Monday, March 27, 2006

The Year I Was On Top Of The Baseball World

Manager quits mid-season. Troubled coach takes over, his son on the team, and leads the team to a city championship. Aspiring sports reporter catches the final out.

No, this isn't a script pitch to an independent filmmaker.

It happened in 1977, when I played for a team sponsored by a company called Bra-Con Industries, which is funny because here, 29 years later, I still have no idea who Bra-Con Industries were or are. But it was my first little league team that had full uniforms -- pants, stirrups, the whole shebang. We wore white with blue pinstripes, and the words "BRA-CON" across the front in block text. Those were the days when the big league players wore high stirrups, so naturally I pulled mine as far as they could go to simulate that cool MLB look.

But there was more to my ensemble. 1977 was the season that Tito Fuentes was signed to play second base for the Tigers, who were in need of one more season so Sweet Lou Whitaker would be ready by '78. Tito was one of baseball's all-time greatest hot dogs, and author of one of the game's best quotes.

"They shouldn't throw at me," Tito once said as a Giant after being brushed back with a pitch. "I have seven or eight kids."

Tito Fuentes did a lot of goofy, hot doggy-things, like tap his bat at the plate and flip it, catching it in his hand as he smoothed away the chalk of the batter's box with his spikes. But he also wore a headband beneath his cap. So, naturally, guess which player for Bra-Con Industries took to wearing a headband? Mine was red, white, and blue -- to match my wristbands.

I wore #11 -- Bill Freehan's number -- and played mostly second base. I also pitched some.

Our manager, a roly-poly older guy that looked like a poor man's Don Zimmer, quit in midseason. I can't remember his name, but he had this affinity for wanting to pack up the bats and batting helmets before the game ended. So there we would be, in the bottom of the seventh -- the games were seven innings long -- trying to rally, and we'd look over and Mr. So-and-so was gathering the bats and helmets and putting them in their canvas bags. Real inspiring.

Anyhow, he quit -- I can't remember why -- and his coach, a troubled man named Mr. Nadratowski, took over. His son, John, was our catcher. I think Mr. Nad drank a bit, and he was estranged from his wife. After he took control, and tinkering with the lineup, we went on a winning streak that placed us in some sort of Livonia city championship. It must have been a runners-up thing, because the winner of our league -- Don Massey Cadillac -- went on to bigger and better things. But it was still a championship, and you still won a trophy, and you still got to play at the good field in the city, so what the hell?

It was a tight game, and I remember the other team's runner getting thrown out at the plate on a sacrifice fly attempt. I also remember myself hitting a sac fly to drive in what ended up being the winning run. But the coup de grace was the final out. They were threatening -- a man on second and we only had a one-run lead. The batter swung and hit a popup just beyond the infield dirt behind and to the right of second base.

My ball.

I waved everyone off like there was no tomorrow, and thought, "Don't drop this, dummy!"

I squeezed it as hard as I've squeezed any baseball, and within seconds the team was mobbing me. We had won! It was the greatest moment in my seven-year Little League career -- such as it was.

But the tear-jerking part came at the postseason team party. It was at a pizzeria, and when Mr. Nad took his trophy and started talking about how much managing the team meant to him, there wasn't a dry eye in the house. Because everyone knew what he was going through personally.

I don't know whatever happened to John Nadratowski and his dad -- our manager. But I still have that little trophy in my basement. It just says "City Champs - 1977." It's rather small and not all that impressive.

But it means a whole bunch.


Blogger Ozz said...

I played on the Auburn-Williams Little League's co-champs in 1984. What a cool year to be a champ! Our story isn't as good as yours though.

On a side note, the high stirrup look looks makes a baseball uniform look like a baseball uniform to me.

I hate the 'modern' look where players pant legs are grazing the tops of their shoes. That looks so sloppy! It'll be nice when that trend goes away. I'm waiting for the day when a guy trips because his pant legs are too long.

1:35 PM  
Blogger Greg Eno said...

Right now, Ozz, you can't even SEE any stirrups. They may as well not even have them anymore!

2:25 PM  
Blogger swampudlian said...

Heck, I'm so old-school, I remember my dad going off about when Sparky switched the Tigers from black stirrups with orange stripes to solid navy blue stirrups. And I have to say, I agreed with him then and agree with him now. Like you guys are saying, though, not that anyone would notice. Gotta say that one of the reasons I like Granderson is because of the way he wears his pants... Not that there's anything wrong with that.

10:09 AM  
Blogger Greg Eno said...

Thanks for the visit and the comment, swampudlian!

10:57 AM  

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