This spring will be the 20th anniversary of my senior year of high school baseball. Baseball memories occupy a large portion of the “good times I had growing up” part of my brain. So at the risk of sounding like a pathetic version of Glory Days, I’m going to use this post to archive a bunch of baseball stories in one spot. This is going to be a crazy long one, but I’ll just get it all out of my system. I don’t really expect many people to read this post now, but maybe it will be fun in 40 years if I’ve forgotten some of these stories.
My first time on the diamond was tee ball in 1987 (which means I was 6 during the season.) Dad was the coach and I was very excited to be on the “Cubs”. Our uniforms were powder blue shirts with simple white lettering on the front that said CUBS. I was #12 because I was born on the 12th and because my older cousin Tim was #12. The next year I played on the Yankees and Dad coached again.
One of those years, we had a girl on the team who was very new to the game. I don’t know all the details but I remember her having really thick glasses so I think there were some eyesight problems too. During one game, she was on second base and I had a good hit. As she ran from second to third, my Dad, who was coaching third base at the time, yelled “Run home! Run home!” I had almost caught up to her by then and I watched in horror as she ran “home”… straight on past third base and into the dugout.
When I was 8, I moved up to the “minor leagues” and I played for The Dugout (a local sports store.) There was no “coach pitch” stage in our little league so we went straight from tee ball to kids pitching.
At some point we figured out that i had a pretty good throwing arm and I spent countless hours in the backyard with Mom and Dad catching for me as I learned how to pitch. Dad even built a pitching mound, and one year he set up a series of tarps and blankets hanging from the ceiling of the basement so I could get an earlier start on the season inside without anybody having to catch for me.
My pitching debut in a real game was a disaster. As I remember it, I had been itching to pitch and finally got a chance late in a game. I can’t remember all the details, but I remember I did terrible. I was in tears leaving the game and either Mom or Dad said, “You know, if you cry every time you pitch, they aren’t going to want you to pitch anymore.” As a parent reading that now, I imagine they probably said it more lovingly than I typed it, but I got the point!
I moved up from The Dugout to play on Van Overberghe Builders the next year. I remember that it was a bit of a family decision about whether or not it was ok for me to move up after just one year. I played for that team for 5 years (from ages 9-13). Looking back, it does seem kind of crazy to have a 4th grader playing against 8th graders, but I guess it worked out. I have so many stories from this phase of my baseball time.
It was during this period that I met my arch nemesis: Walt. I still remember his last name but I’ll leave that out. Walt was an umpire for our league and he was impossibly bad. Not only could I see him actually closing his eyes when the ball came in, but he even tried to explain away his ineptitude. For example, he came up to me after one game and said, “Ben, I know a lot of those balls looked really close but they were over the black part of the plate so I couldn’t call them strikes.” Polite young Ben probably mumbled something appropriate, but in my head I was screaming, “You’re telling me that a ~3 inch baseball passed over a ~1 inch PART OF THE PLATE and you saw this WITH YOUR EYES CLOSED so you couldn’t call it a strike?!” When he was umping, my catcher would sometimes put down a fist. That meant “Throw it at the umpire’s head and I will accidentally not catch it.” Years later at Purdue, I ended up talking to a girl in one of my classes. Yada yada yada at some point she said her last name was [redacted]. I said, “Wait… is your dad’s name Walt?” “Yes. How did you know that?” “I gotta go. Bye.”
I got pretty good at pitching during this time and I even had a 6 inning game with 18 strikeouts (meaning every single out in the game was a strikeout.) But was it a no-hitter? No. My friend Chucky got a triple with two outs in the last inning. We played on All-Stars together so I knew him well but I’m pretty sure I used his nickname at that point: Up Chuck.
That ball field played host to one of the two most gruesome injuries I’ve witnessed in sports. It was either John or Jay who was pitching (they were twins) and a line drive went right back at him. It caught him directly in the pelvis and shattered it. That scream still haunts my nightmares.
