My Time in the Big Leagues

Reading the news that Former Minnesota Twin hall of famer Harmon Killebrew passed away the other day, I was taken back to my own brief career as a major league baseball player, in the summer of 1971. 

I became a serious fan of the major leagues in 1968, which was smack dab in the middle of that time between the Braves leaving Milwaukee for Atlanta and the Seattle Pilots becoming the Milwaukee Brewers.  Not having a local team to root for, my friends and I had to choose which major league teams we’d swear our allegiances to.  Most of my friends became Cubs fans, because Chicago was the closest city geographically, but not me. I had become a Packers fan the year before and recognized the Bears as our fiercest rival – there was no way I was going to root for any Chicago team in any sport.

So I picked the St. Louis Cardinals, who just happened to be the defending world champions at the time.  I read everything I could, until I knew everything there was to know about Brock, Flood, Cepeda, Gibson, Shannon and the others.  I checked the Milwaukee Journal sports section every day and poured over the box scores.   My second favorite team became the Minnesota Twins, with Rod Carew, Tony Oliva, and Killebrew.   I still believe the Twins of the late 60s to early 70s is maybe the greatest team to never appear in a world series.

This was years before anything like ESPN, so we had to rely upon daily box scores and the Sporting News for our information.   When we weren’t reading stats or playing Strat-O-Matic, we were outside playing the game, in backyards and in little league.  1971 was my last and best year in little league, playing on a team that played in the league championship series (we lost), and earning a nod as the starting shortstop in the all star game.

There were three baseball fields the Union Grove little league played on, the one on the old Grade School property, the field at the bottom of Boxer’s Hill by the town dump, and the brand new Middle School field.   The middle school field was the best.  Not only was it the newest, but it had a grass infield.  And it had stadium lights. 

The all-star game was played on a Thursday night in early August, and started at about 8:00.  It was just getting dark enough as the game approached that they turned on the lights.  We warmed up in the infield, and returned to our bench.  The bleachers, with a capacity I’d estimate of 50-75, were filling up, and looking back, I could see my Mom and Dad sitting in the top row down the first base line.  Then a disembodied voice over the PA system welcomed the fans to the all-star game and introduced the starting lineups.  The west team was introduced first, each player running out when their name was called, and lined up between 2nd and 3rd base.  Then it was time for the east team, the team I was on.  I had been waiting nervously, wondering how badly the announcer would butcher the name “Gourdoux”, and making sure my shoelaces remained tied so as to avoid an embarrassing trip.  Finally, the moment came, and I heard through the crisp evening air, “Starting at shortstop, David Gore-Dough”.  I ran out on the field under the lights, pleased at the correct annunciation of my name, my shoelaces still tied, and took my place next to my best friend Tom Andersen, the starting catcher.  As I basked in the glow of the stadium lights, with the sound of the announcement of my name over the PA system echoing in my head, I became aware that I was grinning, ear to ear, and that the Union Grove Middle School baseball field had transformed into Busch Field or Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park, and that I and my friends had finally made it to the major leagues.

The game began, and I remember being very nervous in the first inning as I fielded a sharply hit ground ball.  I bobbled it for a moment but was able to recover in time to control the ball and toss it to the second baseman and get the force out.  I don’t remember much else about the game except that it was nine innings and everybody played, so I was on the bench after the first three innings. 

Sometime around the sixth or seventh inning, a front moved in and the temperature dropped a few degrees.  A slight but cool breeze blew in from the north.  I didn’t notice it much as I was with my friends, goofing around on the bench.  The glamour and luster of the event had faded into a familiar comfort, and while for that moment of the introductions under the spotlight we may have been major leaguers, by about the second inning we were just kids playing baseball again and that was fine with us.

I think it was in the eighth inning when I looked up to the stands and saw my Mom and Dad, their jackets on now.  They were talking to each other, absent mindedly watching the action on the field and obviously not paying much attention, when it occurred to me that the reason they came, me playing, had ended in the third inning, and two thirds of the game remained.  My Mom, of  course, had been to all the games.   My Dad, on the other hand, had no interest in baseball, and his job driving eighteen wheelers by night had made it impossible for him to see any of my games.

Every year, my Dad had two weeks of vacation, and he always took them at the beginning of August.  We’d spend those two weeks at our trailer up north, near where he grew up and where much of his family still lived.  Vacation was two weeks of swimming, fishing, canoeing and visiting his sisters and their families, the only two weeks out of the year he’d be able to do such things.  In 1971, those two weeks up north were cut short by half a week, so that I, the third child of four, could play in the all-star game.  The image of that moment in the eighth inning, when I looked up from my goofing around at my Mom and Dad sitting in the bleachers remains etched in my memory.  It was one of the too few moments when I realized how blessed and lucky I was.  My Dad had cut four days off of the 16 days he had for vacation to watch me play three innings in a game he wasn’t interested in.  I’m sure that in conversations that will remain forever private, my Mom had told him that this game was important to me.  At that moment in the eighth inning, as he sat in his jacket in the bleachers, I knew he was cold and bored.  I knew what he had sacrificed for me.  I also knew that he’d never complain about it, never throw it up to me that I cut his vacation short.  And I knew that I was more important to him than those four days up north were.

My career as a major league baseball player lasted for about 15 minutes, or however long it took for the starting lineups to be introduced and stand under the lights on that early August night.  I may not have had the talent or the athletic gifts or the determination or drive to ever make it close to the real major leagues.  But thanks to my imagination and the love of my parents, I was able, for those 15 minutes or so, to proudly stand under the lights of an all-star game at the side of the likes of Mays, Brock, Gibson, Clemente, Seaver, Oliva and Killebrew.

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