EDITOR’S NOTE: The Union Leader is bringing back some of the late Joe Sullivan’s Union Leader sports columns. This one was originally published on Aug. 4, 2009.
IN 1957, at the age of 13, I met fear. Baseball fear. And it didn’t come on the playing field in the form of beanballs or collisions, high spikes or barrel slides.
It came in the form of pulverized baseballs zeroing in on me as I quivered, defenseless, in the third-base coach’s box. The baseballs — traveling at what I reckoned warp speed — rocketed off the bats of two Babe Ruth League teammates.
The twin assassins? Kenny Wade and Bill Jacobson, right-handed-hitting, 15-year-old prodigies.
Later, Wade and Jacobson would be baseball standouts at Manchester West and Wade would star on the diamond at the University of New Hampshire. But for now they were Babe Ruth behemoths.
During preseason practices, I failed to note from the safety of second base that both our shortstop and third baseman joined our left fielder whenever these bashers took bashing practice.
I overlooked that critical piece of information but noticed that our team was stacked with talented 14- and 15-year-olds. I knew that the 13-year-olds (there were four of us) would log serious bench time.
Wanting to contribute to what looked like a sure-fire championship season, I decided to coach third base as often as the coaches — Barney and Hughie Dickson — would allow.
I bolted there in the bottom half of the first in our season opener, hoping to impress everyone with my fake signs and honest enthusiasm.
Our leadoff hitter walked, and our No. 2 guy singled to left. With runners at first and second, I figured I’d soon be windmilling them home as Wade and Jacobson hit 3-4 in our Hillsborough lineup.
Showing off, I barked to the lead runner that I’d watch the shortstop while he took the second baseman. As I barked, I realized the third baseman had retreated some three dozen steps into left field.
“What an idiot,” I thought. “All Kenny has to do is dump a bunt down the third-base line for an easy single.”
That’s when I heard the concussion of bat hitting ball and felt a hurricane-like gale of wind whoosh past my right ear. The ball-turned-missile struck the concrete base of the Livingston Park bleachers and ricocheted into right field. Deep right field.
My knees buckled as I pictured the carnage the projectile would have wreaked with a direct hit to my skull. Then I heard laughter coming from our bench. The 14- and 15-year-olds. They were familiar with the danger linked to our third-base coach’s box.
Wade made me dodge two vicious shots, then singled to left. He hit the ball so hard, the runner at second held at third. He made that decision on his own as my undivided attention was now focused on survival.
Three pitches into Jacobson’s at-bat, I understood why the opposing third baseman had now become an auxiliary left fielder. I remained under attack, though now I had company. The runner at third was using me as a human shield to take his lead. Our two-man conga line survived a blitz of sizzling grass-cutters and whistling liners.
We scored five first-inning runs, and no one in the park rejoiced more than I over our third out.
Weak-kneed, I reached the bench as the other three rooks concluded a hastily called meeting. “We voted to let you coach third every inning of every game,” one said.
“No,” I said, “I want to live.”
“Yeah, we figured that,” he said. “Our second vote was to alternate doing full games. Since you’ve already survived one inning, you might as well try to make it the rest of the way. And with our lead, we probably won’t hit in the seventh, so you’re lucking out.”
He had a point.
Jackie Higgins lost the coin flip and entered the death trap for Game 2. He brought his glove, a ploy I had considered. However, I fielded so poorly, I felt the glove would only hamper my escape tactics.
As soon as the home-plate umpire spotted third-base coach Higgins sporting a glove and assuming perfect fielding position, he told him to knock off the silliness. Higgins had to surrender the glove.
Conrad Ferland went next and did well until Barney saw him coaching third from deep left field and summoned him to ground zero.
Gerry Godbout, who admitted that he prayed nightly for a rule change banning base coaches, completed the first rotation.
He served as backup catcher to Wade and worked that angle into his debut on death row. When he arrived for his first inning of survival training, he wore the tools of ignorance: face mask, two chest protectors (front and back), shin guards.
He looked like an attack-dog training mannequin.
Before a pitch was thrown, however, the home-plate ump ordered him to cease and desist.
“One of you guys will have to take my place,” he chortled, waddling to the bench. He thought he had snookered us until we tackled him, stripped him of the equipment and hustled him back to what we called the third-base coach’s coffin.
Thirteen-year-old third-base coaches from other teams yelled things like, “Hit it hard, Tom. Get a piece, Dick. Put it in play, Harry.”
We yelled things like, “Lot of room down the right-field line, Kenny. Right fielder’s playing you shallow, Bill. Please let me live, Lord.”
We had a great year.
The 14- and 15-year-olds led us to a title.
None of the 13-year-olds died.