I’m ten years old. I’m sitting in Toronto’s minor league ballpark, Maple Leaf Stadium, at the bottom of Front Street. In those days, Toronto had a minor league baseball team with the same name as the city’s historic hockey team
My friend as I have purchased front row Box Seats, directly over the (home team) third base dugout. A buck-fifty. A lot for a kid, but we splurged. It’s a special day.
The major league Milwaukee Braves have flown in for their annual exhibition game with their “Triple-A” affiliate, my beloved Maple Leafs. Such games are a longstanding tradition. Decades later, I would witness a similar exhibition between the “A”-ball South Bend Silver Hawks, of which I was then a part owner, and their parent organization, the recent World Champion Arizona Diamondbacks.
The games have a predictable progression. The big leaguers strut their stuff for a while. But by the fifth inning, the equipment manager is pitching, and the traveling secretary’s playing third base.
It was exciting watching the Diamondbacks playing the Silver Hawks. But not as exciting as when Milwaukee came to Toronto when I was ten.
We arrive early, uncrowned royalty, heading for our front row seats. The Braves are on the field, taking infield practice. Standing directly in front me the Milwaukee third baseman, the spectacular Eddie Matthews. During his career, Matthews would be a nine-time All-Star, hit 512 home runs, and upon retirement, be elected to Hall of Fame. The guy was a superstar. Up there with Mickey Mantle.
So what do I do? I immediately start razzin’ him. And his entire team. And I’m merciless. I mean, the things that came out of my ten-year-old mouth.
“You’re over the hill, Matthews. You can’t play anymore. Big shot major leaguers. Think you can beat up on us minor league nobodies. You’re in for a surprise, Big Boy. We’re gonna make you look silly. We’re gonna embarrass you bad.”
I had no idea where this is coming from. Am I that kid? With the mouth? I’m usually pretty quiet. But, you’re anonymous in a crowd, a few Cokes under your belt…swaggering Bigtimers facing minor leaguers playing in Canada. Though no one had asked me to, I felt my duty to take these visiting hotshots down a peg.
I keep at it for about twenty minutes, really rippin’ ‘em to shreds, especially Matthews.
And then it happens.
First baseman Joe Adcock, tosses an easy grounder to third. The ball goes through Matthews’ legs, continuing into foul territory, towards the third base dugout, stopping
Almost directly in front of me.
And there it sits.
An authentic, professional baseball. Totally unguarded. Maybe three feet away.
The next move is obvious. I jump over the wall, snatch up the baseball, and climb back into the stands, waving it aloft, like an enemy scalp.
I do not do that.
What do I do?
It’s a Moment for Truth. When you show what you’re made of. And I just sat there. Apparently, what I’m made of is Jell-o.
I don’t know, I was probably worried that if I ran onto the field, they’d throw me out. I’m a Good Boy. Good Boys don’t get ejected from ballparks. Good Boys stay in their seats. Even when the ball’s sitting there in front of them. Three feet away.
No. That wasn’t the reason I didn’t move. That’s just the cover-up reason. The real reason was I was scared. Scared of what? I’m not exactly sure. That people would boo me, that I’d pick up the ball and then not be able to climb back over the wall, I don’t know. I just knew this. Nothing bad would happen to me – aside from the lifelong shame and embarrassment – if I simply remained in my seat.
So that’s what I did.
Matthews lopes over to retrieve the ball. Passing me on his way back to his position, he looks me straight in the face and says, “What’s the matter?”
Oh, my God, it was a set-up! Eddie Matthews, enjoying my youthful taunting, had deliberately let Adcock’s practice toss go through his legs, allowing the ball to roll my way, so I could jump onto the field and pick it up. This wasn’t an accident. Matthews had done it for me.
And I just sat there.
There are times you wish you could do things over. This isn’t one of them. Why not? It would not cheer me to discover that if the situation were repeated
I’d do exactly the same thing.