GAYS MILL - Regular readers of my column know that I am not into sports. I’m not even a casual observer, don’t have favorite teams or players, just not in tune with what is a big part of life to so many others.
As a kid I did play at sports in pick-up baseball games such as over the line, which could be played with just a handful of friends. My younger brother Bill and I would occasionally shoot baskets in the driveway at a loosely attached net-less hoop. We also devised a game the two of us could play using a whiffle ball in front of a garage door, one pitching, the other one at bat. Without the modern devices kids have today and with only 3 TV channels available, this is how we spent our time.
In elementary school Bill and I were both on a Little League team, the Oilers, sponsored by Union 76 Oil Company. That was a lot of fun. I was the team pitcher until I got too old - I think I turned 10. So brother Bill became the pitcher and I moved over to 3rd base. One day at one of our periodic and random practices a friend of one of the dads showed up to give us a few pointers. He was a scout for a major league team and we were all in awe of this guy who was involved in professional sports. The big lesson he left us with was: when the ball is hit to you, know what you’re going to do with it. Sounds logical, I know, but at that level it wasn’t uncommon for some right fielder to have a ball hit to him and then, and only then, think about where he should throw it, listen to what the crowd and the coach were yelling at him, and then make a decision.
There was a minor league baseball team in Los Angeles that we used to watch on TV. The team name escapes me now but they had a player that was a favorite of mine: Big Steve Bilko. Bilko played first base, was built like Babe Ruth, and like Ruth, was quite a slugger. In an after-game interview one time he gave “all those Little Leaguers out there” some advice, which we of course took seriously. “Stay on your toes out there” was the tip. Later, maybe that same day, Dad, Bill and I went over to the nearby elementary school for some batting practice. Dad, not very diplomatically, told me afterwards something like, “John you look like a horse’s patoot standing on tip toe up there trying to hit the ball.” That must have been when I started taking people seriously but not necessarily literally.
Once, for my birthday, Dad and a neighbor took their kids to a ball game to see the great Steve Bilko. What I remember about that experience was standing up on my seat to get a better view. Bad move. It was one of those stadium seats that fold down towards the back. My feet slipped through the crack and there I was in the equivalent of a bear trap….with lots of witnesses around. It took some group effort to extricate me from the predicament. No harm done, except to my pride. I’ve often wondered if that affected my aversion to sports. Probably not.Later on in high school I did go out for track my freshman year. I was a triple non-threat in three unlikely events: high jump, low hurdles, and shot put. No ribbons and no trophies, but I enjoyed going to the meets. Soon I started working on FFA projects and activities and got a part-time job at a dairy and never found time to get involved in school sports.