The Penalty-Box Home Run

March daybreak. Frosty. Spring in the air.

Calm and clear. Brooks rattling – one a soothing roar, the other a gurgling whisper. Endless dawn sky blushing to a soft, warm blue. Soon the glitter of frosted lawns would vanish under the first rays of sun peeking over the eastern horizon.

The perfect setting for an introspective walk around the neighborhood.

I’m not sure what it was near the midpoint of that daily ramble that triggered thoughts of baseball. Probably the season. Maybe sweet, sharp cardinal chirps near and far. Perhaps the invigorating cool air filling my lungs, the exercise revving my heartbeat and circulation. Reminds me of a doctor’s advice in recent years. Discussing my mangled knees, he told me “motion is lotion.” I was living it.

Alone with fleeting thoughts, I flittered back a half-century to my short, undistinguished UMass baseball career, derailed before it blossomed due to misbehavior when it was mostly cool. Walking a quick pace, I went back to places I love to revisit. From indoor Curry Hicks Cage practice and its dim batting cage, to our weeklong spring-training trip to Miami Beach, to Sunshine State incidents that greased my exit skids, and most of all to a dramatic home run that ultimately, if you can imagine, sealed my demise.

The year was 1974, my 21st birthday a few months away. I was fit and fast, strong, sturdy and perilously untamed. Sometimes I wonder how I survived. But here I sit, undaunted and unashamed.

Wild times were in the air in ’74. The Massachusetts drinking age had been lowered to 18 the previous year. Infirmary lines of young college women awaiting birth-control-pill prescriptions were long. Booze and drugs flowed a raging torrent every night of the week. Temptation lurked in every shady campus corner. Young and frisky, I just got caught up in it. My fault. No regrets.

Count me among many voluntary victims of Sixties and Seventies excesses, when barhopping and partying were not only tolerated, but encouraged. So was challenging authority. Now I’m pretty much done with all of it. Except, well, I still tend to buck authority when the situation calls for it.

Though I have for many decades been a storyteller, the tale I’m about to tell has never been told in print. There’s a simple reason. We were sworn to secrecy by our coach, Franklin County’s own Richard “Dick” Bergquist from Orange. He demanded that what had unfolded on our curfew-free final night on South Beach should stay on South Beach. No reason to air our dirty laundry at home.

Till now I have honored his request. But he’s been dead five years and the story can finally be told. Nonetheless, why name my old friends and teammates? Unnecessary.

Our vow to secrecy concerned an unfortunate late-night incident at a strip joint a block or two up Collins Avenue from our beachfront Nautilus Hotel – home to many spunky Big Apple widows living the life with bling and bravado to spare.

On an after-midnight walk back toward the hotel after our final night on the town, my Vietnam-vet teammate and I spotted blinking blue lights and commotion within sight of our hotel. We crossed the street to discover two of our scholarship pitchers – one a senior, the other a freshman – handcuffed and getting loaded into the caged back seat of a cruiser. They were under arrest, on their way to the slammer, and would need bail for release. The charge was drunk and disorderly conduct for vulgar exchanges with a stripper.

A few of our teammates had, like us, found their way to the scene, and we decided to join other teammates in an adjacent bar to ponder strategy. Maybe we could pool what little money we had left to spring our teammates from jail before the coach caught wind of their arrest.

No such luck.

We hadn’t even begun pooling our money before our coach walked through the door with the trainer and a captain. They were rounding up players to escort back to the hotel. I had never seen the coach so angry.

After taking a call from police, he had gone looking for the captains and found one of them passed out on the white, sandy beach beside a cooler, a pile of empties, and two equally inebriated spring-break college coeds. It was a scene straight out of the movie Animal House or Hunter S. Thompson Fear and Loathing debauchery, spiking his ire.

Uh-oh. Crisis mode. The wheels had flown off the wagon.

The first mistake I made was to spend much of the short walk back to our hotel chatting with the coach as only a foolhardy drunk would. Though I don’t remember the conversation, I’m sure it was typical drunken babble that only irritated him. Have you ever been a sober listener to a drunk? I have, and I shudder to think of it.

When we arrived at the hotel, we were ordered to our rooms. The party was over. Coach was ashamed of us. He scheduled an early-morning, pre-sendoff, conference-room meeting before our departure to Miami International Airport. Eight o’clock sharp. “And don’t be a second late!” he barked, before driving one of our rented three-seater station wagons to negotiate the release of his two jailed pitchers.

Coach’s anger hadn’t subsided for our morning meeting. We should be thankful, he warned us, that he didn’t have time to reassemble a roster. Never had he been a party to such unacceptable spring-trip conduct.

I think we returned to Bradley International Airport and Amherst on a Sunday. We had five days of typical cold, windy conditions to prepare for our Saturday home opener against Springfield College at Earl Lorden Field. The Springfield and Northampton newspapers previewing the game and season published a starting lineup for the opener. I was batting fifth and playing right field.

It was to be my first regular-season game in Amherst, delayed a couple of years by injury and other issues too complicated to quickly explain. The wait had been long. I was so psyched that I even went to bed early the night before the game – a rare event.

On the day of the game, I put on uniform No. 12 in the Boyden Gym locker room and walked through the tunnel and on to distant Lorden Field for batting practice and warmups. There the starting lineup was posted on the dugout bat rack, where I discovered my name stricken from the five hole and replaced by a teammate.

My blood boiled. I approached the coach for an explanation. He told me Springfield was going with a righty, so he opted for a left-handed hitter. I couldn’t conceal my anger.

Seething in the dugout for the first pitch, I removed myself from potential conflict by going to the batting cage along the left-field line. I wanted to cool down and take out my frustrations on baseballs delivered by a teammate feeding the JUGS pitching machine. When done tuning my stroke, I returned to the dugout sullen and ready to explode. I felt like I had been done dirty and was hoping for an opportunity to swing the bat.

My chance finally came in the bottom of the seventh inning. Trailing 5-1 with two outs, two runners on base and a lefty reliever on the mound, Bergquist called my name from the third-base coaching box he occupied. He wanted me to hit for the player who’d taken my spot in the original lineup.

Totally focused, I took my stance in the batter’s box, worked the count in my favor, and smoked a waist-high fastball, away, up the right-field power alley. I knew I hit it sweet but wasn’t sure it had enough lift to clear the green, eight-foot, wooden fence. So, thinking triple as I burst out of the batter’s box, I rounded second base at full speed.

Facing Bergquist, he was signaling home run by circling his hand above his head. Time to slow down. It had cleared the fence over the 375-foot sign. As I rounded third base, Bergquist offered me his congratulatory right hand, which I whacked with all my might on my way to teammates awaiting me at the plate.

For all intents and purposes, that glorious moment was the end of my promising UMass career. I was immediately removed from the lineup and handed a seven-game suspension for my defiant “hand-shake.” I had showed him up on center stage, he charged. I finished the season on the roster, but was used sparingly, and could never get comfortable in that unfamiliar role.

I guess it just wasn’t meant to be. School and baseball never mixed well for me.

Season over, I dropped out and took a job as a land surveyor. A year later, I went on the road as a professional fundraiser traveling the land. I returned to college a couple of times, lastly in UMass’ progressive University Without Walls program.

It worked for me.


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