We were out for a family walk the other day when Emily happened upon a battered and bruised baseball that was abandoned in the middle of the street. She picked it up and we tossed it back and forth for the duration of our stroll. Upon arriving at home, the ball found its way to a countertop that was in perfect proximity to a nearby ballpoint pen. Seizing the opportunity, I did what every red-blooded American man-child would do:
I autographed it.
Yep, a little blurry, but you can see I signed it right on the sweet spot. Just like the professionals do.
I got up this morning, picked up the ball to examine my handiwork and I was instantly reminded of two other balls that are sitting out in the garage. Balls of long ago, but both featuring glorious memories and a little heartache.
Here they are:
Both are well-worn and feature the distinctive red dirt that you commonly see on an actual baseball diamond.
These are the two home run balls from my brief Little League career.
May 13, 1979: The ball on the left features the following inscription: Donnie Fulton’s 1st Home Run. Mother’s Day, May 13th, 1979. It was written by my Dad and it has faded badly over the years (before my buddy Mike got me the fancy ball cubes to fight-off nature), however I can clearly read it and recall the day fondly.
The things that stand out about that particular day are this:
1) My Mom was working in the Snack Shack that day and did not see me hit the home run. It is a bit strange to think that the Moms were still slaving away cooking hot dogs, pizza and Frito boats on the day that we honor them, yet there they were. I know someone ran over to the window to let Dorothy know that Donnie had hit a homer, and I believe she gave the kid a slushy for free.
2) I hit the home run off of a kid named Lawrence Villa. This kid was scary, as he could throw hard and had a nasty curve ball. I don’t recall getting many hits off Lawrence, but on this particular day I got good aluminum on one of his fastballs and hit a line drive to right-center field. I got to first base just as the ball cleared the fence and then I essentially floated around the bases and received my hero’s welcome at home plate.
3) The next batter, Ernie Villareal, followed my home run with one of his own, so I had about 30 seconds to savor my moment before I too got to run out and jump up and down to welcome Ernie home. I think I still had my batting helmet on. It was a great moment – we had gone back-to-back on Lawrence Villa; the toughest pitcher in the league!
4) We lost the game, 3-2. Our homers were the only runs that we scored on this day.
I remember being bummed about losing, but excited to be handed the home run ball with the written narrative from my Dad. I suppose the perfect ending had me slamming a two-run walk-off bomb and the team carrying my Mom around the field in victory, but on this day I had to settle for being on the front end of back-to-back homers while my Mom was passing out foul ball tokens and serving up french fries. Surely there would be a lot more home runs, and some victories to go along with them, and perhaps they would occur on one of Dorothy’s days off from the Snack Shack…
June 2, 1979: The ball on the right features some darker, less faded ink. The glorious inscription reads: Donnie Fulton’s 1st Grand Slam Home Run. June 2, 1979. Once again this was written by dear old Dad, and I truly love his optimism, as the notation of my first grand slam was surely a sign of things to come.
As in, many, numerous, multiple grand slams. Donnie Fulton was gonna step to the plate with the bases juiced many more times during his illustrious baseball career and there was little doubt that more than half the time he would be circling the bases behind three other runners who would greet him at home following another grand slam!
Or so that’s how my mind reads it.
1) Unlike the Lawrence Villa game, we absolutely crushed the Braves on this day. We killed them. No doubt about it. I was bringing home a home run ball from a victory on that day.
2) I hit the grand slam off a grade school buddy named Mike Murphy. Mike was a really nice guy, a bit nerdy, but we all were a little nerdy back in the day (some of us still are). Mike served up a nice slow/fastball right down the middle and I whacked this thing way over the left field fence. No doubt about it.
3) As I settled into my home run trot (this was, after all my second clout in three weeks!) I hit second base in the “zone” that all of us heavy hitters get into as they slowly jog around the bases following their homers, when all of the sudden Mike Murphy was running towards me with a huge grin on his face. So happy for me was Mike Murphy that he ran off the pitcher’s mound and gave me a big hug between second and third. Who was I to turn down an awkward hug?
4) I actually had a chance to make a little history and hit a second grand slam in the game. In the same inning! As I mentioned, we really crushed Murphy and his team on this day, and 25 minutes after my slam had cleared the fence I had the opportunity to come up to the plate again with the bases full of runners. Trust me when I tell you that all I could think about was getting my photo and exploits in Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd” section.
I’d already written it in my head as I strolled to the plate:
Donnie Fulton, Torrance, Ca, 12. Fulton clubbed not one, but two grand slam home runs in his team’s victory on June 2nd – both coming in the same inning. Upon learning of Fulton’s exploits, one local area scout is already projecting a Hall of Fame professional career for the youngster, and the Los Angeles Dodgers are appealing to the baseball commissioner to see about drafting him before high school.
Oh yeah. I was dreaming.
By the time I came to the plate with the bases full and two outs, the Braves had gone through a conga-line of pitchers, and now standing on the hill was little, tiny Matt Waddell. Two years younger and seemingly overmatched in our league, this little guy actually appeared frightened of me as he looked in for a sign from his catcher.
The question at this point wasn’t if I was going to hit another grand slam, but just how far I was going to hit Matt’s feeble offering.
I was going to hit this thing to Lomita.
I was never going to see the ball again.
The “Faces in the Crowd” feature would make mention of the ball being the longest home run hit in the history of Little League baseball!
I’ll spare you the dramatics.
Matt Waddell – teeny, tiny Matt Waddell – struck me out on three straight pitches.
I recall laughing on my way back to the dugout, but the truth be told I was a bit crushed. My chance at glory, the sickeningly sweet write-up in “Faces in the Crowd” and my lucrative contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers had all been thwarted with three soft tosses from the miniscule Matt Waddell.
Much later in life I happened to bump into Matt Waddell and his family in the hallway at our new church. He was no longer a little guy but now a grown man, and as he firmly gripped my hand and uttered the name “Donnie” I was immediately taken back to our fateful encounter. And I reminded him about it. He pretended not to recall the events, but something tells me that somewhere in a shoebox, tucked away in a dark corner of his closet is a ball inscribed with the following: June 2, 1979: This is the ball used to strike out “Slugging” Donnie Fulton on 3 pitches!
Still, I’d hit a grand slam and it had been a great day. But I’d stuck out! Shut up. My team – the Dodgers (but we wore red uniforms!) – had won the game and we were on our way to the playoffs (where we would be crushed by the Cubs in two straight), and I now had a nice collection of home run balls with my Dad’s writing on them.
They were the only two I’d hit.
I soured on the playing organized baseball after that year of Little League and I didn’t advance to the Seniors with the rest of my friends. I didn’t play high school baseball and I have some regrets about that, because baseball is the sport I’d excelled at the most. Later in life I played some adult league baseball. Pretty much hot, dusty Sunday afternoons on baseball fields that needed a lot of work, but I did enjoy playing again and I was able to hit a few grown up homers.
But those homers and memories are nothing like the ones from Little League.
Mom, Dad, the Snack Shack, Lawrence Villa, Ernie Villareal and Mike Murphy. The “red” Dodgers.
Oh, and Matt Waddell, who I’m happy today to call friend and brother in Christ.
Matt – I’d like a rematch. Next year is the 35th anniversary of our epic three-pitch encounter. How about we gather the families, our mitts, a bat and a few balls.
A chance for revenge? Nah, let’s let the kids do the hitting.
They’re the future entries for “Faces in the Crowd.”