Wayne Michael DeHart (May, 1996)
The sound of a Louisville Slugger ripping the crap out of a grass-stained official Novice League baseball was followed quickly by loud, anxious shouts aimed in his direction. Not so much from spectators in the bleachers because there were only 17 spectators and no bleachers, but rather from his teammates on the field and on the team’s far-off wooden bench. But no voice was louder or more urgent than that of his coach, who began running alongside the first base line like a lynx in heat.
Aghast at the velocity of the line drive as it sizzled its way toward the right field corner, the other guys on his team knew trouble was a-coming, and at a high rate of speed.
They were just one out away from their biggest win of the summer (okay, their first win of the summer) and were clinging to a one-run lead with two outs and two runners on base. The Novice League, made up of 9-11 yr.-olds who were deemed “not ready” at the annual Little League tryouts, played 5-inning games and this was the bottom of the 5th so you see it was a somewhat significant situation within that limited environment.
Sammy had been placed in right field for reasons known to all red-blooded Americans of the late 1950’s familiar with the intricacies and traditions of the game of baseball.
Right field, it was said, was for losers.
Right field was for weaklings who wore thick glasses and couldn’t catch a cold.
Right field meant his chances of screwing up the outcome of the game would be minimized because most good hitters batted right-handed and had yet to learn the fine art of hitting to the opposite field. The not-so-good hitters, well, they often DID hit to the opposite field but only because they swung the bat so late or so slowly that even if contact was made, it was made after three-quarters of the ball had passed them by and the result was a ball that dribbled a few feet in any of several directions, sometimes even onto the playing field. Rarely did they get it to the outfield, and on those occasions the batter was often so happy and surprised that he was likely still at home plate yelling “I hit it! , I hit it!” when he was thrown out at first base, even by the worst of Novice League outfielders – like Sammy.
With any luck, on any given day, there would be a strong wind blowing from right-to-left at game time and fly balls would drift harmlessly into center field. Alas, on this day, unfortunately, the air was still but it would not have mattered anyway, because this ball was a screaming, vicious, missile that would have sliced through the strongest of gales as it surged defiantly toward the depths of the right field corner. It was smashed, I tell you. Whizzed. Scorched. Flaming fast and fading further and further to Sammy’s left as it traveled. To the trepidation of he and his teammates, this ball was absolutely not going to find its way into center field.
Center field, you see, was for winners.
Center field was for cool guys – athletic kids (or, in the case of the Novice League, semi-almost-athletic kids). Guys who could run faster than right-fielders, guys who were destined to get the girls the right-fielders couldn’t, wouldn’t, shouldn’t, when they got to high school. More importantly, at most levels, they could catch a baseball, hit a baseball and even throw a baseball all the way back into the infield.
Center fielders drank milk, ate vegetables and could spit almost 10 feet if they wanted to. Their uniforms and caps fit better, and they weren’t scared of nuthin’. In short, they were destined to have life by the baseballs.
Back to Sammy and a Saturday in the Summer of ‘59.
To the utter amazement of his teammates, he was running, really running, at full stride into the corner near the right-field line, his glove outstretched, looking for all the world like Jackie Jensen, the Red Sox right-fielder he revered, racing into the very same corner at Fenway Park to save a game against the demonic Yankees. He looked determined. He looked confident. He looked like – a center fielder!
The ball began to sink swiftly into the gaping jaws of that God-forsaken corner. All 17 spectators alternately shrieked and gasped as they watched the wonder of it all. The runners were circling the bases at breakneck speed. The setting sun tried its best to blind him, but his eyes remained steadfastly focused on the blurry sphere.
Sammy’s world hung in the balance.
He left his feet on a dead run and dove for that nasty bitch of a ball, still knowing deep inside he was not likely to catch it, being a right fielder and all. He closed his eyes as his belly bounced along the hard ground, like an airplane passenger might do during a rough landing. He came to a stop. The sounds from the spectators came to a stop. He expected his baseball career, if not his world, was about to do the same.
The brief moment of silence was obnoxiously eerie.
