This past Saturday, all the teams of 12-year-olds here in Cooperstown for the week's Dreams Park baseball tournament gathered under a huge white tent for "orientation." As the players took their seats at long wooden tables, my son Rob and his fellow Skokie Indians marveled at the size of some of the participants from other teams. There were several lanky 6-footers and a number of fellows who were slightly shorter but were built like NFL linebackers. We coaches were equally impressed, but not terribly surprised at these behemoths. "Think of the bell curve," I told one of our players. He looked at me quizzically. I guessed that he was wondering for which team some curve-baller named Bell played.
Midway through the orientation, a tall, rock-solid young man strode—no, swaggered—into the tent. He was dressed in cutoff blue jeans and a T-shirt. He had long sideburns that fanned out into triangles at their respective cheeks. Imagine the Mets buff catcher Mike Piazza at about 20. I guessed he was part of the tournament staff, perhaps putting himself through college by working at the Dreams Park. When the players seated at a table near ours saw the young man, they slapped each other high fives. "He made it," one said. Dreams Park director Phil Kehr shook his head, interrupted his presentation, nodded toward the newcomer, and said, "It's Babe Ruth."
How right he was. Yesterday afternoon, this gargantuan Ruth-in-waiting—who, it turns out, is one day younger than my 5-foot-1, 100-pound Rob (think Dr. Ruth, not Babe)—hit two home runs and a double to power the Belmont Valley, Mass., Thunder to a 10-4 win over our Indians in the first round of the single-elimination playoffs. Sadly, we are out of the tournament, which ends this evening.
The loss was somewhat of a surprise. Earlier on Wednesday, our team had played its best game of the tournament (maybe its best game ever) to finish the pre-playoff portion with five wins and two losses. This record plus a tiebreaker system ranked us number 16 of the 49 teams.
Talk about the luck of the draw. The top 15 teams received first round byes and relatively easy opponents in the second round. As No. 16, we did not play our first-round game as one might expect against the team ranked No. 49, but rather against No. 17, the Thunder, who had also finished 5-2.
Despite the imposing presence of the next Bambino, I'd expected us to win this game. We had played very well all week, had momentum thanks to three straight wins, and we had Clete Boyer in our dugout.
If you've read Monday's and Tuesday's "Diary" entries, you know that I have been trying to meet Clete, one of my New York Yankee heroes from the early 1960s, since learning he lives here. Before the game against the Thunder, I went back to Clete's Cooperstown eatery, the Hamburger Hall of Fame. I was hoping he was feeling better and had come to the restaurant. If so, I was going to try and persuade him to sit on our bench. That would be a kick for our team and psych out our opponent, I figured.
"Clete still feels like s---," said his girlfriend and restaurant partner Brenda, when I stopped in. "But I have this for you." She pulled out an 8½-by-11, plastic-encased color photo of a young Clete in Yankee pinstripes, his bat on his shoulder. "To Steve, Best of Luck, Clete Boyer #6, W.S. CHAMPS 1961," it read. Unbeknownst to me, during our team party at the restaurant on Tuesday, our co-head coach Joe Stepniewski had traded an empty bottle of Absolut Vodka to Brenda for the promise of a personalized, autographed photo. So, truth be told, it was Clete's picture, not the under-the-weather old third baseman himself, that sat in our dugout. Unfortunately, the photo was no match for the precocious slugger in the Thunder dugout.
My fellow coaches and I agreed that a 5-3 record and second-place finish in the Round the Horn competition on Saturday exceeded our wildest Cooperstown expectations. For me, so, too, did Rob's play as the week progressed. Still, we all confessed to feeling empty after today's loss. Our season, which began April, is over.
After the game, we waited for the boys to change into street clothes. They came out of their cabin laughing and talking about how they were going to "party all night long." They all knew how well they had done and how they would always remember this special time. I joked that maybe we should check the slugger's birth certificate. "No, he's really 12," said Rob, who had met him in the cabin area earlier in the week. "And he's a real nice guy. Do you know he has a 16-year-old girlfriend?"
Some guys have all the luck.
I took my autographed photo back to our motel and leaned it up against a mirror. For a moment I felt like a 12-year-old, too. I remembered the rush that came every time I pulled off a great baseball card trade. An empty Vodka bottle for Clete Boyer. Now that's a good deal.
OK. We lost. But I can't think of anything I'd trade for the thrill of watching my boy and his teammates play ball in Cooperstown.