The smell of freshly cut lawn filled the morning spring air at the Little League field. The whir of the lawnmower could be heard in the distance as the man cutting the grass was finishing the last field. The umpire dressed in a blue shirt and navy pants was laying down the white chalk up the first base line. Behind the dugout the coach of the Little Giants was having a chat with one of the parents.
“What do you mean my son, Mendel, can’t play third base?” Mrs. Cruz said to Coach Richie. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“I know it’s hard to understand, Ma’am, especially for someone not from this country, but that’s how baseball is,” the Coach replied.
“Excuse me? Not from this country? You’re not trying to sugge…”
“I apologize, Mrs. Cruz,” Coach jumped in. “That’s not what I meant. I meant no offense. However, left-handers have a hard time throwing from the left side of the infield to first base. Baseball has been around for over 100 years, and that’s how it’s always been.”
“You’re right, we’re not from this country, Mr. Richie – we’re from the Philippines. My husband and I emigrated here for a better life, and we found it. Right here in National City, California. We didn’t have baseball in the Philippines, but Mendel is American. He was born and raised right here. I don’t care that something has always been done a certain way. It isn’t fair. Mendel loves baseball. Do you know that he signed up for baseball all by himself? He found out about it at school and signed up without even telling us – he loves it so. His favorite player is Craig Nettles. You must know who he is - he plays third base for the Padres. Are you telling me that a 10-year-old can’t emulate his hero because he throws with a different hand?”
Coach Richie paused.
“You’re right, Mrs. Cruz. Mendel is one of our best athletes, and he has a really good arm. I don’t see why this can’t work. We can try it out.”
“I appreciate your understanding, Mr. Richie.”
“Call me ‘Coach Richie.’ Thanks, Mrs. Cruz. I’ll put him at third today.”
Mrs. Cruz and Coach Richie shook hands.
Later that day, the Little Giants were in the field. Mendel was playing third, and his friend, Henry, whom he’d replaced, was playing Mendel’s position, first. It was the second inning and there were two outs. On the next pitch the batter hit a line drive down the third base line. Mendel snagged it, making it look easy – a function of his glove being on his right hand, which was closest to the line. The batter was fast. Mendel transferred the ball to his left hand but had to twist and contort his body to get square with first base. He threw it as hard as he could – but it came out high and over Henry’s head. The runner took second base on Mendel’s throwing error.
“That’s okay, Mendel,” Coach said while clapping. “Good snag. We’ll work on the throw, bud. Let’s get the next one.”
The next batter hit the same ball – a hard liner up the third base line. Mendel grabbed the ball again, very easily.
“One! One! One!” the catcher called, telling Mendel to throw it to first base.
Mendel had the same issue he’d had on the play earlier and threw the ball over Henry’s head at first. The runner at second came around to score their teams first run to make it 1-0.
“Hey, Mendel, don’t you worry about that,” Coach Richie said loudly. “That was good play. We’ll get the next one. Get your head up.”
The next batter struck out and the Little Giants ran into the dugout.
Coach Richie sat next to Mendel on the bench. “Hey, bud, don’t worry about those errors. Those are on me. I just threw you into a position you’ve never practiced before. But I know you can make those plays. Do you want to keep trying third base or do you want to go back to first?”
Mendel thought about it for a moment. “I want to keep trying third base,” he said.
“Okay, son. You got it.”
A few innings later, the Little Giants were up 5-1. Third base had been relatively quiet for Mendel. With one out, a ball was hit to Mendel’s left. He shuffled his feet over nicely and fielded the ground ball smoothly between his legs, and in one motion flipped the ball to first base. A perfect throw. Two outs.
“Atta boy!” everyone cheered, and Mendel pumped his fist.
The next ground ball also came Mendel’s way. Another smooth pick and flip with his left hand to first base, and the inning was over.
The end of the game arrived without any more drama and the Little Giants won 5-2. They now had a record of 4 wins to 1 loss. They were shaping up to be one of the better teams in the league.
Coach Richie held a team meeting before everyone went home. When he was finished, Mendel tapped him on the shoulder.
“Hi Coach,” Mendel said.
“Hey Mendel,” said Coach, turning around.
“Coach, are you going to play me at third base again?”
“If you’d like to, I will. We’ll get you more reps at practice, and I think you’ll do great over there.”
“Yes? You okay, Mendel?”
“Well… I know I really wanted to play third. And I really liked it. But I think I should play first, and Henry should play third. He’s better over there and I’m better at first. We’re a better team if I go back to my original position.”
“You might be right, but I think we’ll be pretty good with you at third. Don’t you want to be like Craig Nettles?”
“Yeah, but I want us to win, and I think we can be a better team if I go back.”
“Are you sure, Mendel?”
“Yes, sir. I’m sure.”
The season continued and Mendel went back to first base. The Little Giants didn’t lose another game and won the league championship. Mendel and Henry both earned places on the All-Star team.
After the championship Coach Richie hosted a pizza party. Coach tapped his knife on a glass of beer.
“I just wanted to say a few words before everyone left, because this will be the last time we’re all together. I want to thank all of you players for such a great season. Winning the championship is wonderful, obviously, but what I get most gratification from is seeing how much each of you has improved during the season. I hope you remember this season as fondly as I will.
“They say that the phrase ‘the old college try,’ was a baseball term. And the greatest ball player of all-time, Babe Ruth, said that ‘to “give something the old college try” is to keep going, even when the odds are stacked against you — like chasing a flyball out into foul territory, just in case you somehow make the impossible catch.’ Early in the season, one of your teammates embodied the old college try perfectly. He (and his mom) argued hard and convinced me to let him do something almost never done in baseball. And after a bit of a rough start, he persevered and did a great job. But on top of that, as hard as he fought to get to play a position he wasn’t suited for, he told me that he wanted to go back to his original position, not for himself, but for us. He sacrificed playing his dream position so we could be a better team. I’m so proud to call him my player. So, I’m giving out a new trophy this year – the Babe Ruth Old College Try. And our inaugural awardee for giving it the old college try but also making sacrifices for the team: Mendel Cruz. Congratulations, Mendel.”