Whiffling the Summer Away
by Robert Nishihara
The first time I faced a major league pitcher I was seven years old.
It was crafty left-hander Jon Matlack of the New York Mets, and he was on his way to a 15-10 record and a sparkling 2.32 ERA in 1972. He threw this nasty breaking pitch that started out at the belt and broke sharply down and in, buzzing past the back knee of a right-handed hitter. I hated that pitch. I always committed to it, and I always swung over the top of it.
So, when he threw it to me again, I tried to wait on it and drop my hands to lower the angle of the bat to try to get to it. Somehow, miraculously, I had dropped the bat just enough to meet the pitch solidly, sending a drive down the right field line. It hit the fence about halfway up.
"Foul ball!" cried Matlack, who was also umpiring the game.
"No way!" I called back.
"Definitely, foul." He answered and went to retrieve the ball.
Frustrated that my protest went unheeded, I took the next logical step. I ran over and tackled Matlack. A brief struggle ensued, and Matlack, who was nearly six years older, won the wrestling match easily. So, his call stood.
It was not the first time I lost out on a call, and it would certainly not be the last time. But I also knew that whiffle ball was not for the weak-willed. So when my older brother Kevin, who was playing the part of the 1972 New York Mets that afternoon, sauntered back to the pitcher's mound (which was something of a misnomer since it was really just a piece of cardboard laying flat on the grass in our backyard), I resolved to hit the next pitch harder than the disputed foul ball.
Expecting another sharp breaking pitch, I readied myself in the batter's box. But Kevin/Matlack crossed me up and threw a big sweeping curve instead (ugh, those crafty lefties!). The pitch started out a couple of feet outside the plate and shoulder high before bending across the heart of the plate and dipping to belt level. Still fuming over the "blown call" a pitch earlier, I swung out of my shoes. Of course, I missed the pitch by about a mile and a half.
The Mets went on to crush my beloved San Francisco Giants, 11-2. Though, the local nine did get a touch of revenge when, as Giants reliever Jerry Johnson, I planted my best whiffle fastball into Ed Kranepool's ribcage just to give the New Yorkers something to think about the next time they stepped into my backyard acting like they owned the place.
And so it went that summer. My brother and I staging these titanic whiffle ball contests in the backyard. He was even gracious enough to let me be the Giants in all of the games while he rotated personas to suit the other clubs in the NL, or at least as many of the teams that we were able to get $1.99 plastic batting helmets for from the local toy store. Hence, our version of the NL consisted of the Giants, Mets, Cardinals, Reds, Pirates, Expos, and Dodgers. The Dodgers, however, were given a special exemption from the helmet rule since, as any reasonable Giants fan can attest, it was (and still is) utterly unacceptable to purchase anything with a Dodgers logo. So, when the Dodgers came to town, Kevin would merely wear the Mets helmet backwards.
By way of ballpark tendencies, our backyard definitely favored pitching. Though, in truth, much of that was due to a carefully thought out set of rules. Since the neighbors who lived over our back fence had a rather aggressive and ill-tempered German shepherd (do all neighbors who live next to makeshift backyard baseball fields have ill-tempered pets of one sort or another?), we determined that any ball hit over the back fence (and, thus, needed to be retrieved from the clutches of said German shepherd) would be a triple play. We also determined that any ball hit over the side fence and landing in the adjacent sloping field would most likely be lost in the trees or weeds or be sitting smack dab in the middle of a bunch of poison oak. So, any ball hit over that fence would also be a triple play. But any ball hit on the flat roof of our house was merely an out (we didn't consider climbing up a ladder to get it to be as much of a hazard as the elements over our fences). The hedge that ran along the far edge of the lawn was in play, kind of like the monuments in Yankee Stadium before it was reconfigured. Home runs, triples, and doubles were determined by where on the back fence a ball hit on the fly. We used chalk to mark up the fences (a fact that annoyed my parents no end). Grounders needed to be fielded, as the batter was required to run the bases on grounders. The batter was out if the fielder could hit him with the ball before he reached base. (Though we didn't realize it at the time, hitting a runner with the ball to record an out was a regular practice in "town ball," a 19th-century precursor to baseball. This method was called "soaking" in town ball lexicon. And, man, did my brother and I ever try to soak each other that summer!) Balls and strikes weren't called, but each batter was only allowed three pitches to put the ball in play, and we both agreed that the pitcher must try to throw a strike on each pitch. A swing and a miss or a foul ball on the third pitch constituted a strikeout (no matter what happened on the previous two pitches).
Aside from the 11-2 drubbing and assorted other early season ignominies, I found that my play improved over the course of the summer. I actually started to eke out some wins. Though thinking back on it now, I think my brother was more obvious than the 1919 White Sox in the way he dumped some of those games. Of course, at the time, I believed that I was just starting to play some good ball and that the Giants .500 record that summer was a decent barometer of my efforts. For my brother, though, I think it was probably a matter of getting bored with beating the daylights out of his little brother every game and that it was almost more fun to watch how ridiculously giddy I got when I won.
