Glorious Summer

I remember well our Little League team of 1961. It was a slow motion summer of destiny, where every morning smelled of victory as we climbed undefeated to a sweltering and sticky August afternoon championship. We were a vision for the ages in old-fashioned wool – the grass stains and infield bleached away; smelling of Tide. All who faced us feared even the sight of us – black and orange socks and two-toned hats, heavy leather belts; our shirts tucked in. We made quick work of our opponents all summer and smiled our tired selves to sleep each night with dreams of true invincibility.

But no team is perfect, and our weakness had a name – Owens. He was gangly and awkward; half a foot taller, and we tried not to groan when the ball sailed into right field; bit our lips each time his final spot in the batting order came due. Owens managed to strike out every at bat and dropped every ball, but we won regardless. We became masters of disguising our small boy intolerance. We learned how to stand as a team – the good and the bad of us, so we encouraged the young boy instead, but we knew he was destined to fail. And we were destined to win in spite of him.

As luck would have it, that championship day, we found ourselves down by a pair with two away and two men on. It was the bottom of the ninth, and yes, it was Owens’ turn at bat. We tried to hold it together as he whiffed at the first pitch; even offered those stale words of encouragement he’d suffered all season. But each subsequent pitch brought us closer to the impossible brink, and a loss we were certain would impact the whole world. The mighty O.S.Moore Orioles were poised to lose.

With two balls and a strike, his swing to even the count was deafening – as though he’d somehow sucked the life from the air. All became still, and it was clear that someone else would celebrate as the team of destiny would succumb – the White Sox would steal our glory. Owens! We crowded the dugout fence – 12 year-old fingers laced in the chain links, faces pressed into the dull aluminum. Had it come to this? We turned our hats, crossed our fingers – we prayed, and as the pitcher began his wind-up, we were ready for the inevitability we knew awaited us.

I don’t know how he did it, or how the miracle was worked, but Owens hit that ball so hard that he was on his way home before the left fielder ever caught up with it. He hadn’t so much as a foul tip all season, but in that singular moment, when everyone doubted him, he persevered. He conquered, and all was forgotten by the time he touched the plate. Now the hero, he guaranteed our perfection, and all he could say over and over was, “We did it!” Not I, but we, God bless him. “We did it.”

Years later, coaching what may have been the second best Little League team in history, I told the story of Owens and the glorious summer to another group of wide-eyed optimists in need of some prioritizing and the decency to recognize effort over result. The story was true and the lessons obvious, but as I heard myself recount it, I realized it was more than just another tale of boyhood prowess; more than yet another installment of modern oral tradition.

Today, I pressed record on my LS-7 and asked the predictable question. The answer was clear – “Owens.” I know it’s a common enough name, but I instantly traveled back to one day in August, 1961 – so long ago. I’d like to think it was him; that I might actually be able to thank him – for the victory, the oral tradition, and the lessons learned. But you never know with EVP, so I’m telling his story anyway, and celebrating once again. “We did it!” Thank you, old friend – we did indeed. In style.


5 responses to “Glorious Summer

  1. Absolutely wonderful! How cool is that?! Next book idea… Randall Keller childhood stories. Ready Go! (By the way… would you believe I played little league one summer? HA! I bet I made Owens look like George Brett (only baseball name I could think of at the moment… sad, I know.)

  2. George Brett is a good enough name to drop any day of any week. Ya know, I realize Little League stories are, well… Little League stories – kinda weird at my age. I don’t even know if Owens is alive or dead, but hearing that name brought it all back, and I figured I owed him one anyway. He actually played a few more years. It was like a dam breaking – one hit was all he needed to suddenly get good.

  3. Great story. When I was playing little league we had a guy just like Owen. I cannot recall his name but my story is much different. Our league, like all leagues, had rules that evryone who shows up has to play. When the playoffs started for us, our manager called our Owen and asked him to stay home for the “team”. Needless to say, Owen’s parents were not to happy and our manager was quickly removed from our team. In disarray we were quickly eliminated from the playoffs but our Owen, like yours, turned this insult into the drive he needed to become a good ball player.

    I have so many great memories playing ball all my life that I even wrote a poem about it. I know you have seen it before but here it is again.

    Field of Dreams

    As a little leaguer I remember all my dreams,
    Of playing in the big leagues on pennant winning teams.
    Of pitching ten no-hitters in my first year at the show,
    And seventy round trippers with ten more games to go.
    Unassisted triple plays, the perfect knuckle ball,
    I took away a long home run by climbing up the wall.
    The unknown kid, his perfect swing, a pitcher with no peer.
    I won Cy Young, the Triple Crown and Rookie of the Year.
    I’d visit sickly children laying in their beds,
    And say I’d hit one out for them but hit two out instead.
    I was a Hall of Famer, if only in my mind,
    But now I’ve gotten older, a little past my prime.
    My little league is over but my son is on a team.
    And now I stand and watch him play
    Upon my field of dreams.

    • Oh I’m so glad you put the poem here. I always loved that! Now I hope others read it.

      Yes, our stories had definite different outcomes. Of course mine was many years earlier, so the coaches then wouldn’t have thought of it as win or lose so much – baseball was the place to learn life lessons, we were told. But I think that may have been true for us – there seem to have been a few. Sigh… Why on earth do we opt to grow up?

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