I didn't sleep much the night before. After all, the greats always talk about visualizing the game in their mind before they play. My uniform was laid out on my dresser. It was actually a t-shirt with our team's name and sponsor but to me it may have been pinstripes of my favorite team. It was the night before my very first Little League game and no one knew what was about to happen.
I had not yet turned six but I had already dreamed about this day. Baseball was in the fabric of our family. My dad played minor league baseball before joining the Army and fighting in the Korean War. My brother was 12 at the time and I idolized him. He was already playing youth baseball and I went to every practice and every game. My dad and older brother taught me how to play and I was ready.
The Nanuet National Bank Reds were set to open the season against the Cubs. I don't remember the team sponsor for the Cubs. That bank still exists on Route 59 in the Rockland Plaza in Nanuet, New York. We lived in Spring Valley, New York and the new season of Little League baseball was about to start.
The Reds had a few practices and it was quickly established who the best players were. At the age of 5 and 6 that meant you could catch a ball and have a slight chance of making contact. Oh, there was no t-ball, this was live player pitch, not some dad/coach soft tossing- we played real ball.
I was a shortstop and pitcher and let's just say long before there was Derek Jeter, there was me...well, at age 5 at least- Jeter was not yet born in 1973.
My dad worked in the catering business and often worked late on Friday and Saturday nights but he wouldn't miss opening day. Despite a few hours of sleep he would be up and ready to go. Mom, older brother and sister were all locked and loaded to go when that Saturday morning arrived.
It was a cold and brutal morning with temperatures in the upper 30s but a cloudless sun-filled sky. I was up early as most future Hall of Famers commit to. After a hearty breakfast of Frosted Flakes and half a bagel it was time to get the uniform on.
Like I mentioned, the uniform was just a t-shirt but on this cold morning my mom, like most moms of young little ball players on a cold day, they overdress their kids. By the time mom said I was done putting on somewhere between three to five layers I was dressed. I could barely move my arms but should a blizzard arrive that morning I was prepared. My brother secretly helped me remove a few of those layers so my arms were able to move.
With hat, glove, bat and excitement we were off to the field. If you are visualizing Lamade Stadium in Williamsport where the Little League World Series is played you would be incorrect in what you are visualizing. It was more like five patches of dirt on the back side of two large grass football fields. The four corners of those fields made up the baseball diamonds for our entire league. That's a real opening day, where all eight teams in our league were playing at the same time. Sort of like when the English Premier League has all teams play on the final day of the season- not really.
The moment our car pulled up I ran to the area where my teammates began to loosen up. That usually meant 3-4 kids soft tossing and the rest of the kids either getting more layers of clothing put on or just being late- I hated late kids.
Sizing up the Cubs you can tell we were in for a fight this opening day. The field did have chalk down the first and third base line. The chalk line may not have been very straight, but to me it was one of the most beautiful sights I had ever seen. The sun shined and wind was blowing and the lineup card had yours truly leading off and playing short.
It was time to take the field and I can only imagine what LeBron James felt like when he started his NBA career and the excitement that filled the arena because that's how it felt for me and the crowd of....maybe 60-70 fans.
The first pitch was likely a ball. Why? Because that day there were a lot of balls thrown. There were a lot of walks that day as well. We played six innings with no time limit and boy did we play.
In the bottom of the first I laced a single to short. If I am honest here, it was more like a dribbling ground ball where the Cubs' shortstop likely stepped on the ball to stop it. But nonetheless, I was batting 1.000 at the time.
It was your typical Little League game involving 5 and 6 year olds- lots of walks, strikeouts, balls tapped into play, parents yelling to run and telling kids who made bad plays that it was ok.
We reached the top of the sixth, the final inning, but the Reds could not close out the Cubs who scored eight to take a 24-19 lead. Our bullpen just didn't get it done. For the record, I pitched the third and fourth inning and held the Cubs to just six runs and likely walked about six or seven. I did make a spectacular play in the top of the sixth to end the inning. A sharp hit ball came to me at short(more like a slow ground ball) and I made a dive to stab it off the hop(I truly put my glove down to stop the ball) and dove to tag the runner(or just ran over to the kid who forgot to run to third) and end the inning. The crowd roared as I set the tone for a Gold Glove season.
But we reached the bottom of the sixth and the Reds were down to our final at bats and down five runs. The Cubs bullpen was shaky and the Reds comeback began. A walk here, an error there, an overthrow or two and suddenly I was in the on-deck circle(or the area by our dugout which was just a bench). There were two outs and we had the bases loaded and trailed 24-22. We somehow needed the kid batting ninth to get on to get to me. This kid is exactly what you think he looked like and exactly how he played. He was never going to swing and always played right field and was only there because his parents thought it might be a good idea for him to play a sport and maybe meet a friend or two.
But wouldn't you know it, he drew a walk and brought home a run to make it 24-23 and set the stage for you know who to be a hero.
With my blue striped Adirondack wooden bat I stepped into the box. You visualize the moments the night before and wonder how it will go down. Would I drill one to left and walk it off and have the team mob me down by second base? Would I go opposite field and watch a close play at the plate go in our favor? Would I leg out a deep ground ball in the hole and have the winning run sprint home from second? Ahh, the scenarios were plentiful.
The drama was almost too much to handle. The at-bat went to a full count. The crowd stood and the noise was deafening. I eyed the pitcher, a young fireballer who stood maybe just over three feet and likely threw about 18 miles per hour. He began his delivery and unleashed the full count pitch. I watched as it sailed past me and then heard a loud voice scream "STRIKE THREE"...
I struck out...looking. The game was over. The Cubs and their fans cheered. I stood frozen at home plate. I likely cried. The game was over. There was no heroic moment. I didn't walk it off. I struck out to end the game. CUBS 24 REDS 23.
My dad said all the right things. My mom told me how proud she was. My brother asked how could I look at called third strike.
I remember going to Carvel Ice Cream after the game. A vanilla-chocolate swirl in a sugar cone was not going to ease the sadness. It was a painful day. How could I strike out?
The pain lasted......til about 4p I think before I was playing baseball in our backyard with other kids from the block.
The following Saturday the Reds beat the Cardinals. I hit my first Little League home run. Was it a deep blast that went way behind the fence? No, it was a ground ball past the shortstop that rolled past the left fielder and I ran the bases fast. My brother got the ball and I still have it today. I still have that Nanuet National Bank Reds t-shirt as well.
The Reds went 8-2 that season and finished one game behind the Cubs. That's right, we finished one game back of the Cubs. If we had won opening day...well you can figure that out.
It's been 50 years since that rookie season and I remember opening day like it was yesterday. I went on to have a pretty good to great youth baseball career but if there was one game I could go back to change the course of how it went it would be that cold sunny morning back in 1973 and change the GOAT(not greatest of all time) into a hero...
Final note: That Nanuet National Bank is now Webster Bank. That field we played on? Long gone and developed many times over.