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In my salad days as a ballplayer, some 30 years ago, when I was second baseman and captain of the Ironclad AC, the boy who could hit the long ball was not necessarily held in high esteem. He was called a slugger, of course, and when he came to the plate we'd wave frantically to the outfielders, shouting to them to play back. But the slugger, then as now, struck out frequently. It was generally agreed by the "good field, no hit" fraternity, to which most of us belonged, that he hit the long ball not because he was endowed with special skill but because he was bigger and heavier and usually older than the rest of us.
The slugger had standing, of course. He was accorded a grudging respect (who knew when he would get hold of one?) but if he was admired it was as a freak is admired at the circus, an object to stare at, perhaps, or to wonder about. One did not envy a freak, so it did not occur to us to envy a slugger.
We won games because we played heads-up baseball. Craft and guile were the virtues we cultivated, not brawn. That wasn't in the book yet. Innocents that we were, we played for one run. We took pride in winning the close ones. We lived for the moment when we could confound the opposition with the smart play. Strategy, pure and preferably intricate in design, fascinated us, and surely it was an intricate piece of strategy, with a minor but unfortunate deviation, which won for us, one year, the championship of the Eagle League.
I was reminded of that bygone classic, witnessed by a dozen or so lackluster fans (younger brothers and sisters of the contending parties), by an event I once saw at Yankee Stadium. Trailing by a run in the ninth inning, with two out and a man on first, Ralph Houk called on Johnny Blanchard to pinch-hit.
Houk's strategy was simplicity itself. Blanchard swung at the first ball pitched, lofting it in a graceful arc far and deep into the upper deck of the right-field stands. The game was over. The Yankees had won. It was, to be sure, a dramatic victory, but it lacked subtlety. Thirty-four years ago, in a situation not unlike the one just described, the Ironclads had done it differently.
We used a pinch hitter, too, but we didn't call on a slugger. We called on Shrimp Bogler. The Shrimp was 13 years old. He was the extra man on the squad. Agile and nimble, there wasn't anything on a baseball diamond that he couldn't do. He was the best infielder we had; once, in an emergency, when Art Timmons had the measles, he caught two games for us. He was death on fly balls. I don't believe I ever saw him drop one. But the machine, so delicately designed, had a defect. Shrimp Bogler could not hit.
As I said, we were in the ninth inning. The championship of our division (was it the Midget?) of the Eagle League was at stake. A run behind the Spartans when we came in for our last at bats, we had tied the score on a double and a fading Texas Leaguer behind second, but the boy who had hit the blooper tried for two and was cut down. Then our slugger, George Haywood, struck out. It was two out now, and Art Timmons was up.
We held a hurried conference, and it was decided (Gene Saddler and I were the brain trust) to pinch hit for Art, who had struck out on three previous trips to the plate. I can still see Art's face when he was told that he was being taken out of the game, but more distinctly still can I hear his anguished screams when he learned that he was to stand aside for The Shrimp. Art was a big boy, too, and there was the little matter of getting the bat (the only bat) away from him. This was finally accomplished by having Manny Gold, Herb Goetz and Phil Williams pile on Art, pin him to the ground and rip the bat from his straining fingers while Gene and I conferred with The Shrimp.
The Shrimp's instructions were simple and to the point. We knew what we wanted him to do. Every possible contingency was thought of, not forgetting the threat that if he didn't do what we told him to do, exactly and down to the last detail, he'd be sorry. The Shrimp knew that he would be, too, and he kept on nodding his head. "Sure, sure whatever you guys want."
The Shrimp was about 4 feet 8 inches tall, and his instructions were, if memory does not fail, to step to the plate, crouch low, making himself as small as possible, and keep his bat on his shoulder. Under no condition was he to swing at the ball. If he was called out on strikes, we would take the blame.