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FEAR AND LOAFING: League of His Own (Little League baseball player)

Our reporter takes a swing at childhood fantasy

 




 

Nick Melinchok locks gazes with the batter and winds up. The count is full with two outs and a runner at third.

Melinchok, 12, is by far the best pitcher in Peccole Little League. Of the 18 outs made by his team, the Phillies, in this season's opening game, a whopping 16 were strikeouts delivered by his smoldering right hand.

What could be the game-deciding ball is now en route at 65 mph. Oh, and did I mention? The batter is me.

In seventh grade, I was a baseball superstar. I belted many a game-winning homer and nabbed screaming line drives twice my height above third base. Crowds roared.

This was all in my bedroom, unfortunately. I was too puny and uncoordinated to ever consider joining my friends in actual Little League.

Three decades later, however, I believe I'm finally qualified to play on the Peccole Yankees, a team of fourth- through seventh-graders from northwest Las Vegas. I've got the hand-eye coordination and the power. And this time around, I'm normal height for a 12-year-old. (In fact, at 5 foot 6 inches, Melinchok is the only taller player on the diamond at Rainbow Family Park.)

"Let's go, Corey!" yells Yankees coach Glenn Stevens between claps of his hands.

The coaches and parents all know the real reason the new kid sports ear hair. But not the players. They've been told that I'm 16 years old and trying out for Junior League. (Since Junior League has no games tonight, here I am.)

"We've got an RBI out there!" Stevens continues.

This is a scrimmage game, which means it doesn't count. (If it did, my real age would disqualify the Yankees.) For me, though, it counts more. It's a chance to settle the score for all those times Charlie Greenvald left me standing against the fence while choosing sides for gym softball -- for me and every kid ever picked last.

"Steerr-rike!" yells umpire Mary MacDonald as the ball nearly burns a hole in Phillies catcher Kyle Larson's mitt. I'm caught looking, as they say.

Few walks of shame are longer than the one back to a dugout full of teammates whose hopes you just personally dashed. But this one is especially awkward. Yankees second baseman Chaison Miklich smells something fishy and refuses to hold his little tongue any longer.

"You're lying!" the 10-year-old insists, pointing his finger at me.

Miklich, a fourth-grader at Christensen Elementary School, takes his baseball seriously. He and his two older brothers have been playing it since they could barely hold T-ball bats. Between practice and games -- both Little League and club ball -- baseball occupies 20 of Miklich's hours each week.

"You're not 16!" Miklich continues.

Miklich is one of 9,000 kids swatting and fielding stitched orbs around parks across the valley.

"It's important for them," MacDonald explains. "It teaches them how to play together as a team, it builds strong character and teaches them that losing is part of life." (MacDonald's own 21-year-old son, Ross, parlayed Peccole Little League into baseball scholarships to both the College of Southern Nevada and Metropolitan State College of Denver.)

Later, Miklich explains his attraction to the sport: "I feel butterflies in my stomach that make me excited and jumpy every time I stand out there."

Four more innings blaze by faster than Melinchok fastballs, during which my pitching skills surprise everyone. Most of all, me. (Later, Yankees pitching coach Manny Abeyta tries explaining how in the world I struck out two Phillies when half my pitches were wild. "These kids are used to fastballs," he says, pointing out that the other half of my pitches dropped just as they reached the plate -- mostly from lack of momentum.)

"Let's go, Corey!" coach Stevens yells again.

It's my final at-bat. The count is two strikes and one ball with a boy on second. As Melinchok and I lock gazes one last time, I notice how much he resembles the young Charlie Greenvald.

Swish! Strike three.

Oh wait, no. Something unexpected has happened. My bat has connected with the ball (along with, so the sensation suggests, my right humerus bone, which vibrates like a tuning fork and is not humorous in the slightest).

"Run!" Stevens yells.

Every Yankee rises to his feet as a double sails far over the head of 5-foot-1 Phillies second baseman Joey Melinchok (Nick's 10-year-old brother).

The crowd doesn't roar like it did in my childhood bedroom, but at least four parents clap really loud. (Hear that, Charlie Greenvald?)

A base hit by Yankees second-baseman Kyle Stevens (the coach's 11-year-old son) drives me to home plate, where I help the Yankees trounce the Phillies 10-5. As we grab our outfield gear in the dugout, Miklich delivers the closure I've been seeking. He offers me a stick of his bubblegum, a subtle but clearly bonding gesture. I am finally accepted by a preadolescent peer group for my athletic ability.

In fact, Miklich tells me that, judged against his 11 teammates, I rank at least tenth.

"But I know you're lying," he adds. "You're old.

"You're twenty-one."

Fear and Loafing runs on the first Sunday of every month in the Living section. Levitan's previous adventures can be found at www.fearandloafing.com.

 
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