Isaac and the fastball©

By Jerry D. Haight

The dog days of summer were long past and the signs of fall hung heavy in the air. The little league season was drawing to a close. The Pilots had played eleven games and had won nine. This was the clincher . . . a must win. The score was 5 to 4 Pilots at the bottom of the seventh, the last inning. The Padres had a man. . err boy on second and two outs against them. Slugger was at bat. The count was three and two.

When the season started I was assigned to the Pilots as coach. Coming with the assignment were twelve boys including my son, Bill. I came to know the multitude of personalities of each boy and had to adjust for each at every practice or game. Compounding the mix was the fact that most of the boys had two parents, each with their own variable personalities and agenda.  The situation became quite complex as the mix grew to well … you can do the math.

Over time, most of the boys’ names became lost from memory except for Bill, of course, and a few others like Eddie Eng. Eddie pitched a hardball so hard that it broke two bones in my fingers when I wormed him up at practice one evening. I remember him each time the weather changes and my fingers ache. Then there was Ean who was the one exception to the personality rule. He was always predictable, steady and cooperative. Ean had magnets in his glove that just seemed to attract any ball thrown near him.

I will never forget Isaac Williams. Isaac showed up the third week of practice. He reminded me of a humming bird; tiny, energetic a bit hard to contain. He would never pass the height test at any amusement park. When the wind blew, I felt like putting rocks in his pocket to keep him from blowing away. But underneath, Isaac had a heart for baseball. He loved the game and could recite the statistics of most of the professional players of the time. Isaac also had a dedicated dad and mom that promoted him.

After Isaac’s first practice, Mr. Williams told me how well Isaac could pitch. I thanked him for the information. Then he told me that he really thought Isaac should be our pitcher. Again, I thanked him for the input. I told Mr. Williams that I could use an assistant coach. Mr. Williams told me his work would not allow such a commitment. Once again, I thanked him. I know Mr. Williams loved his son, Isaac and I admired him for his support. Mr. and Mrs. Williams were both at every game and sat in the very same spot. But every time our team was in the field, I could feel the William’s eyes telling me telepathy Isaac should be our pitcher.  

I remember a call one night from Mr. Williams. His call was like the many dozens or so I received during my coaching tenor. Williams wanted to discuss our roster and give me some pointers. I knew we would get around to Isaac sooner or later. Sure enough, he asked why I did not have Isaac pitching. I simply replied because I am the coach.

From the standpoint of most parents on the team, the team pecking order went pitcher, catcher, 1st baseman, 2nd, shortstop, 3rd  baseman, left fielder, center fielder and right fielder. The fielder positions, in the parent’s mind at least, were relegated to the unskilled, uninterested or the unenthusiastic. While it was true that early in the season, batting skills were often times lacking, giving the fielders little action, later on, the fielders’ importance would increase as batting got better. As coach, I got inundated with calls from parents whose kid’s position was too far down the pecking order; especially those in the outfield. These calls, some more diplomatic than others, always inferred that there was favoritism involved. This was especially the case when I assigned Isaac left field. Since Isaac was the only black kid on the team, I felt there was even more inference in Mr. Williams’ comments.

Our practices included basic skills like throwing, catching and hitting. We practiced strategy like relay throwing from the outfield in. Our team’s biggest nemesis was wild throws. I learned early on that accuracy diminished in direct proportion to distance.

Wild throws invariably result in additional bases or runs. So I preached and we practiced. When throwing a ball, our team was taught to cock the hand with the ball over the ear and point the throw with the opposite hand, outstretched. I also taught that if you believe it, you can achieve it.

Now with Slugger at bat; Bill pitching, Ean at first base and Isaac deep in left field, I felt the burning fire of criticism from the Williams. Slugger swung at the next pitch, he connected with a pop fly out of play to the right. Then with the next pitch, Slugger swung again and connected for another pop fly. This time to the left, out of play.  On the following pitch, there was a loud metallic twang as bat met ball. Slugger had hit the ball squarely with all his might. The ball soared down the third base line about 35 feet in the air. Its trajectory probably would take it beyond the boundary which would be an automatic two-run homer. The ball hit the ground just inside the foul line as Slugger was a third of the way to first base. The boy on second was just about to third and his coach was already urging him home.

Isaac met the speeding ball deep in left field, about five feet from the boundary.  He cocked his left arm over his shoulder and extended his right arm to  . .  . Oh my gosh, he is going to throw the ball to first. Isaac was taught to throw the ball to the third baseman who would relay the ball to the catcher and, hopefully he would tag the runner for the third and final game winning out. But now, all was in doubt. My heart was in my throat as Isaac hurled the ball. The crowd gasped in unbelief then an eerie silence.  I could feel the wrath of the Williams coming my way. I could sense the glee arising from the coach of the Padres as he saw victory sucked from the jaws of defeat. But wait, a cloud of dust and an echoing thunk erupted at first base as Slugger stepped on Ean’s foot which was firmly planted on the base. Deeply embedded in Ean’s glove was the glistening white ball that just moments ago had left Isaac’s hand.  No one could believe what we just witnessed. Slugger was out at first. Isaac believed he could hurl the ball to first and, indeed, he achieved it.

I couldn’t help meeting eyeball to eyeball with the Williams.  Keeping my face as deadpan as possible I gave them a two thumbs up sign which was returned immediately. As clear as I remember Isaac, so too, I remember the wide grin on two very proud parents who dearly loved their son.