Catcher in the wry

by | Mar 10, 2022

The following is an excerpt from the book “Desert Standard Time,” by Greg Brannan (1956-2013) available HERE on Amazon. Many thanks to the Brannan family for making these stories about growing up in the 60s and 70s in rural Arizona available to CNM-News.

Photo by PublicDomainPictures

Desert kids never bought into the mystique of “the great American pastime” apparently enjoyed in other regions of the country, nor did we understand why “The Boys of Summer” was a nostalgic euphemism for baseball players.

Our ambivalence toward baseball was due, at least in part, to our weather, which didn’t require us to engage in sports on a seasonal basis. There was no threat of coming snow forcing us to compress any particular game into the summer months. We knew only two kinds of weather—winter was hot and summer was dangerously hot. Naturally, we went outside to play in both of our desert seasons.

Left to our own devices-meaning without parental influence we gravitated to football. For us, football was a beautifully simple game. If you ran faster than kids on the opposing team and crashed into them harder than they crashed into you, you would likely prevail. This was a concept our young, heat stressed minds could comprehend.

Not so with baseball. It isn’t simply that hitting a ball with a bat was one of the hardest things to do in all of sports, but to play the game well, you had to employ strategies that required a high degree of concentration. Maintaining that much focus demanded an attention span greater than that of your average German shepherd. That put us at a distinct disadvantage.

Why, then, would otherwise right-minded adults force children into such a complex sport? There must not be a good answer to that question because the first generation that was subjected to little league baseball came up with T-Ball, a less demanding variation of the grand old game, for their little darlings. Our poorly-played little league games dragged on unmercifully. Mom gave birth to my sister Janie while waiting for the third out that would bring one such marathon of mediocrity to an acceptable stopping point. We knew we stunk, but it wasn’t our fault. We wouldn’t have bothered with the game at all had our dads not invested so much time and energy organizing those silly leagues. But what the hell, you got keep your perspiration stained cap at the end of the season, and after each game Coach Hatter popped for snow cones.

The emergence of Coach Hatter’s son as a gifted pitcher resulted in our one shining season. Umpires loved Louie Hatter. His unique ability to throw the ball relatively near the strike zone meant that games might conclude before the score ran as high as the temperature. But Louie’s pitching was just one of the keys to our success that season. The other was Coach Hatter’s revolutionary “Big Catcher Strategy.”

Before Coach Hatter changed the look of our little league forever, catchers were usually little guys who could scramble quickly to the backstop. That might prevent a fleet-footed base runner from stretching a wild pitch into a two-base error. Then came Buddy Jackson, the biggest kid in two counties. Even Louie’s most errant curve ball was likely to plow deep into Buddy’s chest protector and fall harmlessly in front of him with a dull thud.

I can’t remember every kid who played on our team that summer, but I will always remember Buddy Jackson. I know Matt Stevens will forever try to forget him.

Buddy Jackson and Matt Stevens could not have been more different from one another. Buddy was huge in an environment that was exceedingly unkind to people of considerable girth. Even during the coolest months, Buddy’s upper lip sported a mustache of beaded perspiration. And during the hot months, he was the last kid you wanted to sit next to on a crowded school bus. Not that Buddy was any more or less hygienic than other kids. Most of us entered a bathtub only at gunpoint. It’s just that sitting next to the perpetually perspiring Buddy was always an uncomfortably moist experience.

Matt Stevens, on the other hand, always looked as though he stepped from the pages of the Sears catalogue the dreaded publication which featured ill-fitting jeans in navy, rust, and avocado. Every August my mom dutifully ordered those ugly pants, signaling the end of summer fun.

One game day before the awful jeans arrived, our winning streak was on the line. The ever-pristine Matt Stevens had just performed the pre-game ritual of emptying the equipment bag in front of the dugout. He was kicking the pile of gear into an accessible spread when something caught his attention. Reaching past the face mask, shin guards, and chest protector that transformed Buddy into a knight in dusty armor, Matt picked up a pear-shaped piece of gray plastic vented with six prominent air holes. He drew it near his face for closer examination, cocking his head to one side like a curious puppy. Then Matt did the unthinkable, he pressed the item firmly over his nose and mouth and asked in a pitifully muted voice, “What’s this for?”

Matt was the only one in the ballpark unaware that he was drawing air through Buddy Jackson’s rancorous crotch protector.

The team reacted instantly and in unison. We fell to the ground, yet things were strangely quiet, for we were experiencing that rarest form of laughter—the silent scream variety.

We never quite recovered. Our hitting, fielding, and Louie’s usually reliable pitching were infected with an unrelenting case of the giggles. Even stoic Coach Hatter was reduced to silliness. Normally a pillar of reserve in the first base coaching box, he intermittently turned his back on the infield in a valiant attempt to hide his laughter and spare Matt further humiliation. Yet on each occasion, his laughter was given away by the bobbing of this skinny shoulders. It was our only loss of the season, but no one ever complained about it.

Those of us on the team wondered how Matt would possibly survive the torment that surely awaited him when school resumed in September. We never found out. His family moved quietly away later that summer.

Over the years, I came to realize what a compassionate man Matt’s father must have been. He realized there were certain indignities in life a boy should not have to endure-in Matt’s case, living down that moment with Buddy Jackson’s crotch protector on his face was one of them.