Being that it was the early 90s, there isn’t a lot of photographic or video evidence of my playing, but in my first year of the major leagues on Memorial Day weekend, Uncle Dean and Aunt Sandy brought their giant VHS camcorder to one of my games. Here are a couple brief clips of my unimpressive batting abilities. (I wore jersey the #1 that year.)
One summer I remember getting to pitch a little more often than the rules allowed. (There were limits on how many pitches you could throw in a certain number of days.) I don’t know if that was the cause or if it was something else, but I royally screwed up my elbow. The end result was that I couldn’t open up my arm much past a 90 degree angle. Mom spent a lot of evenings massaging that tendon, and that, coupled with months of not playing baseball finally got me back on track. That injury continues to plague me to this day, but I was able to keep it at bay enough to avoid any kind of surgery.
I really enjoyed playing in that league and I made the All Star team many of the years. The summer between freshman and sophomore years, I played on an older kids team with some of the same guys who were on the All Star team with me but I don’t remember too much about that league.
My high school was pretty small (~140 people) so it wasn’t too difficult to make the baseball team. We didn’t have enough guys to have separate varsity and JV teams. My freshman year was a dud. I distinctly remember playing a grand total of 6 innings and all of those were in right field. Two of those innings were in snow so thick I could barely see home plate. Nobody wanted to bat because our hands were frozen.
Going into my sophomore year, the old head coach left and the assistant coach took over. He finally gave me the shot at pitching that I had been requesting my whole freshman year. I took full advantage of that opportunity. I really excelled during my junior and senior seasons though. We went 20-6 my junior year (we were ranked 10th in the state!) and we made it to the district championship game my senior year. (Michigan baseball levels were conference, district, region, state.) I pitched as much as the rules would allow me those years and played a little outfield as well. Batting was never my thing and I was regularly DH’d for unless they needed a bunt. I could bunt anything. It was far from a flashy skill. I only hit a baseball over the outfield fence twice in my entire life and both of those were in practice. I still remember the shocked look on Coach Cox’s face.
My main pitches were the two seam fastball, four seam fastball, cutter and splitter. The four seam fastball was probably 80% of the my pitches though. I could target it pretty well and there weren’t many kids in our area who could catch up to it so it worked well for me. I only got to throw with a radar gun a couple times but I remember topping 80mph. In a game scenario, I’d guess I was throwing in the high 70s. Every once in a blue moon I’d throw a knuckleball, although that was more in little league than high school. I also tried a changeup and curveball. When the curveball worked it was gloriously wonderful, but it had about a fifty fifty chance of just floating across the plate. I didn’t have many home runs hit off me, but most of those home runs were failed curve balls.
In addition to the fastball, my other weapon was a pretty good pick off move. I held the school record for picking runners off. I know I still held it as of 2007. I wonder if I still do? I think the record I set was 16? We played about 25 games a season so most games and I only pitched in probably a third of them so my average was over 2 pickoffs per game. I also held (hold?) the record for most strikeouts in a game: 19.
Remember In little league how I had missed a no-hitter by that one hit from my friend Up Chuck? In high school, I had a perfect game going (no hits AND no walks) until the batter arrived at the plate with two outs in the last inning. I totally choked and walked him. Then I struck out the next guy. So I got a no hitter but missed a perfect game because I choked. That still bugs me.
I hit plenty of people with pitches over the years, but I only did it on purpose one time and I felt terrible about it. But remember how I said the broken pelvis was one of the two most gruesome injuries I saw? Well, the second one was me hitting someone with a pitch. And not just anyone… it was the very first inning of a game against a very good team and the batter was their star player. I almost started a fight when I nailed the kid directly in the elbow and broke it. THAT was a disgusting sound. We had to stop the game for the ambulance. I felt sick about it.
Looking back at my time pitching, I’m amazed that it never scared me to be in such a vulnerable position as people crushed balls at me with metal bats. There’s so little time between completing the pitching and getting the glove back up to protect yourself. I got hit a few times including one right in the middle of my back that left a huge bruise. I also made some great plays. There was one line drive that came rocketing back up the middle and I was relieved to somehow have squeezed out of the way. I turned around to see where the ball went and everyone was cheering. I couldn’t figure out who had the ball until I looked in my glove. As I jumped out of the way, I had caught the ball behind my back! I mean, um, I totally planned that.
