By Jim Tortolano/Orange County Tribune
The young baseball season always brings not just a desire to look forward to what may come, but also a yearning to gaze back at classic moments on the diamond.
At a time when all teams can still dream about World Series glory in the fall we sometimes reflect on the deeds of the past that still stick in our memories, to which we compare what’s unfolding in front of us.
What were the most amazing plays ever on the diamond? Was it the Vic Wertz catch by Willie Mays in the far deepest stretches of Cleveland Memorial Stadium in 1954? How about Babe Ruth “calling his shot” in hitting a home run against the Chicago Cubs in 1932?
More recent heroics would include a nearly-crippled Kirk Gibson homering for the Dodgers in the 1988 World Series against the Oakland A’s. And, for the contrarians in the stands, how about “Marvelous” Marv Throneberry playing pathetic first base – whoops! – for the “Amazing” Mets of 1962 who, in losing 120 games, are considered to be the worst team in Major League Baseball history.
I’ve got a personal nomination that never made the papers or Sports Center. The main character qualifies only for the Hall of Fame in the category of Class Act.
It’s 1967 at Lampson (now Ralston) Intermediate School in Garden Grove. A very ordinary schoolboy event is taking place: a softball game in a physical education class.
One team is ahead 10-0 in the final inning, but what makes this contest worth noting is that the pitcher, Dan Bell, is throwing a perfect game. If you’ve ever played that variation on baseball, you know how hard it is in slow-pitch – where you are practically inviting the hitter to swing at a fast delivery – to keep the other team from reaching base via a hit, a walk or an error.
The “wild card” in this tale is that My Team (the one winning) was one player short. As was the common practice in such circumstances, one player from the Other Team volunteered (or was conscripted) into playing catcher. In this case it was Mike Wineman.
With only minutes left before the bell would end the game, the batter – whose name is lost in the mists of middle school mythology – managed to boink off a low little ground ball that crawled just a foot or two past the plate.
Mike’s team rose in excitement. Clearly their comrade would let that doinker just rest there in the beat-up grass, giving the underdogs the satisfaction of at least breaking up a “perfect game.”
That’s what we all expected, but our temporary backstop had a permanent regard for the integrity of the sport. Faster than Will Smith (the current all-star Dodger catcher), he lunged forward, threw an off-balance just-in-time strike to the first baseman. Out!
The bell went off to the accompaniment of the verbal abuse – some of it not printable here – piled on Mike for not tanking despite the sure knowledge that his teammates would regard him as a diamond Benedict Arnold.
There’s a lot I don’t remember about eighth grade, including some of my French and just about all of my math. But I can still see in my mind’s eye the most amazing play I ever saw with a bat and a ball, one in which the right thing to do counted more than anything else.