The arrival of spring brought pickup baseball after school on the field behind Fuller Elementary. A bunch of us sixth graders played three or four times a week with anywhere from 4 to 9 on a team, depending on how many guys showed up. Billy and Jake, the captains, shot fingers to decide who picked first.
My hero back then was Ted Williams, the best hitter ever. Unfortunately I was a lousy hitter. That meant I was usually the last one picked. Yeah, I knew what it was like to be standing there while everyone else was picked, until at last someone said “Noonie.” That’s me, Fred Noonan.
In the field I’d gotten a lot better thanks to my Dad, who convinced me to try first base, his position in school. I was used to playing outfield, which felt safer. Fewer opportunities to screw up. So when it came time for a new glove, I would have preferred a regular fielder’s glove. But when Dad surprised me a brand new first-baseman’s mitt, how could I refuse? Especially since it was a Bill White autograph model for one of my favorite players.
When I first played catch with Dad, I knew he was right. The glove felt good, real good. Lots of leather and a huge pocket. Then in my first game with it, I caught every ball thrown to me as well as a couple of grounders. That night when I told Dad, he said, “Okay first baseman, now you know where the real hot corner is, and it ain’t third.
There was one game I remember best of all. It was a cloudy day, cool for mid-June. I was on Billy Balser’s team and we were the “home” team. I came up for the first time up in bottom of the second inning with two outs, bases empty and no score. I hadn’t gotten to the plate yet when I heard the familiar voice hollering from second base, “No batter… No batter, he couldn’t hit a basketball.”
It was Arnie Kernstein, no surprise. The guy never missed an opportunity to ride me when we were on opposite sides. Yelling the same stuff over and over, like a broken record. Sure, he was a way better hitter, but still. No one else got that kind of razzing from him or anyone else. Even when we were on the same side, the jerk in his Yankees cap found ways to nag, “C’mon Noonie, no more whiffs; just get us a hit now.”
And when I did get a hit? “Way to hit ‘em, Noonie, got your average over.100 yet?” But this time he didn’t have to be creative. I whiffed on four pitches and got his usual refrain, “Wha’d I tell ‘ya, no batter.”
The next time I came up we were ahead 5-4, and I’d made a couple of good plays at first. I popped out to Jake at third – that’s Jake Rourke, the captain of the other team and the best player of all of us. At least Kernstein was quiet. Probably off in the bushes taking a piss. It was still 5-4 in the top of the next inning when Billy Silva hit an easy grounder to Dale Miller at short. But Miller bobbled it and couldn’t get the throw to me in time. Silva was safe. Next up: Kernstein. On the first pitch, he hit a hard drive to left-center, driving in Silva with the tying run.
A half hour later with the score still tied, the two captains agreed the next inning would be the last. It was getting late, and we all had to get home. I knew from experience that Mom didn’t appreciate holding up supper when I was late.
In the top half of the inning, Jake’s team went down in order. That left us with the chance for a walk-off win if we could score a run. Otherwise, the game would end in a tie. Billy Balser led off and popped to short. My turn. As I stepped to the plate, I concentrated extra hard. To keep my mind off Kernstein, I hummed a little tune under my breath, “Hey, no batter here. Big whiffer. I can feel that breeze comin’.”
Billy shouted back, “Don’t listen to him, Noonie. Just think contact.” Good to hear some support as I stood in against Mike Barron, who had just come on to pitch. Mike threw lots of soft stuff, and I usually did better against him.
His first pitch sailed over my head. “Come on, Mikey, just get the ball to him,” Jake yelled to his pitcher; “We haven’t got all day.” Barron fiddled with his Red Sox cap and then obliged with a toss right down the middle. I locked my vision on the ball. Watch it all the way to the plate, Dad always said. The dirty white ball grew bigger and bigger until it looked the size of a grapefruit. I swung and watched my bat strike the ball. Wham! I’d never felt that kind of contact, ever. The ball shot up and out, way over Ricky’s head in center, eventually landing beyond the flagpole.
“Way to blast it, Noonie!,” yelled Kenny Muller as I approached first. My pride swelled. Rounding second, I heard Jones, “Awesome hit!” Goosed me again.
“Wow, Noonie … How d’ya do that?” shouted Pete from left, as I headed for home. Billy slapped me on the back as I crossed the plate with the winning run; “Always knew you had it in ‘ya, Noonie.”
I lapped it up, everyone cheering for me. Everyone except Kernstein, of course. Made my day to see him standing there, back to me, fiddling with his glove. Speechless. Walking home, I couldn’t wait to tell Dad and Mom and Joey. I imagined their reactions. “Way to go, Freddie! “You did what!” “Oh, that’s wonderful, Freddie.”
I let loose in the front hall, before I even got to the kitchen where Mom was preparing dinner, “I just hit a big homer that won the game. You wouldn’t believe how long it went. Everyone said it was the longest they’d ever seen!”
“And it won the game?” exclaimed Mom, showing more enthusiasm than usual when it came to baseball.
“Yup, the score was tied in the bottom of the last inning. So my homer was a walk-off. You know what that is, Mom? Because it was the last inning, my homer ended the game right there. We walked off the field with the win.’
“How dramatic! That’s great, Fred,” said Mom. “Wait until Dad hears. He ran late at the office, but he should be home soon.”
At that point, my kid brother Joey came into the kitchen from the bathroom, where he’d apparently overheard everything, “How far did your homer go?”
I stretched my arms out wide, “Man, you should’ve seen it. I knocked it out of the park … The ball landed way out beyond the flagpole.”
Joey’s eyes popped, “Beyond the flagpole? Geez!”
“Yup, no one could believe it. They’d never seen a ball hit so far. For sure, it was the longest ball I’ve ever hit.”
A moment later I heard Dad’s footsteps on the porch, “Good going, Kiddo,” he exclaimed after I unloaded on him; “Way we hit ‘em.”
Right then, I thought about my first baseman’s glove, “And I didn’t make any errors at first, either!
“Okay, Freddie! A walk-off homer on top of no errors. I never pulled that off.” Wow, talk about feeling proud. I never thought I could outdo my dad. At one point during dinner I thought of my other big win of the day, my “victory” over Arnie Kernstein. But I’d never mentioned him at home, so why start now.
Lying in bed that night, I thought about the next time we played. Maybe tomorrow. Standing around for the pickup. Jake and Billy shooting fingers to pick first. And the winner picking me.
Stephen Brayton is a retired journalist and communications consultant. His short fiction has appeared in The Fictional Café, Flash in a Flash and Red Fez. Residing outside Boston, Steve is a former president of his local historical society and writes regularly for its newsletter.