Mr. Smith’s jowls seemed to move with every syllable he spoke. He coached my little league team and continued for many years after I grew out of West Caldwell/Caldwell league for 12-13 year olds, for a total of about 20 years coaching baseball. He was the Bobby Cox of Francisco Park, and as vigilant about the game. When I was down two strikes with two men on in the bottom of the last inning of the very last game I played there, Coach Smith called time out. He bent down to me with a hand on my shoulder. This was the same posture he had weeks before when I was in a teenager slump, striking out two or three times a game. He offered a good luck penny, placing it in my palm saying, “I found this on the ground, heads up, which is good luck for you.”
Back at the plate I watched two high fastballs from the pitcher, Vito, a friend of mine.The next pitch landed over the 200 ft sign in center field and my teammates mobbed me as I reached home. When I rounded second, Vito offered a sullen “Nice hit, Mike” and I ignored him, having learned from Coach Smith that Bob Gibson never exchanged niceties with opposing players, even in the All-Star Game. This was my only boyhood fame, which lasted more than a few minutes as I came to learn years later when I delivered an official team photo to a family in town after Coach Smith’s team finally won a championship. The young player said, “are you the Michael Thomas who hit that home with two outs and two strikes to win the game?” Mr Smith had been telling that story for years. It was part of same advice he gave me and my team. “It ain’t over til it’s over, never over until the last out,” he offered in his own longer version of the Yogi’s wisdom.
Midget league action from this past season, Francisco Park, West Caldwell NJ. photo by Joseph Stellato
Last week when I uttered those words of lost hope, one reader commented that I was another “so called Sox fan” giving up too soon. I appreciated the reminder that the season wasn’t over, as well as the irony of a great Yankee soothing us Red Sox fans. Of course I bolted to attention with the “so called” part. No need to defend that here. Readers know the score. Red blood for me means Red Sox. I thought, too, of the fan who commented during an online discussion with Peter Abraham of the Globe, saying “The Sox are finished!!” That was May 25th or thereabouts.
So we are not mathematically out of it. My lovely girlfriend said the other day, “why are you yelling so much about the game, aren’t they finished?” “Maybe” I replied, “maybe. But you know what Mr Smith told us during one of his 30 minute talks, while we sat under those Francisco Park oak trees, our hearts burning to get to the field.” The only thing to lament is the nearness of the end of this season, the end of baseball for a while. Cynicism kills the joy of the game. It’s just the way it is. See you around the game tonight.