As long as we're talking about numbers, I can't help but think back to my brief and pitiful experience in Little League. Because I didn't take any interest in baseball until I was eleven, I also hadn't grown up playing the sport...or any other sport, come to think of it. Now that I was baseball-mad, I wanted to be a part of the action. As if my novice status didn't already put me at a disadvantage, I was also entering my awkward phase. Still, it was Little League; no cuts. There was a general mass tryout and then the five managers divvied up the players in private. I would be a Yankee, though I was still too young and naive to be offended by that association. Besides, with our royal blue polyester jerseys and goofy white and blue foam hats with the mesh backing, we resembled the hated Bronx Bombers in name only.
The first thrill for me was picking a uniform number. I did my homework, paging through my Athlon baseball preview magazine and consulting the team rosters to see which big league players wore which numbers. My age group wore numbers between 30 and 49, so I soon fixated on #31. Greg Maddux and Mike Piazza would be pretty good company. Of course, when it was time to choose, I found that my preferred jersey was absurdly tiny. So it went to a diminutive pitcher/second baseman named Dave. When the dust settled I was left holding #35. Not too shabby, although I remember being more excited about sharing a number with Frank Thomas than I was about Mike Mussina. It was 1994, and the Big Hurt ruled baseball without mercy.
My performance, however, was not reminiscent of either player. In six-inning games, I got roughly two at-bats per game and three innings in the field...right field, of course, where I would do the least damage. I still remember every time I reached based on a batted ball that season. Both of them. On the first, bunted for a hit. If I could do anything, it was run. (The most encouraging of my coaches once referred to me as "Rickey Henderson", which was even funny to me.) The second time, I actually swung with all my might, felt that satisfying impact...and watched the ball drop dead in front of the plate. I ran like hell and beat the throw from the flustered defender. I did at least walk occasionally, since a recent growth spurt had seen me shoot up to nearly six feet tall and my higher strike zone was harder for my erratic young peers to locate. Plus, I was reluctant to swing the bat.
For all of my misadventures, I had landed on a good team with supportive coaches and friendly teammates. We won ten out of sixteen games, finishing second to the hated Red Sox (go figure). The following year, most of us returned with similar results, winning ten games and placing runner-up to those darned Sox. Hmm, no pun intended. I had been given #42, which I was able to identify with Jackie Robinson even if no contemporary players were doing much with it at the time. I doubled my hit total to four, all bunts. I also collected my lone RBI on a bases-loaded pitch that hit me in the helmet. As one of my teammates joked, "That's using your head!"
That's the extent of my baseball career. Eventually I figured out that slow-pitch softball was a better fit for me, but at least I tried.