A less amazing play came towards the end of a game. The softball team had already finished their game so a bunch of the girls from my school were sitting in the stands watching us. There was a sky high pop up along the third baseline. It was either a play for me or the catcher and I knew I had priority so I called him off. But he was standing right next to me like he was going to make the play too. I didn’t want to look away from the ball so I kept screaming louder and louder to get him to move. “I GOT IT!!!!” After I made the catch, I looked down and my catcher was standing calmly behind home plate laughing at me. “Ok dude, I get it. You got it.” My face was beet red.
When I wasn’t pitching, I was usually in the out field. I had a decent glove and my arm was of great use from the outfield too. I remember throwing a lazy runner out at first base all the way from left field, but the ultimate came when I was playing right field. It was a long fly ball and I knew the runner on third was going to tag. I backed up, caught the ball while moving forward, crow hopped and threw a laser beam right to the catcher. The throw was placed perfectly to nail the guy at the plate. Forget pitching. Throwing a guy out at home plate from the outfield is my favorite play in all of baseball. It’s something that you don’t get to do very often, and when it happens, everything has to be perfect to make it work.
I had some less than stellar moments in the outfield too. Sometimes for practice, Coach Cox would split the team in half and we’d scrimmage. We took it a little too seriously. I was playing left field when there was a shot that was going over my head. I sprinted back and realized that I was going to get there to make the catch. Just as I watched the ball go into my glove, the lights went out. I came to slumped over the half-height outfield fence. I had knocked myself out by running into the fence! And worst of all, the ball had trickled out of my glove and was laying on the ground. I heard my teammates laughing. My coach was sprinting out to check me out and he yelled “IT’S NOT FUNNY! HE HAS TO PITCH TOMORROW!” I gave that fence a pretty good whack. It bent one of the metal poles that was cemented into the ground. That pole was still bent when I went back many years later to see the field again.
I made the All District team a couple times and I made Academic All Region and Academic All-State which only included people with at least a certain GPA so it’s as prestigious as the regular All-Region/State teams. My career ERA was 1.67.
Post High School
My senior year of high school was the end of my baseball playing days. I went back once or twice for practice and quickly learned how much skill I had lost. I had a hard time just throwing good pitches for batting practice.
I did have scholarship offers from two smaller schools. Tri State University (now called Trine?) and Valparaiso University both wanted me to play baseball and offered me full scholarships, but their computer science programs were far behind Purdue so I opted for academics (and a tuition bill) over sports. Part of me wishes that I had tried out for the team at Purdue just so I could get cut. I highly doubt I would have been good enough to play Division 1 baseball, but it would have been nice to know that for sure. While I was there, I kept reading about how they needed pitchers. But on the flip side, it’s highly unlikely that I would have had time to play baseball while getting a double major and a minor. I don’t even know if I’d do it differently given the choice. It’s just one of those “Hmm, what if?” questions that I think about from time to time.
I’ve played slow pitch softball off and on throughout the years. That turns out to be a lot of fun. Batting is about a million times easier and my arm still comes in useful in the outfield (although I still have to baby my elbow a bit.) The first time I ever tried softball was for a church in Illinois while I was a summer intern at John Deere. I explained how terrible I was at batting, but they encouraged me to play anyway. My first at bat was from a story book. With no practice, I walked up to the plate with the bases loaded and proceeded to hit a home run over the fence. Grand slam! Nobody believed me when I said that was the first time I’d ever done that in any kind of a game. I think that’s the last time I ever did that too since we usually play on pretty big fields. I’ve had plenty of the inside-the-park variety though. Yay for short base paths!
Baseball was such a huge part of my life growing up. As Elijah gets older, I think a lot about how we’ll figure out what he loves and help him spend time doing that. Thank you Dad and Mom for all the sacrifices you made so that I could play baseball! And thanks to all the great coaches that I had including Dad, Coach Hanyzewski, Coach Cox and Coach McNair.