THE UNNATURAL

Corey steps up to the Little League plate

 

by Corey Levitan

 

      In 7th grade, I was a baseball star.

      I belted many a game-winning homer and nabbed screaming line drives at twice my height above third base. Crowds roared.

      This was all in my bedroom, of course.

      I can't explain why I never squared my little fantasy with the reality of never playing Little League. In fact, every time I stepped onto a diamond in school or camp, someone inevitably screamed, "You suck!"

      But missed opportunities have a way of returning to you. So I decided to bring closure to the nagging childhood question of "what if" with the South Bay

Sharks, a team of 13-year-old boys from West Torrance and Lomita.

      Why not? I can't be much older than Danny Almonte, the Dominican Republic pitcher of indeterminate age whose forged birth certificate cost his team a Little League World Series title a couple years back.

      "Focus on your hands!" yells Sharks coach Jeff Chambers during weekly batting practice at Torrance's In the Gap cages.

      My swing is so choked, it needs a Heimlich manuever. My hands need to be positioned closer together.

      "You're not turning the bat over!" Chambers continues. "You're just slapping the ball!"

      Focusing on my hands would be easier had coach Craig Morioka not told me to focus on my hips and manager Mike Debelak on how my head turns.

      Focusing power is not an unlimited resource when you face an automatic pitching machine that simulates a right-hander throwing 60 m.p.h. curveballs -- especially when you happen to be simulating someone who has an idea of what he's doing.

      After wildly missing the first three of six pitches, I manage two foul balls.

      "Go Corey!" my new teammates sarcastically cheer from the bench. 

      The sixth swing connects bat solidly to ball -- only it feels as if my right humerus is connected, too. It vibrates like a tuning fork, which is not humorous at all.

      "Hey, the kid with the beard needs to shave before our next tournament!" coach Jeff screams while I exit the batting cage. Distracted, I get trapped in the cage's protective netting, where I am speared by further insults.

      "Why does he have polka-dots in his hair?" one of the Sharks wonders aloud. Apparently, he has never had a highlighted team mate.

    Begun two years ago, the South Bay Sharks have branched into six different teams representing different age groups.

      All the 13-and-under Sharks are solid players who made their respective Little League All-Star teams last year. They twice beat the San Diego Stars, rated 10th in the nation by "Junior Baseball" magazine.

      There's Mason "Sharkee" Morioka, the stalwart catcher, furiously flashing finger signs while his poker face refuses to reveal the pitches they signify.

      There's pitcher Matt Chambers, coach Jeff's 6-foot son, a power hitter and hurler with the kind of pscyho professionalism that allows him to eviscerate enemies on the ball field, then congratulate them on a good game afterward and mean it.

      And there's Dave Ritchie, nicknamed "JT" for his supposed penchant for dancing like John Travolta. Deceptively small in stature, Ritchie possesses an arm that could launch rockets -- as I discover when a casual toss nearly ignites a fire in my mitt -- and a mouth that could launch a career as Don Rickles' replacement.

      Bad as I may be, Ritchie says, there is one player around here who's worse.

      "Him," Ritchie says, pointing to coach Jeff. "That guy who's teaching you, he thinks he's much better than he really is."

      Ritchie's smile is distorted by a big wad of sunflower seeds he spits forth and replenishes every 30 seconds.

      The Sharks play what's known as Travel Ball, one of two choices for Little League grads who wish the parental disapproval from the grandstands to continue for as many more years as possible. The Shark coaches claim their tournament-based competition is vastly superior to Pony League baseball, although they can't articulate exactly why. (I can only estimate their sense of humor as superior, since no Pony person invited me to play in a big game on Saturday morning.)

      Well, I think of it as a big game. Nobody else does. Technically, it doesn't even count since we're playing a team from a different league. It's what they call a scrimmage, or practice, game.

      Psychologically, I figure, it counts more. This is a match of underdogs versus favorites, pipsqueaks versus bullies. The Sharks are daring to take on the big guys ... the old-timers ... the 14-year-olds.

      A former Sharks franchise, the Pirates have won 20 of their last 24 games.

      I scan our opponents upon arriving at Babe Ruth Field in Torrance and suddenly remember what a difference that one junior-high grade makes.

      Pretty much all of them can take me in a street fight, even the bat boy. One kid in a full beard looks like a candidate for prostate screening.

      "You're gonna be tested today," Debelak warns us. "These 14-year-olds are gonna hit the ball hard, they're gonna throw hard, they're gonna run the bases hard.

      "These are the kind of guys you're gonna see in the nationals."

