I grew up in Ogden, Utah two homes away from McKay Dee Hospital and not far from Weber State University. Just past the water fountains and parking lot at the hospital sat a huge grassy area. As kids we’d run though the sprinklers, hit golf balls and play Frisbee on that patch of grass we assumed to be an extension of our own front yard.
But my favorite activity was hitting baseballs. I would spend hours tossing balls to myself and then smacking them as far as I could. I would occasionally hit the sweet spot and knock one into the hospital parking lot. I may have been responsible for leaving a few hood surprises but I’m certain the statute of limitations has long expired.
I knew I was improving my swing when my dad came over to watch one night and I told him to back way up. He took a few steps back, but I still belted it well over his head. This may explain why it wasn’t long before he told me about a contest called the “Pitch, Hit and Run” that was sponsored by Burger King.
The competition consisted of throwing 3 balls into a net the size of the strike zone, running the bases and hitting a baseball fungo-style (tossing the ball to yourself and hitting it). I don’t recall practicing five minutes for the pitching and running portions of the contest so when I showed up at the little league park to participate, expectations were not very high.
Although I could throw a baseball quite well, I hadn’t practiced much and it showed when only one out of three balls found the net giving me 50 out of 150 possible points. Next up was the base running event and I scored an 80 out of 100 when I slipped going around third base. This left me near the bottom of the standings with only the one event to go. Several of the boys in my age bracket (12-13 year olds) hit the pitching target 2 or 3 times and nearly all collected the full 100 points in the base running portion.
Since I wasn’t expecting much from the start, I didn’t feel nervous going into the last event. I thought, how hard can this be? I’ll just do what I do for hours on the hospital grass each day. I watched the younger boys step to the plate and take their swings. If you’ve ever tossed a baseball to yourself to hit you’ll know the key is to get “under” the ball to give it the desired lift. This requires an uppercut swing compared to the the more level swing I’d normally take during a game.
I was surprised to watch most of the kids barely hit ball out of the infield. They hit the ball hard but were not getting any lift. Occasionally one would hit a pop fly into the outfield but that was rare. I walked over to an area where the bats were located. They were standing up against a chain link fence. I searched for a bat that felt just right. But they all seemed too small or too light. I started to get nervous. I was the next batter in line and I had to find a good bat.
Finally, my name was called and I stepped to the plate without a bat in my hand. As the hitter before me walked by I asked if I could use his bat and he threw it to me. The bat felt good! It felt very good. It was bigger and heavier than the other bats. I looked towards the outfield and saw a number of contest officials waiting for me to swing so they could measure the distance my ball traveled. I had three chances to get a good score. The furthest hit would tally into my overall score.
I tossed the first ball and smacked it over the officials head. I watched as they ran to where my ball had first touched down and measured it. The officials now backed up a little further. I tossed the second ball and hit it very high into the air but not as far as my first try. No need to measure.
Here’s where my competitive nature came out. My father had explained to me before the competition started that the two boys on the west coast with the most points would win a trip to San Francisco for themselves and their parents. That all sounded fun, but what I was most excited about was the possibility of getting to travel by airplane.
I took the last ball in my hand and figured I had nothing to lose. I must have been living right because I detected a small breeze at my back. All I need to do was get that ball into the wind and let it ride. My father had dropped me off at the park and wasn’t able to watch me, but I looked behind me hoping maybe he’d be there.
I stepped up to the plate, lofted the ball just right and swung as hard as I could. My swing felt good, and I could barely feel the ball hit the bat which means I’d connected at the sweet spot. The baseball got up into the air and took off just like it had done thousands of times on the hospital lawn. It kept going and going. I watched the officials begin running for the fence.
But I’d crushed that sucker and the wind was carrying it further than it had any right to travel. The ball sailed over the fence and into the parking lot. One official jumped the fence and tried to locate the exact spot my ball had landed. I watched as they threaded the tape measure through the fence. My ball had flown over the first row of cars and came down in the middle of the parking lot. Kids were jumping up and down all around me. Finally, one of the officials yelled TWO HUNDRED FIFTY SEVEN FEET!
I felt like I was floating on air. I jumped up and down and started high fiving people I didn’t know. To a twelve year old boy, it was magical.
When things settled down, I grabbed my glove and waited for my dad to arrive. When he pulled up, he asked how I’d done, and I told him about the hit. I wish he had been there to see it. He said I might have done well enough to earn a trip to San Francisco where I’d compete for a chance to attend the World Series.
What I didn’t know at the time as I sat in the front seat of our Plymouth Duster was how right he was. A few weeks late my mom picked up the phone to find out we were headed to Candlestick Park in San Francisco.