“Attaboy, Joey! Nice swing. You can do it!”
Truth be told, Joey couldn’t do it.
Joey slowly walked off the field with his head down. His Dad understood the hurt and put his arms around him.
“It’s okay, Joey, you’ll get ‘em next time.”
Tom didn’t really believe that, but that’s what dads say.
You may have heard a coach say something like, “What a kid lacks in talent can be made up for with hard work and desire.” Don’t believe it. Joey had the heart of a lion, and he made the Little Engine That Could look like a slacker, but he was small for his age, clumsy, slow on his feet, lacking in any semblance of hand-eye coordination, and saddled with vision only corrected to a functional level with Coke bottle thick lenses. Sometimes the impossible dream remains just that- an impossible dream.
Never in the history of sports has there been a greater disparity between desire and talent, a larger gap between goals and the ability to achieve them, and a deeper divide separating dreams from reality. Joey was cursed with a most unfortunate combination of God-awful talent and an unmatched passion for sports.
He couldn’t throw or catch a football, kick a soccer ball, shoot a basketball, or hit a baseball, with any degree of proficiency. It was all disheartening for Joey, but baseball, his Holy Grail of sports, brought the greatest disappointment. In the eyes of his long-suffering parents, a successful at-bat for their son was not getting hit by the pitch.
Tom and Maggie suffered right along with him. Every strike three, every dropped fly ball, every basketball fumbled out of bounds, and every shot that fell hopelessly wide or short of the hoop was a pinprick to their hearts. They gave Joey all the support possible- equipment, camps, countless hours of pitching, rebounding, tossing footballs, and of course endless encouragement. “Attaboy, Joey, you can do it!” became the family mantra.
But he tried, oh, how he tried.
“Dad, can we go to the batting cages tonight?”
“Sure, right after supper.”
“Mom, can you rebound for me?”
“It’s raining, Joey.”
“Just for a little while.”
“I’ll be right there.”
“You want to play some catch, Dad?”
“It’s dark out, Joey.”
“We can turn the garage light on.”
“Ok, I’ll get my glove.”
All such efforts failed miserably.
“The kid’s just not cut out for sports, Maggie. Grade school teams have a no-cut policy, but there’s no way he’s going to make a high school team, especially in baseball.”
“I feel so bad for him. I just wish he could have one special moment.”
St. Mary’s had basketball and baseball for the boys, 5th through 8th grade, and Joey was there for every moment of it. As far as work ethic, he was every coach’s dream. As far as ability, he was every coach’s nightmare.
St. Mary’s pastor, Father Mel, had this outdated notion that grade school sports was more of an activity for children than it was about a coach’s win/loss record or trophies in a display case. Every kid played the same. This presented a good news-bad news scenario. The good news was Joey got to play. The bad news was Joey got to play. His time in the game was difficult to watch, especially in baseball. In basketball, Joey could get lost in the crowd; baseball put him in the spotlight, one-on-one, Joey vs. the ball. It was so bad that even the kids on the other team rooted for him.
Joey’s stats over his four-year basketball career were remarkable- three rebounds, no assists, no points, and more fouls than the stat sheet allowed. His one free throw attempt was embarrassingly interrupted by cruel gravity just halfway to the hoop.
Baseball yielded similar results- no putouts, no hits, no runs, hit by a pitch five times, a few walks, and tons of errors. Joey wasn’t just the worst kid on his baseball team. He was the worst kid in the league. No, he was the worst kid in the history of the league. It didn’t seem possible that God could have packed so much ineptitude into one small package.
Eighth Grade. Joey’s basketball career was (thankfully) behind him. Graduation. St. Mary’s was behind him…except for summer baseball, Joey’s last chance to do something positive in the world of competitive sports.
“Dad, have you ever heard of Babe Ruth?”
“Of course, Joey. He was one of the greatest home run hitters of all time. They called him the Sultan of Swat.”
“I know. There’s a book about him in our library. It said he struck out a lot, but he hit a lot of home runs.”
“I guess that’s right.”
“So I was thinking, maybe that’s my problem.”
“Uh, what’s that?”
“Maybe I’m not swinging hard enough, you know, be like the Babe, maybe strike out, but maybe hit a homer.”
Tom was thinking. A home run?! It sort of didn’t matter how hard he swung at the ball because he couldn’t hit it anyway.
“Well, you don’t want to swing too hard. Nice, firm, level swings, but not too hard. Keep your eye on the ball and make contact.”
“Then how come Father Mel always says ‘Swing hard in case you hit it’?”
“I think Father Mel says that as sort of a joke.”
“Did you know Babe Ruth called his shot once? He stood at the plate and pointed to the center field bleachers. Next pitch he put the ball there. How cool is that.?”
Ominous clouds were approaching from the west as Tom, Maggie, and Joey arrived for the contest against St. John’s, the last game of the season and likely the last time Joey would ever wear a team uniform. Tom understood the moment; Joey didn’t.