Then, cheers erupted from his teammates. The baserunners had stopped in their tracks, looking somber and subdued. His coach, who had also never stopped running, was now only feet away, hopping up and down like a rabid rabbit, celebrating the joy of life and baseball. The spectators made an array of sounds that, in the moment, just didn’t matter.
The boy had landed face down and hadn’t even felt the impact of the ball tearing into the webbing of his glove. He was looking back at his teammates who were going absolutely friggin’ nuts celebrating this greatest of all moments. It must have been the catch of the year in New Hampshire Novice League baseball, maybe even Little League baseball. He was a hero for sure, still lying face down but certain he would soon be lifted up and carried off the field. Hey, maybe the coach would even put him in center field for the next game!
Sammy reached into his glove for that battered but beautiful baseball so that he could hold it in the air for all to see before they carried him off the field.
It wasn’t there.
It had never been there.
“FOUL BALL”, proclaimed the umpire.
His coach retrieved the ball and happily ran it back in to the pitcher. The runners went back to their bases. His teammates got back into position. He got up slowly and trudged back to that spot from whence he came, head down, glory lost. He tugged on his cap, looked around, and muttered, “baseball sucks”.
Across America on that 27th day of June, 1959, hundreds of anonymous, pre-teen right fielders nodded in silent agreement, squinted in through thick glasses at the opposing batter, and prayed fervently that the next ball would be hit to center field.
Ah, sweet kinship!
- Writer’s note: In the years to come, playing center field would be exalted in song by one John Fogerty in 1984 (“Centerfield”) and playing right field would be lamented in much the same way as it was when Sammy was 10, albeit this particular time with a significantly happier ending, by Mr. Willy Welch in 1982 (“Playing Right Field”, later sung by Peter, Paul & Mary).
Writer’s Note: ( March 29, 2021: )
I HAD to mention Jackie Jensen in this story that took place in June of 1959. He WAS the Red Sox right-fielder and had won the AL MVP award the year before, in the 1958 season. But there was a far more personal reason to acknowledge him in this story.
On Saturday, September 26th, 1959, Jensen hit his 28th home run of the season in the bottom of the 11th inning against the Washington Senators to win the next-to-last game of the season. The next morning, my parents, my brother, and I went to early Mass, then piled into the car for our first ever visit to Fenway Park. I was going to actually watch Jackie Jensen play, in person. It didn’t matter that both teams had losing records. As always after Mass, I picked up the Sunday paper from the guy in front of St. Joseph’s Church, and off we went.
In the back seat, I went right to the sports page to read about the game the day before and the “preview” to the game to be played that day. And, right out of the gate, just a couple of miles into the drive south to Boston, I was crushed. Just like that line drive to right field had been in the story. I think I muttered “baseball sucks” that day too.
As revealed in the newspaper story, Jackie Jensen had announced his retirement from baseball sometime in the early evening hours of Saturday, leaving the ultimate final baseball play – a walk-off home run, as his legacy. He was scheduled to drive home to California Sunday morning. So he was leaving Boston as I would be arriving. CRAP times 100.
If the reader thought Sammy had a rough day on June 27, 1959, it should be stated that he was facing a far worse day exactly three months later, on September 27, 1959. The special day he had been looking forward to for months had been hiJACKed by his own hero. “Who retires with one game to go?”, I’m sure I wailed a few dozen times on the way down. Nevertheless, it was the Red Sox, and Fenway Park, and it was still very special when we got to the game. Coming out of the tunnel and seeing that still-green September grass and The Wall in person for the first time was a sight I will never forget. Jackie Jensen was on his way home, and here I was, a fellow right-fielder, sitting at Fenway and rooting for his Red Sox.
Gene Stephens played right for the Sox in the game and they finished the season with a 6-2 win, led by, get this, my BROTHER’s favorite Sox player at the time, Don Buddin, who he got to see hit a 3-run homer. I also got to see Ted Williams play in person that day, and he got a couple of hits.
Sammy eventually got over the non-catch, and I eventually got over missing watching Jackie Jensen play baseball by one day. Life, it seems, really does go on.
(Jensen twice made short, unsuccessful attempts at a comeback after skipping the 1960 season. Likely he regretted it over the years. He died prematurely from a heart attack in 1982 at the young age of 55. RIP, my boyhood hero …)
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