      Although adding me to the lineup technically hoists the average Sharks age above 14, nobody views it as anything resembling an asset.

      "You also bring our average height down," coach Jeff says.

      That's what's known in professional baseball terminology as a razz. It's not true. At 5'7", I am one

of the tallest members of my prepubescent team.

      OK, so I'm only the FIFTH tallest. That's still an achievement for someone who had to reach up to open doors at age 12.

      OK, so I'm only 5'6 1/2". Whatever.

      Coach Mike announces my defensive position.

      "Left out!" Ritchie taunts.

      Actually, it's right field.

      "That's where they put the losers," Ritchie yells.

      Word is, the coaches wanted to put me closer in but were afraid I would get hurt and sue. Right field is safe because the job consists of waiting for a ball that mostly never comes. This is a task at which I excel, I discover. I can do it so well, I even expand my duties to include monitoring a radio-controlled airplane buzzing overhead.

      It's when the ball is hit to me that the trouble begins.

      A line drive through the second-base gap rolls to a halt 20 feet in front of me. I make a running grab for the ball, then divert all my body's energy -- including some life support -- into my throw.

      The throw is good, but there's a problem. The ball did not participate. It never left the ground.

      Pirate uniforms blur around the bases as I grab and throw again, this time using a ball.

      Accuracy is another trouble area for me. Had the infield sported a side of a barn, I'd be fine. But I can hear the groans as my throw to second base plops very many yards short of third.

      The other Sharks somehow contain the hemorrhage, and the inning ends with our team down only 3-1.

      "Stop watching the radio-controlled airplanes," coach Jeff says.

      My chance to atone arrives with one Shark on third, two outs and our team still down 3-1.

      I step up to the plate and into the sites of a pitcher, Daniel Glieberman, who scowls like Mick Jagger with irregularity.

      It's all a ploy to intimidate me, I tell myself as two inches of my height disappear into sunken foot holes in the batter's box.

      Glieberman studies me. I am an open book ... whose title is "Baseball For Dummies." Perhaps it's my unsure gaze, perhaps it's my choking hands, perhaps it's my ill-fitting first athletic cup. (SportMart didn't allow me to try it on in the store.)

      Whatever has given my fraudulence away, Glieberman has picked up on it. He nods at his catcher's finger signals. Then the coiled power of his windup sends a ball whooshing by my noggin faster than the Enterprise in the opening credits to the original "Star Trek" series.

      I step back. It looks low -- as far as utter blurs go.

      The umpire calls a ball. Whew.

      The same low pitch arrives again and I repeat my response.

      This time, it's a strike.

      My lack of judgment now established, both Glieberman and I know I'm swinging at whatever he throws next.

      I focus on my hands, my hips, the way my head turns.

      It looks like a curveball. Or maybe it's a fastball. A knuckler?

      Swish. Nothing but air.

      The outfielders move in. I hitch up my muddied white baseball pants as I hear the first mention of what had finally percolated into my official team nickname.

      "Come on, Chum, hit it!" someone yells from our dugout.

      I assume he does not mean the sense of the word in which I am his close friend or pal.

      The infielders move in.

      "Take the pitch, Chum!" yells Ritchie. This is a suggestion to make it on base by getting hit with the ball. Self-respecting ballplayers consider this the ultimate insult.

      "Sacrifice for the team!" pitcher Zack Williams echoes.

      Swish. Air again. Then an unexpected noise: coach Jeff's voice, yelling, "Run!"

      When a batter strikes out but the catcher drops the ball, the batter can make it to first base if he outruns a throw. This rule was apparently written by someone like me, who had no other way to see what first base looked like up close.

      Not hip to this rule, I remain in place for 5 seconds, confused by the order to run. The delay causes me to be thrown out by only a step. Had I been more alert, the Sharks would have had the tying run at bat.

      My team mates hang their heads as I retake the field.

      I wish I could end this story like a B-movie, with some 11th-hour athletic heroics and a life-changing lesson that restores the audience's faith in humanity.

      But there will be no game-winning homers, no spectacular catches, not even a single foul tip. I'll strike out once more before the game is called after three innings. (Another team has reserved the field.)

      The Sharks will eventually win 6-5 -- but this is despite, not because of, my addition. I have no idea how it happens, in fact, since I pay no attention to anyone but myself the rest of the game.

      "I think you've got a lot of talent," says coach Jeff. "There's definitely a place for you somewhere -- maybe not in our lineup."

      The inevitable comes from a grandstand father as I toss my borrowed mitt back into a team pile.

      "You suck!" he screams.

      I think that nagging "what if" question finally has an answer.

 

 

 

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