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THE DUST OF THE FIELDS BEHIND US

The Winning Run
By Tom Dustman

The bases were not quite loaded but the winning run was at the plate. And the winning run was me. When you're a kid, you dream about these moments. You're part of the Yankees, the Dodgers, or in my case, at that particular time in space, the Jaycees. During the summer of 1960, we had it all—pitching, hitting, and great coaches—and we'd won every game we'd played that season. Our head coach was my dentist, Doc Saunier, a big man with a voice to match, and the ability to inspire. "Come on, Tommy baby, you can do it," he'd shout, and when you heard that, you could.

I was the catcher and batted fourth, cleanup. That season I got a hit in every game, sometimes two or three, and even a few home runs. I don't know why I was that kind of hitter; I was physically smaller than most of the other guys and definitely weighed the least of anybody. I heard unflattering comments all the time that poked fun at how thin I was, and they hurt. "Don't turn sideways Tom, you'll disappear" was one. "Hey, Barney (after Barney Fife, the nervous, skinny deputy on The Andy Griffith Show, who was the farthest thing from what I wanted to be), your Adam's apple is bigger than you are" was another. So I learned to dress bigger—two pairs of socks, hip pads for sliding into bases, extra undershirts. I even started walking and running bigger, too, swaggering out of the dugout, lumbering around the bases. It's amazing the things you do as a kid to try to be what you are not. In spite of all that, I still batted fourth, cleanup.

There was no fence at the fairgrounds in Van Wert, Ohio. If you belted one over the outfielders' heads, the ball eventually rolled across the road and you kept running until Doc said, "You're in there, Tommy." It was the last inning in the last game of the season, and we were behind by two runs. Whichever team won would be league champions. Their pitcher, Willie Williams, was the best there was; we hadn't hit him all day. And yet, almost like a dream, I had this irresistible feeling that somehow I would soon be standing at the plate with the game and the entire season riding completely on my nervous, skinny shoulders. The last player in the lineup struck out, and then so did the first. Two outs. It was almost over. But suddenly Mark Steinmetz got a walk and almost as quickly stole second base. Then, Donny Poling got a hit and just like that, the horror of my dream came true. Two outs, two men on, and the winning run, me, Mr. Cleanup, Barney Fife, was up to bat.

"Time," bellowed Doc Saunier. What? Time? Doc came over to the home plate umpire and said something I couldn't understand. Suddenly, Willie Williams was walking off the pitcher's mound. By Pony League regulations it seemed Willie had pitched too many innings. Young boys were protected from over-pitching by limiting the number of innings they could throw. And Doc had waited until just the right moment to bring up the rules. So out went Willie and in came a replacement. I took the first pitch for strike one. The second pitch was a fastball that I fouled off for strike two. Would it all end like this, three strikes and you're out? "Skinny Tom Strikes Out to Lose Season Finale." Then, here it came, big as the moon; the pitch of my dreams slowly floating into the strike zone, and instinct took over. No more Barney Fife; just me and the ball and the moment every kid dreams about. I swung for the fence, or in this case, the road.

The next day the paper read, "Jaycees Win Pony League Title! . . . Game Under Protest." What? Protest? What did that mean? I hit the greatest home run of my life and somebody was going to take it all back? It seems their coach did a little research, too, and found out that ol' Willie had another half-inning coming to him. The director of the league ruled that the game was to be played again. Again? Well, actually, not the entire game, but the situation. What did that mean? It meant that Mark was to be on third base and Donny at first, with me, once again, at bat. But this time I would be facing the invincible Willie Williams.

Strike one! Strike two! No, not this soon—please! I had savored the first win so much; my demons were slain. I had earned respect and the teasing had stopped. I was a hero; skinny was now cool.  I couldn't go back. Then came Willie's next pitch and again, instinct took over. Whack! I hit the ball, hard. Thank God I hadn't missed it. This time the ball seemed to fly even farther, higher too, and I could hardly believe my incredible fortune. The headlines would now read, "Dustman Does It Again!" Was I good or what? I mean, how many kids could pull that off twice? All that pressure and still two big home runs!

Well, not quite. Dizzy Dean used to call 'em "long outs." You know, the left fielder goes back to the fence, leaps high, and "snatches victory from the jaws of defeat." In this case it was Jim Long, and he settled under my long, hopeful flyball for the final out. And just like that it was all over.

Forty-eight summers later I can't help but think how being thin would be better now. What seems important now didn't matter back then, and what seemed important then probably doesn't matter now. It's amazing how so much changes in our lives as time rounds the bases.

—EFQ

TOM DUSTMAN is professor of music at Long Beach City College in Long Beach, California. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. He is also founder/singer/artistic director for the vocal group, Beachfront Property, which tours nationally.

© 2008 Tom Dustman

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