About six months ago, an Airborne Express guy sped into my office to make a delivery. He was short but built, with sad eyes and a big smile. He handed me a clipboard. “How’s it going?” I asked him. “Can’t complain,” he said. “Please sign line 23.” The same thing happened every day for months: “How’s it going?” “Can’t complain.” Until one day I said, “You can complain, you know … if you want.” He smiled. His name was Ken, and it turns out he did have something to complain about. His son had a Little League game that coming Saturday, and he had to work. “I’m going to try to finish up my route early,” he said. “You think you’ll be able to catch the last couple innings?” I asked. “Most definitely,” he replied.
A few months later, Ken told me his son, a 12-year-old right-fielder named Dominique, made the Harlem All-Stars. I followed the team’s progress each day through Ken. The team won many close games and then made a dream come true by capturing the city championship. Not long ago, making his delivery, Ken told me Harlem was headed to the World Series. He said that although some of the players’ residency status was being investigated and there was a chance they’d be disqualified, he wasn’t complaining. In the papers a few days later, I read that the team had been exonerated by a panel of Little League execs.
It was a courageous decision. The Little League leaders went to bat, swung away and hit a home run for Harlem, inner-city kids everywhere and the future of the league itself. It was truly a World Series moment-they had chosen to take the road less traveled.
During one of our conversations, Ken asked me if I had ever played baseball as a kid. I had, and I went on to tell him about a big Little League moment in my own life when, like the Little League officials, I, too, had to face the hard decision to bunt or swing away.
As background to my baseball career, it’s important to know that I stunk at the sport. Similar to Harlem’s 9-year-old Josh Raiford, who in 1988 “struck a deal” with his mother to take piano lessons in exchange for her starting a league, I also promised my mom I’d take violin lessons if she’d let me play ball. Just like him, I quit my lessons in due time. But unlike Mr. Raiford, who went on to become the founding son of a world-class league, I went on to work at a bank.
I played for Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips in blue-collar Worcester, Mass. They called us “The Fried Fish.” We played in a field right next to the Great Brook Valley projects that, similar to Harlem’s original fields, was often covered with broken glass, tire ruts and discarded drug paraphernalia.
My dad’s an old-school natural who grew up poor but never quit. All I ever really wanted to do was succeed at baseball for him. Unfortunately, I couldn’t hit the ball. The more I tried, the more I missed.
The one thing I could do, though, was bunt. No matter what the situation was in the game, Coach Higgins would have me bunt. Some players tried to fake out the infielders by pointing their bats where they planned on smashing the ball (à la Babe Ruth and Harlem’s Fernando Frias), and then at the last second they’d spin around to bunt. Coach said because I was a “natural-born bunter,” I didn’t have to fool around with such trickery: “So what if everyone and their mother knows you’re bunting? Just walk right up to the plate in the bunt position!”
This had two effects. One, it gave me the appearance of a discombobulated kid trying to auction off a bat used by Mickey Mantle. And two, everyone and their mother knew I was bunting. All the infielders camped out about 10 feet away, waiting for my dribbler to come off the bat so they could immediately throw me out.
If I did get thrown out, the people in the stands would let me have it. These were the pre-politically-correct 1970′s. A dad or mom might scream, “Get the lead out of your can, bunter! You weird little bunter!”
My dad worked 70 hours a week but still came to every game and most of the practices. Though he seemed supportive of my role as the “bunt specialist,” I knew deep down inside he was disappointed that I wasn’t more of a slugger.
One Sunday game, we were down one run, with two outs and two men on in the bottom of the ninth. It was my turn up. The fans were going crazy. I had been hit by Nelson, the pitcher for Sprague Electric Supplies, twice before and it wasn’t fun. He was a 6-foot-2, 200-pound Dominican Republic all-star who threw the ball 90 miles an hour with no control. His forged birth certificate said he was 12, but his mustache, goatee and the fact that he drove a black Impala to the games said otherwise. He was our Danny Almonte, but everyone was afraid to tell him. Each time I was hit, it stung for hours.
As I stood on the deck recalling these beanings, I was half-aware that Coach Higgins was sending me the usual discreet signals to bunt-he was yelling, “Bunt! Lay it down! Just lay it down, buddy! Bunt! Bunt!” while miming the verb “to bunt” with his entire body.
I crab-walked up to the plate holding my bat out for all to see, when all of a sudden my father started screaming, “Swing away, A.J.! Forget about the bunt-just hit away, buddy, hit away!” What was he thinking?! I immediately pretended I didn’t hear him. It was my only defense. Coach yelled “Bunt!” again, even louder. It seemed he, too, was pretending not to hear my father. Even though he was only 12 feet away and screaming, “Son, listen to me, it’s your father-do not bunt!” I chose Plan A: ignore him.
As Nelson wound up, I saw all the infielders crowded in around me, looking smug. A couple even seemed to be making baby gestures, as if to say, “C’mon, little bunter, bunt it here … c’mon.” The image of my dad throwing me practice pitches until the sun went down flashed in my mental backyard.
The pitch came screeching in. I stepped back, pulled my bat around and swung as hard as I could. Crack! My hands were buzzing in pain as I smashed a line drive to center field-a clean, solid hit!
I stood on second enjoying my first-ever hit, a game-winning double. Everyone poured out of the dugout and ran towards me. My dad was beaming and pumping his fist.
It was my World Series moment. It changed everything. After that, I saw life and myself a little differently. Like with the Little League leaders’ decision, it made all the difference in the world.
A few days ago, the office doorbell rang. It was Ken. He came in and handed me the clipboard. “How’s it going?” he asked. “Can’t complain,” I said. After I signed, I congratulated him on the ruling. “Yeah,” he said, “we told the kids it was just another one of those things, like the crazy media coverage-not to pay it any mind. The real thing is their love of the game.” “Most definitely,” I said, “The only thing left is for them to just go out there and swing away.”