Baseball Card Weather and the Ramapo Red Sox

Reggie Jackson, big swing, big fro.

This is perfect new baseball card weather, cold, foggy, too cold to be Spring, yet you can smell it around the corner. These were the days I’d check in the little stationery store next to the Grand Union to see if they got the new shipment yet. I couldn’t wait to see the new design every year, to taste the cardboard bubble-gum that was like baseball Eucharist. Even though I was a Mets fan, you couldn’t do much better than landing a Reggie Jackson card with his big swing and bigger afro. Johnny Bench, Mike Schmidt, Jim Rice, Tom Seaver, Pete Rose, Steve Carlton, Nolan Ryan, it was a jackpot.

I was eleven when I had the best Little League baseball season ever. I tried out for the major league on a wet Saturday morning in front of all the coaches and about a hundred other spectators. They gave you five ground balls at third base to show off your arm, then five hits to show you could swing the bat. That was it. I went to a different school from everyone else, being on the outskirts of the league boundary, so nobody really knew me. All they saw was a fat kid, even though I could play.

So the call never came and I ended up in the minors, playing for a guy from Boston with a fishing cap named Coach Yablonski. He insisted on having the Red Sox every year. He didn’t have a kid on the team, not technically. But he did have a child nicknamed “Bear”, who was a down syndrome five-year-old who followed his father everywhere he went, mimicking him when he swung the bat, or yelled which base to throw to. Because of Bear’s condition, Coach Yablonski insisted in having any kids with physical or mental disabilities on his team. I wasn’t sure which category I fell into. But when I looked around at my first practice I saw two moon faced brothers who were what we used to call “slow”, a red-headed boy named Bucky who walked with an ungainly waddle because he had one leg shorter than the other, and another player named Carl who didn’t have to worry about that problem because he was missing one leg altogether. Lurching around on his plastic prosthetic, he became our first baseman. My younger brother was on the team too. We looked at each other warily, certain that we were going to be very, very bad.

We were right, at least for the first half of the year. Joe played catcher and I was the starting shortstop (told you I could play!) and my double-play partner was a curly-haired Jewish kid named Goldberg. We were destroyed on a bi-weekly basis. Especially by a club called the Twins who featured the biggest 10 and 11-year-olds I’d ever seen. I’m fairly certain Harmon Killebrew and Tony Oliva were somehow snuck into these games illegally. We were well on our way to becoming a cakewalk for the better teams in the league. But then something happened.

Late in a game we were losing, there was a ground ball to the right of our one-legged first baseman Carl. He moved to the right and snagged the ball, then turned on his plastic leg to run toward first base for the out. It slipped out from under him and he fell flat on his face. The crowd, such as it was, groaned. But Carl wasn’t done. He started to crawl toward first base. Lunge by lunge he slowly covered the ground between him and the base as the runner bore down. Just when it seemed his effort was to be for naught, Carl gave one last lunge and slapped first base with his glove just before the runner passed to get the out. It was one of the most courageous things I’ve ever seen.

We came back and won that game, then a few more. Everyone seemed to get hot at the same time–except Bucky, who, with his unsteady, loping swing, could not get his bat even close to the ball. He struck out every single time he came to the plate, but his effort never waned. With every wild swing you could see his determination to one day connect. Despite some of the automatic outs we had in our lineup, we managed to get our record back to .500, and then pushed it to 9-7, which was good for third in the league and qualified us to play the second place team in a playoff. The Giants had been 14-2 and had beat us twice that season already. For the playoff game, all of a sudden we had a bunch of fans in the seats watching us. We won by two runs, and earned the right to face the dreaded Twins in the best of three World (for us) Series.

In the first game the Twins absolutely destroyed us. They had to call the game after four innings because they had scored so many runs it was getting dark. I think they were laughing at us, but they were so tall we couldn’t really see their heads. After every game, win or lose, Coach Yablonski had us all run around the outskirts of the field, what he called the “Polish Trot”. As we ran with Bear out front leading us on, there were whispers from the crowd that it was a shame we knocked off the Giants, since they would have provided a challenge at least. This rag-tag bunch was out of their league. Look at them, they can’t even get around the field. It was true, we looked like limping soldiers coming back from war. We didn’t stand a chance.

But someone forgot to tell us that.

We fell behind early in that second game, but I remember our pitcher getting out of a few jams. We were down by four in the third inning. Then we started to get the bats going, and we somehow squeezed out three runs in the bottom of the inning and had a man on third base with two outs. But Bucky was up, who still had not gotten a hit—or a foul ball—all season. He loped up to the plate and adjusted his helmet and gloves as he did every time he hit. There was a general letdown among us all, the players and the parents in the stands. We needed that run, and Bucky wasn’t the guy to do it. The first pitch came and he missed it by three feet with a wild swing. We yelled his name, seemingly in vain. The next pitch came in and Bucky swung again—and fouled the ball straight back. He turned toward the bench with a big freckled smile. He’d actually hit the ball! No one could believe it. It didn’t go fair, but it was still a victory, maybe the only one he’d have this year. Then Bucky dug in and waited on the next pitch, two strikes down. It came in straight over the plate and Bucky banged it right back where it came from, a solid line drive into center field. He hobbled toward first base and—I’ll remember this forever—turned the bag at first base and took a few steps toward second before retreating. It’s the way we were all taught to run the bases by Coach, turn the bag at first and watch the play to see if there was a chance to advance to second. Bucky had never done it before, but he knew how it should be done.

It was a new game. We traded runs in the fourth, then the Twins went up by two in the fifth. When we finally got to the bottom of the sixth, the last inning, we were down two. We scratched and clawed, a couple of cheap hits, a walk, a big double. With two outs and the bases loaded, Goldberg batting in front of me worked out a walk to tie the game. I was up with a chance, unbelievably, to win. The Twins shortstop was a good fielder, so I kept telling myself to try to keep the ball away from him. The first pitch came in and I jumped on it, hitting a sharp ground ball to—where else?–the right of the good-fielding shortstop. He ranged way into the hole and got a glove on the ball, but it squirted through him and dribbled into left field. I ran down the line and stomped on first base, then ran into the middle of the field to celebrate. No one was there. Either nobody on our team was aware of the score or they were so shocked that we actually won that they stood there motionless. So I ran to Coach Yablonski and threw myself into his arms and he picked me up (which was only possible because of the adrenaline rush—I’m sure he later found out that he tore something). Coach was crying, and soon I was too. Bear was jumping up and down, delirious. I don’t know if he knew what just happened, but he certainly had the vibe of the team and its fans.

We got killed in game three, and I thought it was the worst thing that had ever happened to me. I played one more year in the minors when I was twelve and never played organized baseball again, though I did go on to have a decent softball career. We saw Coach Yablonski the next season with his new rag-tag group that everyone beat up on, with Bear leading them on. Our season was the closest he’d ever come to a winning season, much less a championship. I don’t know how long he kept the Red Sox, but I hope for the kids’ sakes it was a good long time. I’m sure he never forgot that team, but I wish I could find him and shake his hand and say that I remember them too, and Bear, and the Polish Trot, and Carl and Bucky and the best baseball coach and best season I ever had.

    • Kae
    • March 11th, 2011

    Wow! What a roller coaster ride! So well told, too. Loved it.

  1. Thanks Kae.

    • Joe Gayton
    • March 11th, 2011

    I had to pass this account on to my Bill. Nice story, brian!

    • Rich Hack
    • March 11th, 2011

    So perfect…a fovorite of mine!

  2. Thanks Joe and Rich.

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