Tales of a Little League Washout, Part III: Ending Before It Started
By Drew Pelto, AKA *censored*


Drew’s Note: Originally I intended this series to conclude on March 25, the day before MLB Opening Day 2020. Instead, we have no baseball to watch, much like where this series left off during the 1994 strike. But this time, there’s no playing ball ourselves to make up for it. Didn’t see that coming when Part I was posted up...

I ran into our coach at a card show with my dad the next January at the local community college. The major leaguers were still on strike, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t keep on playing. Coach said he wasn’t sure yet what was going to happen except that he was planning to still be leading us. Apparently a lot of the previous year’s players hadn’t signed up to return both for us and one other team; even his own son was questionable in his interest. There should have been about seven or eight of us who would be eligible to return next season. I later learned only three of us came back. The league at least kept us updated: there was talk of combining the two teams for a while, but leaving it at 9 teams would be tough on scheduling. A few weeks later, I heard from my third coach in three years. The league held a dispersal draft of the Pirates’ and Giants’ players. The Cardinals’ coach remembered seeing me as a catcher against them, so they snapped me up to go behind the plate.

It felt weird when I was told that: I was usually the kid who was last picked at recess, mostly due to it being a popularity contest, and I was not. But here I was: actually wanted!

Our new coaches were different: both player parents, and this time with the “my son is awesome” mentality that pervades far too many Little League dads. One of them, his kid could play well. Good fielder, a rare switch hitter, played second, first, catcher, and pitcher. The other played first base and pitched, had a below-average bat, and would likely have been a bench guy if he hadn’t been a lefty and the coach’s kid. Instead he was on the Division All-Star Team at least twice.

I also got glasses in the offseason, which is a killer for a catcher. If I had a wild pitch or passed ball, I used to whip off the mask and helmet combo and chase it down. Ditto on a pop-up. But now if I did this, I’d lose the glasses with it. My parents wouldn’t let me get contacts, so my choices were either never lose the mask, play without glasses, or not catch anymore. Good luck getting the third option to happen: that was my favorite and best position. I played a few games without them which was fine as long as the pitcher’s control was good and the batter didn’t send one straight up. For the most part, I just had to deal with not losing the mask. My jersey number switched to 1, which felt weird. But we didn’t have a number 3 jersey and I was sick the day of number selection, so my choices were 1, 50, 51, or 52. Gross. In a moment of irony, I actually now wear 52 as a floorball goalie.

Overall, our team was a disaster. We had only one twelve-year-old on the team in this 9-12 league, plus a coach in only his first season, so it should have been clear that we would struggle. Our lone home run was hit by a kid I had previously played T-Ball with: blooping one down the line, landing fair, and rolling toward the fence where the inattentive right fielder couldn’t find it until it was too late and he beat the first baseman’s throw home. It was one of three hits on the season for him. We finished 2-16, and the one thing that kept us out of last was the fact we had a huge comeback on the eventual 1-17 Mets. They were up on us 13-2 in the fourth inning of a game. About to get mercy ruled, we needed two runs in our half of the inning to keep it alive, with me leading off. I walked and came around to score, so we were off to a nice start.

As I waited on deck for what would have been my third plate appearance of the inning, we finally made the third out. 12 runs had crossed the plate and we had even left the bases loaded. With time running out due to the second game needing to get underway on our field, we took home a 14-13 victory. I don’t remember our other win that year at all, but I do remember one we could have won…

It’s not often that Little League games go 9 innings. Typically six, some can end after as few as four for darkness or mercy rules. But we had battled the Jets for seven innings one night, having to call the game due to darkness. With the tie, we picked up where we left off a few weeks later. I had started the game in left field, being lifted in the fifth for a substitution. Little League rules allow a starter to return to the same spot in the batting order, and when we got to the ninth down a run, my original spot in the order was coming around again. And with two outs and a runner on first and the light hitter who replaced me coming up, Coach told me to grab a bat.

That’s right: a guy who would go on to hit .100 on the season pinch-hitting, solely since that’s slightly higher than the guy who finished with a .000 mark.

The first pitch was in the dirt for a ball, the second pitch caught the inside corner to go 1-1. Coach put on the steal sign; I swung, missed, and the throw to second was in time, out number three, and the weight was off my shoulders… until the second baseman dropped the ball on the tag. So the umpire comes back, says the count is 1-1. I took the next pitch on the outside corner for a strike, which he called strike two. The other team complains, and he says “Oh, correction, you’re right, that’s strike three,” and the game is over. Had he correctly said the count was 1-2, my approach would have gone a different way.

