Budd’s Auto Body Angels
It was twenty years ago when Tiger Van Garth hit the grand slam home run that changed the course of little league history in our town.
Nobody was more surprised than Tiger. He stood there at home plate with the bat still in his hands, an expression of stunned disbelief on his elfin face. The ball had just sailed over the right field fence, easily clearing the big Meyer's Meats billboard and disappearing into the weeds. It was the first time Tiger had ever done anything but walk or strike out, and I think for a moment he was stumped. His natural showmanship quickly took over, however, and he circled the bases tipping his cap like an old pro.
The crowd went wild. But then Tiger -- all four feet of him -- had always been a crowd favorite.
Which is probably why I hated his guts. No, I hated him for a lot of reasons. Tiger made a mockery of the game I loved. It wasn't bad enough that I had to play on the worst team in the league; I had to share that team with someone like Tiger Van Garth. At least that was how I felt until the day he hit the grand slam.
Our team? Budd’s Auto Body Angels. Founded by Bud himself, a former high school first baseman and current alcoholic with romantic dreams of creating a baseball dynasty in his own name.
He was deeply disappointed. The Angels were a failure from the beginning. In part, this was Budd’s own fault; his drunken abusiveness and frequent threats of violence were bad for morale.
A fair share of the blame also belonged to our manager, Mr. Garrison, whose heart was much too soft for a man in his position. Mr. Garrison was incapable of turning anyone down. Every short, skinny, klutzy, near-sighted geek in town who wanted to play little league baseball ended up on the Angels. Even Tiger.
I was an Angel by default. My original team, the far more successful Pirates, was disbanded after the sudden retirement of our manager (Mr. Ferguson, of Ferguson's Deli, who ran off with one of his cashiers). My Pirate teammates and I were redistributed throughout the league. Bad luck brought me to the Angels; a bad attitude was the result.
"You know what the problem with you is, Gold?" asked Mr. Garrison.
We were sitting together on the bench. It was Saturday morning batting practice.
"I have a bad attitude?"
Either he didn't hear me or I was being ignored. "You have a bad attitude, that's what the problem with you is. Do you know what I mean by a bad attitude?"
"Well, let me tell you what I mean. Now, I know you're not happy here. Maybe the rest of the players don't quite live up to your expectations. But let me tell you something, every last one of those boys out there is doing his best for the team."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"Whereas I don't have the feeling that you are giving your all here. What do you have to say to that?"
A wild pitch went sailing between us. Mr. Garrison cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, "Good speed on the pitch there, Dennis! Try to aim for home plate though, okay? Attaboy." He turned back to me. "Listen, Davey, you're a pretty good ballplayer. Just do me a favor and make a little more of an effort, okay? We may not be the Pirates, but we could have a good ball club here if everyone pulls together. Do you understand what I'm telling you?"
He slapped me on the back. "Good. Now let me see you go out there and hit one for the old gipper."
He actually said that. I decided that Mr. Garrison had a weak mind as well as a soft heart. I intentionally struck out on three pitches and then sat back down on the bench.
"Good swings out there, Davey," Mr. Garrison said.
The guy was hopeless.
Tiger was even worse. First, of course, was his name. What kind of a name is Tiger Van Garth? A legal one in his case, which he proved to me one day by displaying his social security card. It figured that he would carry one, just like it figured that his uniform was perfectly pressed and his glove brand new.
Tiger was a sort of baseball dandy. He was always straightening his pants, tucking in his shirt, wiping the dirt from his shoes. I couldn't imagine him ever sliding into a base. Too messy.
Tiger couldn't play baseball, but he had all the mannerisms down. He would select a bat, swing it a few times, spit, hit his shoes with the bat, adjust his helmet, step up to home plate, adjust his pants, spit a final time, and then swing wildly at whatever pitch came his general way. He usually struck out.
Because he was so small, Tiger also sometimes walked. Once on first base he would continue his performance, tying his shoes, chattering to the batter, taking a big lead to distract the pitcher. It was tiresome as hell.
The rest of the Angels didn't share my view.
"Why don't you lay off him?" our pitcher, Dennis "Monster" Johnson, said to me one day. I was complaining about Tiger again.
"Yeah," said Alan "Twitchy" Phelps, our catcher, "what'd he ever do to you?"