“Gee, Dad, this is the last time I’ll play for St. Mary’s. The next time I play baseball it will be for the high school freshman team. What position do you think I should play in high school, infield or outfield?”
“I’m not sure, Joey.”
“Good morning Tom, Maggie. How you doin’ today, Joey?”
Father Mel never missed a game. With his affinity for sports, parishioners sometimes jokingly referred to St. Mary’s as a school gym with a church attached. He was the school’s number-one fan, ran practices whenever a coach couldn’t make it, and often blended sports references into his homilies. ( “Make Jesus your quarterback”, “Satan’s full court press”, “God always gives you a mulligan”.)
“Good afternoon, Father. You know, we’ve been on a losing streak. Could you maybe put a few angels in our outfield today, like in that movie?”
“I’ll see what I can do, Tom. I don’t know if I can get God to take sides, but maybe I could get Him to at least have the rain hold off long enough to get the game in.”
“Good luck today, Joey.”
“And, Joey…swing hard in case you hit it.”
Coach Thompson always mixed up his lineups. Putting the good players on the field with the “not-so-good” players not only helped bolster team camaraderie, it also lessened the likelihood of a truly disastrous inning. It was not a coincidence that Will, the best kid on the team, and Joey, were always in the same unit. It was also not a coincidence that Will was always the player positioned closest to Joey wherever he was stationed. You’ve heard of a player batting cleanup; Will was fielding cleanup.
Six-inning games. Every kid played at least three innings so Joey would get to bat today…if the rain held out.
Coach Thompson’s teams were always solidly mediocre. It isn’t easy to hit a perfect six wins and six losses seven years in a row, and he needed a win today to keep his record intact.
“Wouldn’t you think the kid would hit the ball just once, I mean even by accident?”
“You’d think so, Maggie.”
They weren’t the only ones.
“Maybe just have him try bunting, Coach.”
“Tried that, Father.”
“How about just sticking the bat out and hoping the ball hits it?”
Joey would play the last three innings today which gave Tom and Maggie a little extra time to worry about what embarrassing moments might befall their son.
“But I’m going to miss it, Maggie, the kids, the games, Coach Thompson, the concession stand, I’ll miss all of it. Most of all I’ll miss seeing Joey happy just to be there.”
Joey was special. Despite his remarkable lack of success, he was always happy to be there. The kid was like one of those inflatable punching bags. No matter how many times you punch it in the face, it bounces right back up. Coach Thompson didn’t understand it. Father Mel didn’t understand it. At times even his parents didn’t understand it. But for Joey, it wasn’t about driving in runs, making a diving catch, or nailing a three-pointer. It was about playing the game.
Entering the fourth inning, Coach Thompson’s “Dream Season” of six and six was slipping away as St.Mary’s trailed 5-2. Joey probably wouldn’t come to the plate until the sixth inning, so Tom and Maggie only had to fear fielding miscues during the 4th and 5th frames. It didn’t take long. A high fly ball to right had Joey wandering around like a lost nomad, glove hand high in the air, as he scanned the sky in search of the ball. Predictably, the ball finally came down, narrowly missing Joey’s head. Insult was right behind injury as his throw to second went to the first. E-9, 2 runs scored.
Joey played the hot corner in the 5th. Tom’s prayers were answered as the ball stayed far from 3rd base, and his 6th inning stint at 2nd saw just one booted ball. All that remained for Joey’s part in sports history was his final at-bat.
A few sprinkles hit Tom in the face as he reflected on the past four years, all the games, the hopes and prayers that Joey would make a basket, get a hit, catch a ball. All the times he consoled Joey with a hug, a word of encouragement, and the disappointment he felt for his son. Only one moment remained.
Now down 9-2, the last half of the 6th was of little consequence to the teams, but it meant the world to Joey and his parents. Joey’s last at bat. It would all be over in minutes.
The rain came down a little harder as Ernie Meyer stood at the plate. Tom feared that the game could be called, and he wanted Joey to have that one last chance. Hit or miss, he wanted to see his boy at the plate one more time.
Ball one. Ball two. Strike. The rain picked up. Pop-up to second.
More rain, heavier, harder. Skip Walker went to the plate as Joey grabbed a bat and walked to the on-deck circle. Ball one. Ball two. A pained expression appeared on Joey’s face as he gripped his bat. He also wanted that chance. Strike one. The umpire scanned the sky, removed his mask, and wiped his face. He looked at both dugouts, and Tom thought it was over. But the mask went back on, Skip hit a slow roller to first, and Joey moved into the batter's box.
The rain came down harder, and to this day people aren’t sure why the ump didn’t call the end to a blowout game with just one batter remaining. By this time of the season, the umpire, like all the coaches, players, parents, and fans, knew the legend of Joey. The ump would tell his wife at dinner that night that something told him he should let the game play out and give this poor kid one more chance.
