The day I almost killed the neighborhood dork
By WYLIE WONG
Blast San Francisco Bureau
The pitcher rocked back and fired a blazing fastball. High and inside. I
closed my eyes, gritted my teeth and swung as hard as I could.
The beautiful sound of the crack of the bat. You can hear it at the 'Stick as Barry Bonds belts a hanging curve into the bleachers. You can hear it at softball and Little League fields throughout the nation.
Or in this case, you can hear it at a San Francisco Richmond District playground, as several neighborhood kids played baseball and lived out their dreams on a cement field.
Thwack! Thwack! Thwack!
It's an unmistakable, beautiful sound.
But this time, I didn't crush a baseball. I crushed someone's face.
It was the summer of 1980. I was nine years old and had just graduated from kickball to baseball. The Giants sucked, but they were my favorite team and Willie McCovey was my favorite player. Mom and dad bought me a wooden Joe Rudi bat from Toys R Us and a
genuine leather Tom Seaver glove from Sears.
Every day, I and my uncle Sherm -- four years my senior -- grabbed our gloves, the bat, a few tennis balls and a battered, old radio to hear the Giants game.
It was a scorching Sunday afternoon. Sherm and I played strikeout on the baseball diamond, unaware that 20 feet away, in the sandy jungle gym, mothers and fathers watched us suspiciously, fearing a foul ball would whack their toddlers.
We cranked up our tiny beige Radio Shack transistor radio to the highest volume. The soothing voice of Hank Greenwald drowned out the sounds of kids laughing and screaming as they slid down slides and played tag.
We had been playing for hours. It didn't matter who was winning. We were playing baseball. Just like Vida Blue and Jack Clark of the Giants. Just like our idols.
When a fat, white kid -- about a year older than me -- ambled up to us.
He smelled kind of funny. His white T-shirt was one size too small. And his underpants peeked above beige corduroy pants. He was a good foot taller than me.
"Can I play with you guys?" he asked.
Sherm and I looked at each other and grimaced.
"No," Sherm said.
"Aw, come on you gu-uys. Let me pla-ay!," he said, whining.
We didn't know his name. We called him "Mike Ivie" because he looked like
the part-time Giant first baseman. For the past two weekends, he had
asked us to play. But we always resisted. Growing up, it was always me
and Sherm. We bunked together at summer camp. We opposed each other while
playing games like Monopoly or Life. We teamed up to challenge other
pairs of kids in football or basketball. Who needed a third person to
muck things up?
So Mike would always saunter away, sitting in a nearby swing, watching us, hoping we'd change our minds. We watched him, hoping he'd finally get the message and leave.
Neither side ever caved in.
But today, he looked like he was going to cry. And I felt sorry for the guy.
"I'll play catcher," he said, his lips trembling. "C'mon!"
I looked at Sherm, who was quiet.
"OK. You can play catcher," Sherm said.
That surprised me.
Mike Ivie smiled. I picked up my mitt from the ground and tossed it to him.
I crouched low in the batter's box and lifted the heavy lumber above my
shoulders, waving it in a circular motion as I waited impatiently for the
pitch. Forty feet away, Sherm peered in for an imaginary sign for the
catcher. It seemed like an eternity, as the bat grew heavier with each
passing second. Mike Ivie stood behind me. The thing is I didn't know the
idiot stood directly behind me.
I wheeled around quickly and saw Mike grabbing his face, howling in pain.
I dropped the bat in shock. I thought his brains would come out of his
ears. And blood squirt out of his eyes and nose. But nothing came out.
I hope he's not going to die, I thought.
The nearby mothers and fathers ignored us as I looked around helpless.
Mike was doubled over in pain. Sherm raced to Mike and tried to pat his
back, but he flinched away from him. He ignored our inane question. The
question everyone asks when something like this happens: "Are you OK?"
Of course, he wasn't.
Five minutes later, he stopped crying and finally took his hands away from his face. Except for his puffy red eyes, his round face looked the same as before. It looked fine.
"I'm OK," he said as he picked up the glove. "Let's play ball."
"Are you sure?" we asked.
Sherm and I shrugged to each other, laughed and patted him on the back.
"Here," I said, giving the bat to him. "Why don't you bat? I'll play catcher."
Over the years, we became friends with Mike Ivie. He liked being called
that, so we never found out his real name. We met at the playground and
played every weekend afternoon, dreaming about making it to the big
leagues one day.
I sometimes wonder what became of him. He grew up a block away from me. Did we ever run into each other again without knowing it? I'll never know. What did he become? A success? A downtrodden drunk? I'll never know that, either.
There's certainly that slim chance, perhaps a .000000000001 percent chance, that he did play pro ball: if not the majors, perhaps the minors.
If so, one thing is for certain: he didn't play catcher.
If by some .00000000001 percent chance that Mike Ivie is reading this, Wylie would like to say : I apologize for whacking your face 17 years ago, but what the hell were you thinking when you stood right behind me?