"At least he's trying," said Eddie "Hippo" Schmidt, as he swallowed one Hostess Twinkie and then started in on another. "You don't even try."
Tiger was in the on-deck circle swinging a bat around.
"Look at him," I said. "Why does he even bother? Everyone knows he's never going to get a hit."
"Like I already said," Monster repeated, "why don't you lay off him? He's a good kid. He can't help it if he's small. Leave him alone, Gold."
Monster was getting mad. I could tell, because his ears were turning red. He had been named monster for a good reason, since he was about twice the size of a normal eleven-year-old and not exactly a looker. It seemed like a good idea to pacify him.
"Okay," I said. "You're right, I'm being too hard on the poor kid. I'll leave him alone."
Monster smiled. That smile sent fear into the hearts of opposing batters. Not because Monster was a good pitcher, which he wasn't, but because he often smiled before throwing a wild pitch. It was one of his quirks, like the reddening ears. Since Monster's pitches traveled at terrifying speeds, he held the league record for batters diving to the ground in self preservation. Speaking for myself, I dreaded batting practice on days when Monster was pitching. I hated the idea of giving up my life for Budd’s Auto Body Angels.
"Good," Monster replied. He handed me a bat. "You're up. Let's see what you can do for once."
Tiger had walked, so he was on first base. It was a close game, by Angel standards; we were only losing by twelve runs.
I sauntered up to the plate. The first ball I hit was a line drive. It shot straight at Tiger, who ducked just in time. The ball went out of bounds. I heard Monster growling in back of me somewhere.
The next pitch was a fastball, right down the middle. I waited just long enough and then knocked it into right field for a stand-up triple.
One thing I can say about Tiger is that he was fast. He came charging into home plate before I even reached second. His arms were raised in triumph. The Angels surrounded him, pounding on his back. Mr. Garrison hugged him. The crowd cheered. Nobody paid the slightest bit of attention to me.
Except for Bud. He clambered out of the grandstand and swayed onto the field hooting and waving his brown paper bag. "Hallelujah," he cried, "finally a little sonovabitch who can hit!" He tottered before me. "I love you, sonny," he said, leaning over and sloppily kissing me on the cheek. His unshaven face felt like rusty steel wool. He smelled like a brewery and locker room combined. I could not believe that my life had sunk to this level.
I declared war on the Angels.
My campaign was simple in design and execution. I would do just as Mr. Garrison had asked. I would make an effort. And the rest of my sorry team would look even worse than usual by comparison.
The plan backfired, of course. After my third home run in as many games, I was unanimously elected team captain. Monster pounded on my back and threw me in the air, almost causing permanent damage. Bud kissed me again, this time on the lips.
There was only one explanation. I had died and gone to little league hell.
Tiger was now driven to new heights of enthusiasm. He chattered at me constantly. "Come on, Davey, Davey boy, yeah, all right, Captain, that's the way to swing at the ball, yeah, slug one outta here baby, all right, good swing, good swing, Captain, attaboy big guy..."
I was fast becoming the laughingstock of the league. The more Tiger carried on, and the more games we lost, the worse it became. My ex-teammates were particularly amused. Several were now with Halvorsen's Fine Furniture Orioles, the team that had held first place since late June, and I dreaded it more each time we played them. The abuse was relentless.
Finally, I did the only rational thing a man in my situation could do. I tried to drown Tiger.
Let me start off by saying that it was an accident. I had no idea Tiger couldn't swim. Would I have pulled him out if my intentions were truly homicidal? In any event, the finger of blame should be pointed at Mr. Garrison, who assigned Tiger and I to hunt down missing balls behind right field that day. Rain had been falling for the past week, and the brook that ran through the woods back there was unusually high. Mr. Garrison should have known better than to provide that kind of temptation.
Several balls had rolled into the water and been carried downstream to a deep pool. Tiger and I tried to get at them with fallen branches, but we couldn't reach. It made perfect sense for me to hang onto Tiger by the shirt while he stretched across the water with a branch. It made even more sense for me to let go.
Tiger came up flailing and sputtering. When he went under again, I realized that he was in trouble and dove after him.
This was not a pleasant experience. The water was cold, and I had a feeling that the sewage treatment plant several blocks away was using the brook for its own ends. I finally managed to drag Tiger onto the bank, where we both lay gasping.
