Benny, the Muckdog

 

Muckdogs cap

 

Meet my son, Muckdog Benny.

 

Wasn’t it just yesterday that he was soiling his diapers? And now he’ll be dirtying his tee-ball uniform as a member of the mighty Muckdogs. Yep, Daddy’s proud. Can’t wait…

 

Tomorrow night, Benny plays his season opener against that vicious group of 4-6 year-olds called the Thunder. As I write, both teams are undefeated. Oh yeah, it’s the opener. For Benny, it will be the first time that he’s ever picked up a bat other than a wiffle ball bat or some other toy we employ for some type of ball around the house. I hope he’s as excited…but less nervous…than I am…as I reflect on my own baseball career.

 

Travel back with me to my first Little League experience. Way back when in, gulp, 1968. (Yep, it’s not lost on me that I was nine days shy of my 49th birthday when Benny was born.) 1968. LBJ in the White House. Protests over the Vietnam War. Both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, tragically, that year.. A gallon of gas cost about 5.9 cents, although some gas stations just gave it away. I’m the youngest of three boys, and my older-older brother, Dan, is close to his Bar-Mitzvah date.

 

Having signed up for baseball (the recreation association was called Greentree, where I grew up in Mt. Laurel, NJ), I was awaiting the call. A man named Mr. Seltzer phoned and said that I would be playing for the Phillies. Pretty cool—even if the Phillies more-or-less sucked between the 1950 Whiz Kids edition and the 1976 NL East champions squad. He told me that our first practice was on Saturday, April 6. Could I make it? Of course, I said. When I hung up and told my parents, they mentioned one little technicality. My brother’s Bar-Mitzvah was on that date. Since I couldn’t drive myself and wanted to keep a roof over my head, I had to bail on the practice. I think that I missed the other practices because of Passover. No, my baseball career did not start out in the most auspicious fashion…

 

As obsessed as I am with sports, I did not even realize that they offered tee-ball for 4-year-olds. Last Friday after pre-school, I took Benny to the school playground. In the distance, I noticed a father hitting balls to his kid on the open field. When the boy came over to where his mom and little sister were, I saw that he was wearing baseball shoes. He looked much bigger than Benny, but they were actually close to the same height. They played well together while I talked to his father, who happened to be the coach of the Muckdogs. He informed me that I missed the registration and the team’s practices, but they’d be starting their 18-game schedule soon and if he wanted to play, just tell the league commissioner (Yes, there’s a man named Marty, who has been the Cherry Hill National League commish for the last 30 years.) that he’d like to play for the Muckdogs and that its okay with him.

 

Yes, one generation later—one long-ass generation later, at that—another Goldberg boy will make his baseball debut in a game after missing all of his practices…

 

My memory is not perfect, but I do recall the salient details of my first game. We were playing Lenola, a team that would go undefeated that year. At the time, I was one of those kids who the coach was forced to play his two innings and get his one turn at-bat. I wouldn’t turn 9 until that summer and most of the kids were a year or so older than me. I still remember looking at the first baseman instead of the pitcher as strikes one, two and three all whizzed by me. And, did I mention that the coach’s son—who was a little bit out there—punched me in the eye. Perhaps, by accident. Not sure. This was quite a few years ago. Yes, a most auspicious debut, it was not.

 

My Mom, of blessed memory…and bless her heart…would later tell me that other parents were complaining that I played, even though I had missed the team’s practices. As if I were some prima donna who thought I was too good for practice. This was my first year of public school, after attending a Jewish day school through second grade. I didn’t think about it too much then, but yes, there were some creeps and anti-Semites among the parents. The crap we remember…

 

I met up with David, the Muckdogs coach, at the playground yesterday to get Benny’s uniform. It’s awesome, and complete with jersey, baseball pants, high socks and cap. The jersey even has a patch that shows that the CH National League is affiliated with Cal Ripken Baseball and the Babe Ruth League. And then, there’s the field. When I paid my registration to the commish a couple nights ago, there was a girl’s softball game on the main field. The lights were resplendent, the grass was manicured like a big league park, the fence provided a nice blue background and the bleachers accommodated many fans. There were even kids up in the offices giving player introductions over the PA system. and a big, electronic scoreboard in center field. Other than the romance of corn stalks and Shoeless Joe in one’s huge backyard, this had almost everything that idyllic Americana might offer…

 

By the end of my first year with the Phillies, I started to get the hang of things, if just a little. I knew where the pitcher’s mound was located and even got the occasional hit. Apparently, I even went from the kid who had to play two innings…God help us…to someone who may have even started a game or two. I’m not sure about that, either, but suspect so.

 

In fourth grade, I was a member of the Cardinals and, free to attend practice, soon realized, almost shockingly, that I was one of our best two or three players. Our team even started the season 8-3. My friend Jeff, who was a neighbor, and the only other Jewish kid on this team, then boldly predicted that we would sweep the rest of our games to finish 17-3. His vision was more or less realized. We lost our next three, and I missed our next four games on a family vacation. My first call was to Jeff’s house, and I found out that we had lost all four. I returned to the lineup in time to help us lose the last two to complete our nine-game losing streak. Ah, the stuff we recall.

 

Little League Baseball proved mostly a good thing, but with the occasional disappointments. I never won a championship, but did play for several second place teams, and usually was an all-star player who pitched and played third base. And yes, I became good enough to make one travel team and get cut later from a couple others. Not that this bothers me. To this day, or anything. I also became a good enough player to get cut from my high school team as a freshman and a sophomore. And yes, I try not to curse—especially in print—but it was a fucking travesty that I did not make the team. I feel better now. Then again, Larry Bowa, an all-star, Gold Glove shortstop (and near Hall of Famer), successful manager (well, somewhat) and terrific analyst once got cut from his high school team. And look what he accomplished. Me? I moved over to the tennis team, and loved it, (still do) but baseball is still my number one pastime—as a player, couch potato and scribe.

 

The little kid in me still comes out on the softball field, and I still get totally bummed out if I ever have to miss a game. Or even a practice. I pride myself that nobody will ever give more effort or play with more intelligence and passion than I do. What can I say? I wasn’t blessed with superior skills, but can still hang around the upper echelon of the softball league that I play in. It would be a dream to play alongside my son one day as others in our league have, and maybe I’ll both defy the aging process and get in much better shape so that this will happen.

 

Then again, will Benny even enjoy baseball? Will his debut be better than mine? It’s hard to imagine that it will be worse, and the ball will be sitting on a tee for him—so he won’t look for the first baseman to pitch to him. Not that I’m expecting any resounding hits in his debut. Most importantly, will he make new friends, gain self-confidence and have lots of enjoyable moments? Will he avoid some of the, um, muck, that I was greeted with as a young Phillie, and in future years? Will he only remember the good times?

 

Time will tell, and I’ll be rooting for him as much as any good, conscientious father should—and hopefully, no more so.

 

Go, Muckdogs!

 

Image of (Batavia) Muckdogs cap courtesy of http://muckdogs.milbstore.com/

 

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