“Dad, Dad! I caught a ball! I caught a foul ball!” I blurted out when we got back to our section.
I ran back to the bleachers where Mom and Dad were sitting to show him my ball.
“Way to go! Let me see it!” he beamed.
I handed it to him.
He gripped it and rolled it over, examining it, and smiling. Then he handed it back and ruffled my hair.
My insides swelled with prideful cartwheels. It was the first time I’d felt like I had done something Dad was proud of. The only thing that could have been better was if my favorite player, Pete Rose, had hit the ball. He held the record for most career hits at the time, beating out Ty Cobb, Stan Musial, and Hank Aaron. He was something else.
“Batter, batter, batter, batter. Swing!”
“Can’t hit. Can’t hit. Can’t hit.”
I played Little League baseball at age 12 for the First National Bank team coached by my dad. I was terrible, only getting one hit the entire season. My crush from school tagged me out on the way to 2nd base. My sister had played before me, and my brother played before her. My dad always said that one other girl had played for the boy’s league, then Susan, my sister, then me. He described the first one as the girl whose boobs bounced as she rounded the bases. I was not so well-endowed at the time, but it made me self-conscious nonetheless to hear this. I didn’t want anyone saying that about me.
I was definitely feeling my way around life, looking for approval like most pre-teens, obviously from my peers, and subconsciously from my parents. Since I was a bit ambidextrous by using my left hand to cut meat at the dinner table instead of my right hand, I thought I could bat left-handed, too, but I couldn’t. I just wanted to be different for some reason, so these stretches were more like gestures to get noticed.
I wasn’t much of an outfielder on the baseball team. They stuck me out there in left field because it was the position for the weakest player. Most balls didn’t go that direction, so chances were that I’d spend the game mostly watching everyone else play, just waiting for someone to hit the ball towards me. I didn’t notice when a left-handed batter would come up to the plate, and my dad, the coach, would trade me out with another player to sit in the dugout. I welcomed the break, not realizing that Dad didn’t want me out there in case the ball actually reached me.
When I had played softball at age 9, I watched a ball come to me and allowed it to smack me right in the nose, nearly knocking me out. I quit that day and never went back, not because I didn’t want to play but because the girls on the team were mean to me. I had a habit of quitting things like team sports and Brownie Scouts because of my anxiety around other kids. But playing baseball on Dad’s team gave me a veil of protection, even from rough-and-tumble boys.
St. Louis was a half day’s drive for us from West Tennessee, but you could have convinced me we were driving all the way to California! I loved everything about this trip: the adjoining hotel rooms, meals in the restaurant with cloth napkins, the 7th inning stretch, the music playing over the loudspeakers at Busch Stadium.
Take me out to the ballgame.
Take me out to the park.
Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jacks.
I don’t care if I ever get back.
I tried to eat peanuts and Cracker Jacks, even though I didn’t like them. The peanuts were dry, salty, and gross, and the Cracker Jack’s were too sticky for my taste. I stuck with corn dogs and ice cream in a cup that looked like a baseball helmet instead.
My little brother was only 8 at the time, but because I was 12, I was given permission to go to the bathroom without my parents. After trying that, I asked to go see Freebird, the Cardinals’ mascot. He was several rows behind us and a section over, so I took my brother with me. Dad was pretty drunk by this time on draft beer, and Mom was a little tipsy herself. If anyone was going to stop us, it was her, but she let us both go, much to my surprise. I was scared but excited at the same time to go on this adventure.
We didn’t go on vacation much when I was really little, just to Florida when I was 7. Mom drove us in the big Suburban, then Dad flew down to join us for a couple of days, usually ignoring us younger kids most of the trip. My older brother and sister had done way more when they were younger, so by the time my little brother and I were old enough to go on a trip, my father seemed to be mentally checked out as a dad most days.
If I heard it once, I heard it a thousand times, “Sally was an accident, and Judson was a mistake.” Mom’s nickname was Fertile Myrtle for having 4 kids instead of the standard 2.5, and we lil’uns showed up quite a bit later in my parents’ lives. It was always said in a joking manner, so I didn’t think much of it, but I have never forgotten it either.
In Florida, we stayed at the Ramada Inn in Ft. Walton Beach, the one with the really cool swimming pool that had a huge rocky waterfall in the middle with a swim-up bar underneath. I’d doggy-paddle over and order a Roy Rogers or a Shirley Temple and sit on the stool next to adults ordering mai tais and margaritas.
“Charge it to the room, please,” I said, feeling rather cool and grown up while wearing swimmies on my arms.
Because people went to their rooms straight from the pool, the lobby floor was slippery. I had been playing arcade games one evening after dinner and was on my way back to the room when I slipped and busted open my chin, bleeding and needing stitches at the nearest hospital.
I have a history of getting stitches in my chin. This was the second time. The first time was when I turned 6, excitedly ran down the hall to the kitchen to have a piece of cake at midnight on New Year’s Eve of 1975, and slipped in my footy pajamas to face-plant into a metal piece nailed into the floor under the doorway. Mom called Dr. Barker to meet us at Cedar Crest Hospital just a mile away. I still remember the light-blue, paper sheet the doctor had draped over my face. He did that so I couldn’t see the needle as he numbed the skin around the wound.
It stung as the needle went in, not one, not two, not three times, but four or five! My mind drifted off as he pushed the black thread in and out.
