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Swing at a Couple - A Story About Taking Chances

Benjy (#1) at bat while Coach Tim looks on.

Baseball was never my game. Who knew which base to throw the ball to? 3 strikes, 4 balls, 3 outs, 9 innings … it all felt like a math test, and I stunk at math. Hockey suited me better. Chase the puck around and try to whack it into the net until the whistle blows. Sure, there were “offsides'' and “icing” to consider, but I was never concerned about that as a little kid. None of the guys on my “Tiny Tots'' league team were, and the coaches kept it loose. We just scored as many goals as possible, then ate hotdogs. When I was 11, I started boxing, and that was even more to the point. Punch the other guy and try not to get punched. The finer details of pugilism would come to me later, as a teenager. By then I was facing dangerous competition who genuinely wanted to hurt me and I needed to step up my skill set to avoid being concussed. Competitive sports taught me a lot about life, mostly things I didn’t even realize until I was well past my athletic peak, looking back with a sentimental mix of pride and regret. There’s a highlight reel in my mind that still plays, in vivid detail with surround sound, everything from soccer games at recess, to goals scored on the ice, to catches made in the ballpark, to punches landed in the ring. There’s a blooper reel, too, featuring pucks in the balls, broken noses, and head-first slides through dog shit.

My big brother, Tim, was good at baseball. Most things he did, I did, or tried to anyway, so I joined the local league when I was 8. For 3 years in a row, I was on a team called the Cardinals. The league supplied our red jerseys and hats, but we wore our own pants and runners. Back in the 70s things were pretty basic, equipment wise. None of the expensive, endorsed gear kids covet these days. If you had a glove, you were pretty much good to go. I was the smallest kid on the team, so I automatically got the number “1” on the back of my jersey every year, as the sizes went from “1”, the smallest, up to “15” for the team Big Boy. I chose to be a catcher because it seemed kind of like being a goalie in hockey. I was all right at catching the pitches, but when guys were running around the bases, I had no clue where to throw the ball. Coaches yelled out things like, “play’s to second, second base!” but I never really thought beyond catching the next pitch. As far as hitting went, I was so short that I almost always got walked, so I would generally hunch down as low as possible until the ump said, “ball 4!” then toss the bat aside and trot to first base. I figured they were going to walk me anyway, so why bother swinging? I would have much rather been at home watching The Carol Burnett Show on TV, or listening to my Elvis Aloha from Hawaii record, or up in my bedroom reading Mad Magazine. But Tim played baseball, so I did, too.

One game, in my final season, my coach called in sick, so Tim took over. I was 10, so that would have made Tim 16. He was in great shape, had a cute girlfriend named Joanne, drove a white Chevy Vega with a black racing stripe, was good at school, had lots of friends, a job at Sears – he was a young man in his prime. When I went up to bat that game, Tim watched me assume the usual position. After the ump called, “ball” a couple of times, Tim hollered out to me. “Swing at a couple! Come on, Benjy! Just swing at a couple!” No one had ever made it sound that logical and obvious. I swung at the next pitch and missed. “That’s it!” called Tim. “Swing!” I swung at the next pitch. Strike 2. I looked over at Tim. He nodded. “Swing!” The pitch was high and outside, but I swung again, and made contact. The ball bounced between second base and the short stop, and I ran like hell to first base. “Safe!” For the remainder of the game me and the rest of the players took Tim’s simple advice. “Swing at a couple!”

The fat kid, the weird kid, the goofy kid, all of us were laughing and grinning, getting hits, running around the bases, getting thrown out at first, striking out, sliding into home, scoring runs, getting tagged out … it didn’t matter. I don’t even remember who won that game. What matters is we were standing in that batter’s box, swinging. We were giving it everything we had, and we were having fun. Looking back now, in the highlight reel of my mind’s eye, I see that game in glowing, golden light. I see myself running the bases in my red jersey, Tim smiling, our parents turning to each other, united with pride. I hear cheering, laughter, clapping, and crows calling from the trees as the sun begins to set. After that game, Tim helped coach our team for the rest of the season. We went from being the worst team in the division to going all the way to the finals, and we all went home with trophies. I lost mine somewhere along the way, but now I have Tim’s.

In loving memory of Thomas “Tim” Ratner Jan 9th , 1959 - Feb 17th , 2008.

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