Tiger was the first to stand. In spite of being covered almost head to toe with mud and slime, he took a moment to carefully tuck his shirt back in and pull up his socks. He removed one shoe, emptied out the water, and repeated the procedure with the other shoe. He sneezed, pulling the soggy remains of a tissue out of his rear pocket and blowing his nose. All of this was done with a sort of beleaguered dignity, like Charlie Chaplin. Then he held out his hand and grinned. "I guess I owe you my life, Captain," he said. "I'll try to continue playing the kind of baseball that makes you proud."
I am still not certain how I restrained myself from tossing him back in.
Word of our adventure spread. Tiger embellished the tale at every opportunity. The brook became a "raging river," the pool a "bottomless pit." The town newspaper ran a front-page story entitled "Little League Hero." I was a local celebrity. I am embarrassed to admit that it went straight to my head.
Tiger didn't help.
"Now stepping up to bat, the man of the hour, of the decade, of the century, the man who courageously risked his life to save my own, team captain Davey Gold!"
The crowd loved me. The team loved me. Most of all, I loved me. Somehow, I managed to repress all memories of trying to exterminate Tiger. I actually believed in my own heroism.
The Angels were thrilled; they had never included a hero on their roster before. Suddenly, they began playing almost like a real team. Monster was pitching the ball nearer and nearer to home plate. The Jenkins twins, in left and right field, were catching fly balls once in a while. Hippo stole a base. And Tiger was everywhere, patting our backs, cheering us on, handing us our bats and telling us to knock the ball to the moon, to the friggin' moon.
It seemed only a matter of time before the Angels would begin to lose by less humiliating margins. We might even manage a tie someday. Instead, the unthinkable happened. The Angels won.
"Gentlemen, I would like to propose a toast."
Mr. Garrison held up his glass of Coke.
We were in Boyle's Ice Cream Parlor, where Bud had taken us to celebrate. League tradition was for the team sponsor to buy ice cream cones after a victory; Bud was springing for triple sundaes and sodas. (His original offer was for "beer, pizza, and babes," but Mr. Garrison frantically talked him out of it.)
Angels were sprawled everywhere. Mr. Boyle glowered at the mess we had created in his shop. Wet napkins had been rolled up into balls and used to reenact critical moments of the game; sodas had been poured over heads; ice cream had been dumped on tables. Tiger was practicing his autograph on the counter.
Our popularity with Mr. Boyle was not enhanced by the fact that we had just beaten Boyle's Ice Cream Braves. Still, perhaps out of good sportsmanship, Mr. Boyle did not eject us.
Budd’s threat to drive his tow truck through the front door if we were asked to leave may also have had something to do with it.
Mr. Garrison blew his whistle. "Gentleman, may I have your attention, please? Thank you.
"First, let's have three cheers for our team captain, a genuine hero without whom our good friend Tiger would not be with us here today. Not to mention a great little home run hitter. I bet that ball is halfway to California by now."
The team cheered and pounded on the tables.
"Next, how about three cheers for our pitching ace Dennis, who held the worthy opposition" -- a smile at Mr. Boyle here -- "to just four runs today."
More pounding, along with the sound of breaking glass. Mr. Boyle shuddered.
"And now let's have three cheers for the Angels. I'm really proud of you guys. I knew you could do it. Let's go out there and do it again!"
We lost our next five games. Everything just fell apart. Bud got so drunk during the third game that it took most of the team to load him into a taxi. I entered the worst slump of my little league career, striking out eight times in a row and then grounding twice into double plays.
None of which affected Tiger. "All right, men," he said, pacing back and forth in front of the bench. "So we've hit a cold spell. We can break it. We can do it."
"Shut up, Tiger," I said. I had just struck out again. "Why don't you just shut up?"
The Angels went dead silent, watching us.
"Come on, Captain, tell them. Tell them they can do it."
"You mean lie?"
"No, tell them the truth. We did it once, we can do it again. Come on, Captain, lead us to victory."
"How about if I just walk on water? The odds are better."
Tiger glared at me. It was the first time I had ever seen him mad. "All right," he said quietly, "if you won't do it, then I will."
He stalked off. Monster and a few others went after him. The rest of the team busied itself ignoring me.