That third season felt different. Part of the problem was that I was a league veteran who never knew any of my teammates outside of practices and games. It’s one thing to know no one your first year; but totally different when it’s your third. I went to a private school and only one of my classmates played (on the Dodgers). Whereas most of my teammates and even our opponents all knew a lot of each other from school, I never did, so I was always a bit of an outsider. Even my former Pirates teammates were almost nowhere to be seen that season. I only remember seeing one as he came to the plate while I was catching: oddly enough, it was that catcher that I passed on the opening day depth chart. He ended up catching and playing third for the Chiefs.

Baseball was losing my interest as a player, even somewhat as a fan. The strike eventually ended during that season, and my beloved Indians even went to the World Series. But it was the first season that my favorite player, Cory Snyder, was out of the game, exiled to AAA with the Red Sox and Padres organizations. I barely bought any 1995 cards at all after having most of the 1992 Topps, 1993 Donruss, and 1994 Topps sets. And I just wasn’t improving as a player at all. Sure going from .000 to .045 to .100 is an improvement, but not at the level I had hoped. I enjoyed pitching in the 1994 season, but when I told our coach that I used to pitch a bit with the Pirates his answer was an uninterested “Oh yeah? That’s cool.” It would seem that going 2-16 should have been a perfect time to maybe try us at other positions, experiment with what the players wanted to try, and work on future development.

Reluctantly, I played a fourth season, and it was clear that my heart just wasn’t in it anymore. I was relegated mostly to outfield play that season, with less behind the plate, and almost none at short and second. And somehow getting among the last choices of jerseys despite being among the vets, I was stuck wearing 51. A new kid on the team had his dad complain to the coach midway through the season that he used to catch in his previous league and should be catching on this team. And he did, at which point I was relegated almost solely to outfield duty. I asked my parents if they could let the coaches know I used to pitch since they didn’t listen to me. They wouldn’t do it.

Even in early season practices, they closely watched four potential pitchers. Two others of us asked if we could try pitching. They didn’t even bother watching us throw for more than two pitches each. We were getting blown out in a game, 11-0 in the third, and as I sat on the bench I thought I might finally get to get back on the mound. Coach called “Andy, you’re pitching,” and as I grabbed my glove he said “No, not you, the other Andy,” putting in a backup outfielder who could barely get the ball from the mound to the plate while I sat there stewing.

Coaches trusted my opinion though as a veteran of the league. A few times on the bench, I was actually asked my thoughts on some strategic decisions: whether to bunt, or steal, or even in changing pitchers. I may never have had the skill, but at least mentally I was as sharp as anyone.

I don’t remember what our record was that final season: I didn’t really care at that point. I know we placed third in the Division which put us in the playoffs. I remember winning our playoff game against the second-place Dodgers, then losing to the annually-stacked Browns. And I remember I didn’t start a single one of our last four games. I actually hit .150 that year, but being 12 and barely able to make contact meant that I may as well just forget it at this point: being a great glove guy means nothing if you don’t have a bat. 1996 was my last year of organized baseball. My playing interests moved on to soccer and basketball in 1996-1998 and hockey and indoor soccer in high school and college.

Clearly I was destined to be a big fish in a small pond when it came to the game. When we’d play anything baseball-like in gym class or after school, I was a masher at the plate and could field well at any position. I’d be the only one whacking home runs. In the Emerson College Wiffleball League, I was a .400 hitter, a Cy Young nominee, and an All-Star. In our summer lob-pitched pickup baseball games in college, I hit over .400 as a second baseman. But in organized, competitive baseball, I was little more than a roster filler.

Few of us in Painesville’s history ever made it very far in the sport. Katherine Gurley, who eventually was on the US Womens’ National Baseball Team, rolled through the American Division with the Red Sox while I avoided having to face her playing in the National; I previously alluded to Jamie Walczak and his time in the Reds’ org; and aside from that we only had a handful of eventual minor leaguers across the entire county, none of whom played at the same time I did. Even if you go back through all of baseball history, there was just Marvin Hawley, who pitched seven innings for the Boston Beaneaters as a 19-year-old; Ed Andrews, who led the National League in stolen bases in 1886; and Tommy Atkins’ 15 games in 1910 for the Philadelphia A’s among Lake County natives making it into the majors.