At that age, I ate a lot of Chef Boy R Dee Spaghetti & Meatballs. In fact, I sometimes would eat it cold with a fork after wrestling with the green electric can opener on the kitchen counter. I ate them so often that I thought one of the meatballs actually lived inside my chin and was now visible to Dr. Barker. I wanted to ask him so badly if he could see it while he was sewing me up, but because I didn’t talk to people yet, I was too afraid to ask him.
The third time I got stitches was at age 13 after rolling yards with toilet paper in our neighborhood, seeing a car drive by the area, and running into my accomplice as we scrambled to hide behind a huge magnolia tree in old Mrs. Jones’ driveway. Funny enough, I had just rolled my own uncle’s yard then had to call him to come stitch me up at the hospital since he was my pediatrician.
The other vacations our family took were to St. Louis for Cardinals baseball games, like this one in 1982. It was a big deal because I didn’t have to stay with my grandparents back home like before. This time my little brother and I were going with Mom and Dad, and my older siblings stayed behind.
In the stadium, there were people everywhere, laughing and cheering at the players on the field, walking around with nachos and sodas, wiggling their way past people’s knees to get to their seats as beer sloshed out of their cups, and flagging down the guys yelling, “Iced-cold Pepsi!”, “Git’cher cotton candy here!”, or I’d hear the “Snap! Snap! Snap!” of Snap-n-Pops that made me jump.
We finally made our way to find Freebird and gave him a big hug after waiting behind a few other kids. That was fun and all, but when I turned around to look at the field, Daryl Strawberry was up to bat. He always hit foul balls on TV, and the feeling washed over me that this was my moment. I was going to be the lucky one on this batting round. I can’t remember who was pitching for the Dodgers, but he did the typical dance of raising his bent leg up in the air and winding his arm around to send the ball from the mound across home plate to the catcher’s mitt when it was interrupted by Daryl’s bat.
And the ball left the bat to fling over to the section we were standing in between first base and home. A man caught it and shook his fist in the air triumphantly.
“Strike one!” called the umpire.
Then came the second pitch, and Daryl’s bat met the ball again. It came towards our section a second time. I didn’t have my leather glove though. It was back at my seat where my parents were. Dad said to always come prepared to catch a foul ball in the stands. That’s why he bought tickets for this area of the stadium.
The ball was traveling fast, coming my general way. My stomach was in knots as I nervously watched it fly towards me. It was getting closer and closer. I was flinching at the thought of it stinging my hands if I caught it straight away, but it had a spin on it and banged the metal bleacher two rows down from where we were standing next to Freebird. I let out a sigh of disappointment, but when it bounced back up in the air, it changed direction and headed straight for me right into my tiny, little hands.
“I caught it! I caught it!” I was thinking in my mind.
“That little girl got it!” said a man nearby.
I had the biggest smile on my face ever as I started to run back to our seats to show Mom and Dad my prize. Then I remembered Judson had tagged along, so I turned back to grab his arm with my left hand while holding tightly to the ball in my right.
The next morning at the hotel, we were having breakfast in the fancy restaurant with anything you wanted to eat at the buffet. This was a real treat. We didn’t eat out very much at home besides at the Western Sizzler or the Pizza Hut. I had my ball at the table with me in case we ran into any players who could sign it. Dad always stayed at this hotel where the players stayed, too, because he knew that was the best way to get signatures.
Dad spotted Pete Rose wearing dark sunglasses at a nearby table. An attractive woman sat across from him.
“Sally,” Dad said, “go ask him if he’ll sign your ball.”
A lump formed in my throat and my heart raced. There was no way I could talk to Pete Rose. I hesitated.
“I’ll ask him,” my younger brother, Judson said. He snatched the ball from my hand. “Come on, let’s go.”
I followed him to Pete’s table, standing a step behind Judson.
As we approached, Judson held out the ball. “Pete Rose, will you sign our ball?”
“Get out of here, kid.” He waved us away. “I’m not Pete Rose.”
My face went hot, and tears stung my eyes. With our heads down, Judson and I walked back to our table. I hate that man.
Leading up to this trip, I would often fantasize that the ball was going to come to me at one of the games. I had watched so many people on TV all around the stadium catch foul balls in the stands. I had only found foul balls myself in the gravel parking lot of the little league field where I spent most of my childhood summer nights down the street from the Dairy Bar.
After we finished eating, Dad took me over to the exit with my ball and practically pushed me into Mr. Rose as he finished paying for his meal. I didn’t say a word, just held the ball out to him from his left side. He looked down, peered at me, then quickly signed the ball. My dad was thrilled. I didn’t care anymore though. Thankfully we got a bunch more names over the next few days to drown out the shitstain of a signature that read “Pete Rose” near the stitches of that official Major League Baseball.
Many years later, I noticed where Pete Rose was added to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and I also kept up when he was convicted of betting illegally on games and lost his Hall of Fame status. That made me smile, and that made my ball worth more because his signature was on it. Vindication, I guess, but I was more apathetic about baseball after that summer anyway. I’ve never enjoyed the sport the same way again.
The only thing I truly cared about from that experience was that I had done something special that my father would talk about for years to come. I caught a foul ball at a St Louis Cardinals game at age 12, just like my older brother had done at age 12, and just like my dad had done when he was 12, too.
This piece is an excerpt from Sally Hendrick’s pending memoir, Humble Pie. Each week Sally writes stories or chapters inspired by her writing coach, Judy McNutt, of Igniting Your Writing. Special thanks to published author, Michelle Weidenbenner, of Moms Letting Go, for valuable editing tips.
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