It didn't matter. None of it mattered. I was going to hang up my glove and bat at the end of the season. There had to be a better way to spend my time than with this bunch of losers.
Our final game was to be played against Halvorsen's Fine Furniture Orioles, who I now considered my sworn enemies. The caricatures of "Captain Hero" appearing around town were not flattering, and I had a pretty good idea of who was responsible.
Mr. Garrison called a team meeting before the game.
"Men," he said, "there comes a time in every manager's career when he's got to lay it on the line. This is one of those times. Waiting on the other side of this field for you are the Orioles, the team that is leading the league in home runs, triples, doubles, runs batted in, and number of victories. They are in first place, and we are in last. It hasn't escaped my notice that some members of the Orioles have not been giving us the respect that should be our due.
"Though statistics indicate that the Orioles are the best team in our league, I disagree. I say the Angels are the best team. And I'll tell you why. Because the Angels have heart. At least they have up until now. I don't mind telling you that I've been disappointed in you during the last few games. Not because you lost, but because you didn't try hard enough to win. So what I want to see out there today is the old Angel spirit. Are you with me?"
There were a few scattered cheers. It was a nice try, but the Angels weren't buying. We knew we were screwed.
Things went as anticipated for the first few innings. The Orioles ran up a big lead and then settled down to enjoy themselves. Whenever Tiger or I came to bat, the entire Orioles bench took part in harassing us.
I had passed beyond caring by that point, but Tiger was obviously disturbed. He stood at home plate staring straight at the pitcher, his hands clenching the bat, his face taut with concentration. His first time up he struck out on three pitches; the catcalls rose to a crescendo. None of the Orioles noticed how fiercely Tiger had swung at those three pitches, or how close he came to connecting.
I noticed, though. I had been watching Tiger for the last few weeks. Ever since our fight. The more dispassionate the Angels grew, the more determined of an effort came from Tiger. There was a new seriousness about him. What made the transformation even odder was that he seemed to be modeling himself after me. He imitated my batting stance, my swing, even the angle on which I wore my cap. I never thought anything could make me long for the old Tiger, but this did. It was scary.
Tiger's next time at bat seemed like a repeat performance of his first. He swung at two bad pitches and was on the verge of striking out again when he connected with the third. The ball soared straight out of the park, landing in foul territory about ten feet beyond left field.
Stunned probably isn't a strong enough word for our reaction. It didn't even matter that Tiger struck out on the next pitch; he had almost hit a home run. Tiger had almost hit a home run.
If Tiger could do it, any of us could. Suddenly we were in the game. Hippo hit a double. I broke my slump with a single. Monster hit a triple. We scored two runs that inning, and two more as the afternoon progressed.
The whole town seemed to magically appear. Sponsors, managers, and players from the rest of the league; most of the police and fire departments; our parents and brothers and sisters and cousins and dogs all filled the grandstands. Bud was whooping and hollering himself hoarse on the sidelines. The Orioles still held the lead, but they were much more subdued after allowing the worst team in the league to score four runs from them.
Tiger walked his next time up; I drove him in for another run with a double. The score was now 7-4. It remained that way until the last inning.
I have always wondered how legends are born.
Top of the ninth. The Orioles, as I said, were leading 7-4. They had one man out, and runners on first and third bases. Coming up to bat was Danny Carsillo, the kid with the best batting average and biggest mouth in the league. Danny had been having fun at our expense all season. He clearly intended to keep doing so. His cocky grin was turned up to full wattage, and when he hawked and spit it was in the direction of our bench.
Monster looked tired. His control, never much to write home about in the first place, was slipping. He could only get his pitches near the plate by throwing slowballs. Danny ate slowballs for lunch; I'm sure he was anticipating a hearty meal.
Mr. Garrison called time out and headed for the mound to confer with Monster. He was signaling for a relief pitcher when Tiger scurried in from right field and tugged on his sleeve. Mr. Garrison leaned down so Tiger could whisper in his ear.
I was not smart enough back then to understand what Tiger was up to. And I doubt that Mr. Garrison understood; he was just too nice of a guy. But I have my suspicions now.
Monster remained in the game. His first pitch took off like a rocket, crashing into the backstop a full yard left of home plate and making the chain link fence ring like a chime. Danny laughed out loud.