I thought about playing league softball for a while, but the few people I know who play around here take it far too seriously. I’m at a point where I just want to have fun playing and no one cares about taking home a championship. My current place of employment had a team for a while, but when they started bringing in ringers to preserve their undefeated status instead of actual employees who wanted to play, I knew it wasn’t for me. One member of my department who is a reasonably good athlete played a few games as a substitute-- they stuck him at catcher, batted him last, and he told me he didn’t even know half the team because they didn’t work here.

I think getting away from playing actually got me back to being more of a fan. Baseball was no longer something that I was actively failing at and hating about myself, but something I could just watch and appreciate from the outside. And I could appreciate it at any level: majors, minors, I’ll even watch college softball and the Little League World Series on TV. I got back into buying cards again with the 1996 Fleer and 1997 Collectors Choice sets, and now doing a lot of autograph collecting. But I’m perfectly happy only playing baseball, softball, or wiffleball in pickup games. And even that I haven’t done in eight years.

I don’t know any of my teammates now; I could name maybe two-thirds of them by full name, and haven’t talked to any since that final season. Once in a while I look some of them up on Facebook, but I doubt any of them would remember me. My old coach with the Cardinals and I have both commented on the same posts in a Facebook group dedicated to Painesville’s past and I don’t think he recalls me playing for him.

Through four seasons I managed to hit .077-- that’s six hits, all singles, in 78 at-bats. I did at least draw about 70 walks. The positions I played most were, in order, catcher, second base, left field, shortstop, right field, pitcher, and center field.
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That Frank Viola model mitt served me well for fifteen years. It broke a lace in a pickup game in the summer of 2005 and is now sitting in a Rubbermaid bin in my apartment, along with a Rawlings first baseman’s mitt and a Wilson fielders glove that I bought on an emergency basis that summer. If I was still playing, I’d fix the lacing and still use it: it did its job well and still fits. I may actually need to fix it up: my wife and I have a friend who loves her hometown Kansas City Royals, but she never learned to catch or throw a baseball. Provided we don’t all succumb to COVID-19, she wants me to teach her once the weather cools down after yet another 100+ degree Texas summer that’s approaching rapidly.

The line of Pelto boys playing for the Pirates likely will end with me: I turn 36 next month and my wife and I don’t plan on having any kids. Even if we do, it seems plenty of Little League teams don’t use MLB names these days: one of our local leagues has teams like the Owls, Knights, Warriors, and Express. In the latter years of my time living in Painesville, all the teams had sponsor names only: Bertone’s Sunoco 7, Falcone’s Convenient Mart 5. It’s all about travel teams now, to the point that anything else is wrongfully viewed as a waste of time and money.

But shouldn’t fun, recreation, and learning the game be enough of an incentive to play at any level?

Coaching parents, if there’s one thing I can impart to you it’s that your child is not the next Willie Mays. Also, there are another 14 players on that team besides him. You are there to coach ALL of them and to make sure they’re learning and enjoying their time playing the sport. Remember what I said about the lack of Painesville natives in pro ball? There’s a good chance your town is no better. Take a moment and read Hal Lebovitz’s August 23, 1964 article “Did You Ever Cut A Boy?” It’s about football, but it applies to every sport quite well.

Non-coaching parents, stay involved. Encourage your kids to play on any team they can and in any sport they want to try. Watch the practices and games. Work on skills outside of practice. Teach them to play anywhere and everywhere on the field: we had a few kids who only played one or two positions, whereas I played everywhere except third base at some point. You never know if messing around in the backyard as a catcher might come in handy someday for your second baseman. Equip them well, but don’t go overboard with top-of-the-line gear. But also remember that you aren’t the coach: let the coach do his job. More than anything, make sure your kids are enjoying it and that they’re playing because they want to play. Your kids are more likely to end up like me than like Mike Trout. Make sure they can look back on their time in their favorite sports as a positive. Read another Lebovitz column, May 29, 1972’s “Whose Game Is It?”

Those columns from the late Hal Lebovitz can be read in the book The Best of Hal Lebovitz: Great Sportswriting from Six Decades in Cleveland. They’re the first two in the book and among the most important writing he did in his career. And you can read those two (and more) free via the Google Books link above.

Former players, it’s your turn. Take that trip down memory lane. What’s your history? The good, the bad, the mundane, let’s hear your stories in the comments.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Drew Pelto may have been terrible between the foul lines, but he will destroy you at 2000/2001 MLB Showdown. He currently lives in Arlington, TX with his wife and two cats who play defense rivaling that of Dick Stuart.