—all mementos of a day when a rather reluctant Little League catcher took the mound for the first time and pitched the game of his life.
Back in 1954, while the Cleveland Indians were laying waste to the rest of the American League, the Cubs, my Little League team, were having a similar season in New Windsor. We went 22-0 that year, beating every club in the Frederick-Carroll league by a big score, and did it with a catcher who didn't even hit .300. That was me. My weak bat and squatty body made me an unlikely starter, but I had the position nailed down because I was the only kid in town willing to get my hand bruised catching Danny Hartzler and Satchel Hill, the two fastballing 12-year-old pitchers who took us to the pennant that year.
The next season, with Hartz and Satch off pitching for the Babe Ruth league team, the Cubs found themselves short-handed in the pitching department. But not according to Coach Wilson. "What we really have here is a wonderful opportunity," he said. "There's another Satch or Hartz on this team; it's just a matter of finding him." And for the next three weeks I was bouncing around behind the plate, short-hopping curves and chasing fastballs to the backstop, as a parade of would-be pitchers went through the coach's grand audition.
Then one evening, after a poorly pitched 16-4 loss, Coach sidled up, gave me an appraising look and said, "Couple of nice throws to second tonight, Robbie." I nodded, spat and shoved my shin guards into the equipment sack. "Yes sir, not a bad little arm, and built just like Garcia, too. Anybody ever tell you that you look a bit like the Bear?"
As I rolled up the chest protector, I let that one sink in. I had the card. Mike Garcia, the Big Bear, was one of the aces of the Cleveland Indians' formidable pitching staff. He was a little on the heavy side and not much of a hitter, so I could see some similarities between him and me. Then Coach leaned over and whispered something that hit me harder than a foul tip. "Listen, Robbie, do me a favor," he said. "Bring your fielder's glove to practice Saturday. I've a hunch you just might be our Bear."
Ironically, Coach Wilson's latest trial balloon (me on the mound) and our new outfield fence both went up on the same day. The Cub Boosters, a group of the team's fathers, had spent the better part of Saturday stretching a red snow fence around the outfield, and by 6 p.m. batting practice a regulation barrier was up, 200 feet down the lines and to center, according to the regulations of Little League headquarters in Williamsport.
The butterflies dancing in my stomach as I warmed up were wasting their time. No one had even noticed me there on the sidelines—perhaps because I didn't look much like a pitcher. I was still throwing the ball by taking it back behind my ear and cocking my wrist as if I were pegging it to second. Then, when Coach put his arm around me and we started walking toward the mound for BP, heads began to turn. By the time I'd toed the rubber, half the team was storming the bat rack shouting "Dibs!" and grabbing bats like there was some kind of lumber shortage. The butterflies turned to bile. Giving up my spot behind the plate, where I called the shots and controlled the game, just to be another one of Coach's guinea pigs wasn't exactly my idea of a good time.
For the next half hour I was subjected to a public flogging. Line drives screamed to all fields, booming shots bounced off the new fence and when everybody but the bat boy had had his way with me, Herbie Weller, our cleanup hitter, dug in again and deposited the next three pitches over the barrier in left, 10 rows deep into an adjacent cornfield.
When it came to spotting tears Coach Wilson had the eyes of a hawk. I'd barely choked back my first sob when I saw him hustling out toward the mound, smiling as if I'd just one-hit the Yankees. "O.K., Bear," he said, "let's rest that old arm. We want to have a little something left for Union Bridge on Monday."
That evening, as I lingered in the shower, I racked my brain trying to come up with a way to get out of pitching that Monday. When I got out of the shower, I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the full-length mirror on the back of our bathroom door. I stood there naked as a blue jay, scowled for a second or two, puffed out my left cheek, fired an imaginary stream of tobacco juice off toward the sink and went into my windup. One look at that bring-it-back-behind-the-ear business and my troubles were over. I was ecstatic. No wonder I'd been hit so hard. Catchers don't pitch, they peg!