Friday, July 8, 2011

The Chance of a Lifetime

Before the Minnesota Twins were the Minnesota Twins, they were the Washington Senators (Nationals). They were a pathetic team through most of their last two decades in Washington, D.C. But, at some apparently unrecorded point in the late 1940s, they must have contracted with the great Hall of Famer, Roger Hornsby, to head up a team of scouts to scour the nation for talent that could reverse their fortunes.

It is hard to believe that they had heard of a twelve year-old boy in Clinton, Illinois, enamored with Stan Musial, and determined to become the right-hand hitting version of the great man. But, lo, the scouts arrived in town during the summer of 1948, give or take a year. At first they seemed to be interested in checking out the talent of the local adult baseball team, watching the warm-up before their afternoon game and then observing the actual game. Rumors were circulated that the young shortstop on the Clinton team impressed them. Whether that ever resulted in the offer of a contract I never heard.

But eventually the scouts turned to the real business of their mission, to spot and sign that twelve year-old Musial wannabe they had undoubtedly heard of. They set up a “clinic” at the ball diamond beside Webster Elementary School for boys ranging from eight to twelve years old. It consisted of allowing all comers to have three swings of the bat at a pitch thrown by one of the scouts.

I don’t recall the process by which the batting order was determined. But I do remember the anticipation. Roger Hornsby was (and still is) an all-time batting champion, with a career batting average over .358, having batted over .400 three seasons of his career, led the National League in hitting six consecutive seasons, seven in all, with the record setting average of .424 in the 1924 season. Never mind that after his playing career he nearly disappeared into the minor leagues, managing unsuccessfully in many places. There was little doubt that his keen eye could spot a talent when he saw it.

Unbelievably, my turn(s) at bat came with the great Hornsby serving up pitches from the mound. I had watched those before me produce a succession of dribbles, bloopers, pop-ups, foul tips, strike-outs, and an occasional fly ball to the outfield. Nothing like the towering drive I intended to deliver, had preceded me.

Hornsby waved me to the plate. I thought I saw a nod of recognition, an unspoken but clearly intended acknowledgement that this was the moment he had come to Clinton for. I stepped into the batter’s box and took my practice swings, waiting for his first pitch. It came in straight and soft as had all the others. A cinch to paste that baby and send it out of sight. But it was not to be. Somehow it slipped by my bat and into the catcher’s mitt.

Not to worry. I needed only one more pitch to prove my point. It came in predictably on the same trajectory as the previous one and ended in the same place after barely ticking my bat as it passed by.

I was somewhat shaken but knew that it took only one good swing to wipe from Hornsby’s memory those first two whiffs. The ball was on the way. I stepped into it and gave it all I had. I watched in unbelief as it left my bat, soaring into the air down the first base line. In dismay I saw the catcher flash by me and make a diving catch, in foul territory barely ten feet from where the ball had left my bat.

I looked at Hornsby, fully expecting him to offer me at least one more swing. But that look of recognition had shifted to the next boy in line. I sensed that it was time for me to consider an alternate career.

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