Monster's next pitch was thrown even harder and cleared Danny's head by inches. Danny threw himself face down in the dirt. He wasn't laughing this time. He got up slowly, uncoiling to his full height and dusting himself off. After a long moment, he turned to face the mound again, holding his bat almost like a shield.
The next pitch just barely cleared Danny's groin. He swung, yelped and fell down backwards on his ass.
Pitch number four was a slowball, which Danny swung at and missed by a foot. He twirled around like a drunken ballet dancer.
"Hey, Danny, looking good out there!" I shouted.
Monster smiled his ghastly smile. We all watched in amazed silence as his fifth pitch soared over the backstop, across the brook, and into the woods. You could hear branches snapping.
Danny now stood on the tips of his toes, trying to compress his long body into the smallest target possible. He swung timidly at the next pitch, knocking a slow ground ball right back at Monster.
Monster fielded the ball, dropped it, picked it up, tripped, and then threw it to me at first base as he was falling. I held my breath. I needn't have; it was the best pitch of Monster's career. I plucked it out of the air, stepped on the base, and then whisked it over to second for the double play. It was now our final turn at bat.
"What'd you say to Garrison?" I asked Tiger as we headed in from the field.
"Nothing much," he answered innocently. "Just that Monster probably had a couple of fastballs left in him."
The bases were loaded, there were two men out, and the eyes of the entire town were on Tiger Van Garth when he stepped up to bat in the final inning of that historic game.
The Orioles, in a gesture of truly rotten sportsmanship, all moved closer to home plate. There was much snickering and spitting and throat clearing. Danny Carsillo removed his glove and sat down on it in left field. He was loudly booed, along with the rest of his charming team, but they didn't seem to care. Halvorsen's Fine Furniture Orioles were determined to express their contempt for us, and nothing was going to stop them.
Tiger ignored it all. He kicked at the dirt around home plate, hiked up his pants, and stood quietly waiting. He let the first pitch pass, shaking his head when the umpire called it a strike.
Danny Carsillo shouted time out and ambled over to talk to the Orioles' pitcher, Bruce Jackson. He and Jackson were long-time buddies; they grew up terrorizing the same neighborhood. I figured they were planning to give Tiger the same treatment Danny had received from Monster. But it turned out that they had something else in mind.
Jackson smirked, stepped down from the mound, and threw a long, slow, gentle pitch, as if he were tossing a rubber ball to his baby sister. Tiger swung and missed, almost falling down. The Orioles jeered and applauded.
Winning the game was not going to be enough. The idea now was to humiliate Tiger.
The Orioles started chanting, "Strike him out, strike him out," an eerie rasping whisper that grew louder and louder. Tiger took a few practice swings and then settled into his stance.
I had never known Tiger to remain silent for so long, or to look so dignified and composed. He even seemed taller.
The next pitch was thrown underhand. Tiger swung and caught a tiny piece of the ball, fouling it back towards our bench. The audience went berserk, shouting "Tiger! Tiger!" over and over again.
Jackson climbed back onto the mound. He took off his cap, wiped the sweat from his forehead, carefully replaced the cap, and exchanged a nasty grin with Carsillo. Then he reared back and threw a pitch so fast I never saw it leave his hand.
And that was when Tiger Van Garth knocked the ball clean out of the park.
After a few hours of quiet celebration -- a wild parade down Main Street led by Bud in his tow truck, a food fight at Poppa's Pizza, banana splits and milk shakes and a victory cake at Boyle's Ice Cream -- I found myself sitting next to Tiger.
He was a mess. His uniform, normally so immaculate, was a bright collage of stains. His cap was on backwards, his shirt torn and unbuttoned, his pants streaked with dirt. Somewhere along the line he had lost a shoe. He looked jubilant.
I didn't know what to say to him. I had dismissed Tiger as an annoying buffoon. I had even tried to drown him. The world was suddenly much more complicated than it once seemed.
"Good game, Tiger," I told him. "Guess we both know who the real hero is on this team."
I held out my hand.
He shook it and then threw an arm around my shoulders. There was a bright sly light in his eyes that I had never seen before. Or maybe I just wasn't looking.
"I guess we're all heroes, Captain, " he said. "Every last friggin' one of us."
There was no point in fighting it any longer. Tiger had won me over. I had finally sided with the Angels.
©2009 by Robert Friedman