For more than 50 years, late August has always opened the vault of personal memories. Marking not just the end of summer, but the end of one more season of youth baseball. Starting in 1958 as a player, full of optimism if not much talent, then on through the ‘90s when I had the pure pleasure of teaching my sons, Chris and Zack, and hundreds of other kids the joy of baseball.
And now that they’re older, with lives of their own, for me this time of year has become an annual exercise in watching the Little League World Series, although it must be admitted with an equal mix of nostalgia and distaste, always asking myself the question whether it’s right and fair to put 12 and 13 year olds in front of a national audience, knowing that at the end of the game tears from the losing side will be what the cameras capture most.
Anyone who’s ever played the game, no matter what that game may have been, knows the inevitability of loss. A lesson first learned in the summer of 1965, as a 15-year-old left-handed pitcher for the Sherman Oaks American Babe Ruth League All-Stars, winning our way into the Championship Game, on a hot August night in Stockton, California. The record will show that in front of a crowd of several thousand, I pitched 10 innings, gave up two hits and struck out 18. It was the best game I ever pitched. But because of tournament rules, I had to leave after 10 innings, in a scoreless tie.
I watched from the dugout in the 11th, as a couple of walks, an error and a bloop hit combined to defeat us, 1-0. The loss hurt, more than any to that point in my life could have. We were the better team. And the better team is supposed to win, right?
A couple weeks later, the Dodgers hosted our team and our families to a game against the Chicago Cubs. We stood, as teams are supposed to do, win or lose, as one, when our names were flashed on the scoreboard in left field, with the gentle voice of Vin Scully commemorating the moment in the background. It was September 9, 1965.
Sandy Koufax pitched for the Dodgers. Another left-hander with a far less glorious resume, named Bob Hendley, pitched for the Cubs. Hendley was what was referred to in those days as a “Journeyman”, having toiled for several teams and mostly, without distinction.
I watched as Hendley pitched the game of his life, giving up only one hit, an opposite field, broken bat single by Lou Johnson. He lost, 1-0, just as we had. It was the night Koufax pitched his perfect game.
This life-lesson became the preface in my book, “101 Things You Can Teach Your Kids About Baseball”, which I wrote 30 years later, and which eventually became the #2 Best-Seller of its type on Amazon, selling almost 25,000 copies, worldwide.
Fast-forward to this week and the three minute, thirty eight second life-lesson a volunteer coach named Dave Belisle taught his Rhode Island kids, after they lost 8-7, ending their hopes of winning the Little League World Series. A snapshot in time meant to be captured in the minds and in the hearts of anyone who ever tried to teach young people the lessons that only sports can teach. Lessons about pride. About persevering. About friendship. And about memories that will last a lifetime.