Armed with a Giants batting helmet (I actually used cardboard and masking tape to craft a couple rather crudely made earflaps) and my souvenir Willie McCovey bat (which I netted at a Giants Bat Day giveaway), I endeavored to try to copy as many of the batting stances of as many of the Giants as I could. I even taught myself how to hit left-handed this way (I'm a natural righty). The results were decidedly mixed. Because I struggled mightily trying to emulate the great Willie McCovey's big, looping swing, Willie Mac suffered through a miserable summer in my backyard (ironically, the real McCovey stumbled through an injury-plagued season in 1972, hitting just .213 in 81 games. I was young enough that I actually felt responsible for his bad season, because of the way I was failing to hit as "him" in our backyard ballgames!). The most unnerving thing for me, though, was the absolute hot-cold performance of my favorite player at the time, Bobby Bonds. I found that I could hit the daylights out of a whiffle ball with his swing. Unfortunately, any time I didn't hit a line drive to the fence for a homer or triple the ball usually had enough lift to carry over the fence and into dreaded "triple play, German shepherd" territory. I spent many a trip outrunning that dog while retrieving a triple play ball on Bobby's behalf.
But, my "secret weapon" that summer was a little-known reserve outfielder named Jim Howarth. Howarth, who spent parts of four seasons with San Francisco (1971-74), hit .217 in 226 at-bats over that stretch. In 1972, he managed to garner 119 of those at-bats and hit his only career homer. However, Howarth's alter ego was devastating in my backyard despite his real-life mediocrity. My strategy was to conserve Howarth's swings (for some reason, I wasn't comfortable with his swing but since he was so good for the team, I endeavored only to use him when I really had to). So, I primarily used him as a pinch-hitter, and he seemed to come through every time. His highlight came during a game with the dreaded Dodgers when he ripped a screaming liner in the hedge and then motored around the bases with the winning run while my brother haplessly looked for the ball.
On the mound, I was a little less precise. Early experiments with pitching left-handed proved disastrous. So, all of the pitchers on the team magically turned right-handed and basically had the same windup and delivery. Since we bought the medium-sized whiffle balls (bigger than a baseball but smaller than a softball), I couldn't really grip the ball properly to throw with my fingers. So, most of my pitches were variations of a palm ball: a big palm curve that arched like a boomerang, a palm knuckler that I threw like I was heaving a shot put, and the palm fastball that must have hit 25 mph when I really reared back and let it loose. Of course, my twelve-year-old brother beat those pitches like a drum. For the record, when he was Willie Stargell, he was deadly.
As the summer drew to a close and our backyard season wound down, we played the final game of the year. The Montreal Expos vs. the Giants for the whole enchilada (or at least a couple of grape sodas in the fridge).
As was customary for our games, my brother continued his bizarre ritual of singing the beginning of the "Star Spangled Banner" at the top of his lungs but never going any further than "the dawn's early light." (Mercifully, he did not render a similarly "enthusiastic" version of "O, Canada," sparing us both the wrath of Canadians everywhere.) With the pregame festivities out of the way, I threw my first pitch to Expos leadoff hitter Ron Hunt. It was a big palm knuckler, and my brother belted it WAY over the fence. I pumped my fist excitedly, inning over.
The score seesawed over the next few innings. And by the top of the 9th, the Giants were clinging to a 9-7 lead. Bobby Bonds had accomplished the rather difficult task of hitting into three triple plays as well as hitting a pair of home runs.
Sensing potential trouble, I summoned hard-throwing Jim Barr from the bullpen. The heater, I reassured myself, would be doom for the Expos' hitters. Unfortunately, my brother nailed the first palm fastball to the fence for a double. He then hit a grounder to my right on the next pitch. I fielded it cleanly and then inexplicably threw it onto the roof of the house as I was trying to "soak" him.
Runners on first and third, no one out.
My brother cupped his hands around his mouth as he made the announcement for the next hitter, "Now batting, center fielder, Boots Day!" Ugh, Boots Day. Day was killing my pitching staff that game, three homers and a double (this was, of course, three more homers than the real Boots Day hit in 1972. In fact, Day would hit a grand total of eight homers in his six-year major league career).
I pondered my pitch selection. He was ripping my fastball to shreds. My curveball wasn't doing much. And then the wind started to pick up. The knuckler!
With the game (and two grape sodas) hanging in the balance, I placed my faith in the wind and its ability to make my knuckler dance around enough to be trouble. It didn't. My brother hit a high looping drive that looked like sure extra bases. But as the ball got up into the wind, it began to carry. With a little luck, it would carry over the fence for a triple play. Instead, it struck the very top of the fence and bounced straight up in the air. As it came back down, it glanced briefly off the top of the fence again before falling into the waiting jaws and claws of our canine nemesis next door.
Game over. The Giants won.
Since it was the last game of the season and since the German shepherd was already in the process of destroying the ball, we didn't bother with trying to hop the fence to retrieve it.
Since I won the game and was feeling fairly benevolent, I gave my brother one of the grape sodas. As we sat down in the shade and started to drink them, Kevin remarked, "Man, Boots Day stinks."
Nah, he doesn't. To this day, any time I hear the name "Boots Day" I am reminded of the most satisfying can of grape soda I've ever had.