Tom’s heart was pounding harder than the rain was coming down. “Please, God. Let this kid get a hit.” That prayer wasn’t just on the lips of Tom, Maggie, Father Mel, Coach Thompson, and all of Joey’s teammates. Everyone in attendance, including the St. John’s players, had the same prayer in their hearts.
Tom would later hear of a rumor that if Joey would just put the ball in play, the St. John’s fielder would be slow to the ball and slow to the throw. Joey would end up on first base if they had to drag him there. That’s how religious schools roll. He just needed to hit the damn ball.
Coach Thompson was a perceptive old soul. He sensed something was up, and with a flurry of hand signals and a flaying of arms that would make an ordinary man fly, he gave Joey the bunt sign. The bunt- square your shoulders, hold the bat in front of you, and gently tap the ball- the easiest way to put the ball in play.
The series of events that followed is still talked about in this small town. Joey shook his head in defiance of Coach Tompson’s directive to lay down a bunt. Never in his 25 years of coaching had a kid rejected a signal. Coach Thompson did it again. Another rejection…with attitude.
The rain continued as Joey took a couple of practice swings and stared at the pitcher. Tom had not seen it before, an air of confidence and a look of determination.
Rumors also suggested the pitcher, a nice kid who knew Joey from a basketball camp, tried to throw the slowest, straightest ball possible. The ball came in around waist-level, and Joey took a mighty swing…and missed…badly. A collective groan from players and crowd alike. Tom closed his eyes and felt the reality sinking in. Impossible dreams are, well, impossible.
Joey glanced at the 3rd base coach who gave a half-hearted bunt sign. Joey dug in and glared at the pitcher. The St. John’s pitcher was good. If Joey had just stuck his bat out, he probably could have hit it. But Joey gave it his all, a nice, firm, level swing…and missed. He not only missed, but the ball was already in the catcher’s mitt before Joey started his swing.
And then the most peculiar event in the league’s history. With a driving rain in his face, Joey stepped forward onto home plate, raised his bat, and pointed it in the direction of center field in the mode of Moses raising his staff to part the Red Sea. Joey was calling his shot.
The players, coaches, fans, and the two umpires were stunned. Tom’s eyes popped wide open as he stood in total shock.
“Oh my God, Maggie, our son thinks he’s Babe Ruth.”
The pressure of the moment went up exponentially. A failure after this unbridled display of hubris would put Joey in the National Hall of Fame for Sports Blunders and Embarrassments…if there were one.
Tom’s head was ready to explode. What was Joey thinking?! It was Pee Wee Herman challenging Rambo to hand-to-hand combat, The Little Sisters of the Poor scheduling Notre Dame for its home opener on the gridiron, David taking on Goliath,…wait a minute, David won that one.
Father Mel prayed, Tom stopped breathing, Maggie felt for her son, and Coach Thompson wished he were someplace else. Joey returned to the batter's box, took a couple of practice swings, raised his bat above his shoulder, and awaited the moment.
Witnesses will tell you it seemed to take forever for the ball to travel from the pitcher’s hand to home plate. Tom grew more tense with every foot of flight, but eventually, the ball got there. Joey had one thought on his mind.
“Swing hard in case you hit it.”
No one will ever be able to explain the moment, not even Joey- the magic in Frosty’s hat, Tinker Bell’s pixie dust, flying reindeer. This stuff happens. Joey swung, and he swung hard. He would later tell his Dad he wasn’t even sure his eyes were open. Some say the crack of the bat could be heard a mile away. No thunderous applause; stunned silence. That’s what you do when you witness a miracle.
Joey stood at home plate admiring the flight of the ball. The pitcher barely caught a glimpse of it as it soared overhead. The second baseman watched in wonder, and the center fielder didn’t move an inch as the ball sailed over the fence. Joey finally remembered what he was supposed to do and began his slow trot around the bases.
Coach Thompson didn’t react until Joey reached second. He screamed out the only thing he could think of as he leaped in the air.
Tears came before cheers for Tom and Maggie, and Father Mel darn near forgot how to make the sign of the cross. The entire place went nuts as Joey was greeted at home plate by jubilant, cheering kids from both teams.
When Tom finally made it to his son, the consoling hug at the beginning of our story was replaced with a happy hug. Joy, sheer joy.
“Joey, that was the greatest thing I’ve ever seen, but what was with you calling your shot?”
“I don’t know. That book just popped into my mind. I think it helped.”
“I’ll say it helped.”
“Why don’t you call me Babe?”
Smiles, father and son.
As they walked to the parking lot, Tom turned and looked back at home plate and the spot where the ball went over the center field fence. He wiped the rain and tears from his face as he cemented the memory into his mind. He looked at Joey and said it one final time, with some modification.
“Attaboy, Joey. You did it.”