In 1970, when I was in the fifth grade, I decided I
wanted to be a baseball player, and I decided the position I wanted to play was
Because, in my eyes, the coolest guy in all of
sports was a catcher.
His name was Johnny Bench, and he played for the
My grandfather and I watched the Reds on television
every chance we got, and we also listened to a lot of the games on radio. Every
time Bench stepped into the batter’s box, I just knew he was going to hit a
home run. And many times he did just that! He was a great hitter, but it was his
defensive play behind the plate that really impressed me back then. The
quickness on snagging foul tips, the arm strength and accuracy in picking off
runners, the masterful pitching calls. He was the best, and I wanted to be just
I can remember checking a book out of the library on
the rudiments of playing the position, and I can remember hours on the front
lawn with an older cousin who knew how to pitch. Someone in the neighborhood
sold me some beat-up gear for a couple of bucks, a mask and a chest protector
and a set of shin guards, and I thought I was on my way.
Then I got the glove.
I can’t remember for sure, but I think it was for my
tenth birthday. There was a sporting goods store within walking distance of
where I lived, but they didn’t have any catcher’s mitts. I think we looked in
the Yellow Pages and called around and finally found a place that wasn’t too
far away, and my mother drove me over there and bought the only one they had in
stock, which happened to be just right for me.
I started practicing more with my cousin in the
yard, and I can remember him telling me that I was a really good catcher. All I
needed was a chance, I thought. A chance to play on a real team.
And the summer after fifth grade I finally got that
I tried out for one of the local little league
organizations and was assigned to a team called The Orioles. Unfortunately, the
position of catcher had already been filled. Maybe next year, I thought. I
played outfield and first base, gaining some valuable experience, even though
we ended up in last place. I think we only won one game the whole season, but I
was one of the best players on the team, and I got to start every game. The
losses were frustrating, and my prized catcher’s mitt wasn’t getting any use,
but I was still having fun.
Fast forward to the summer after sixth grade.
Different league, different team, still no chance of being the catcher. The
position had been taken. Disappointing, but okay. I would play outfield, or
wherever the team needed me.
I was still only eleven at the time, but some of the
boys had turned thirteen already. These guys were good. They were stronger than
me, and more experienced, and the team manager didn’t seem to care about
anything but winning.
So I ended up sitting the bench for the first two or
Then, after practice one day, the manager told me
that he would be starting me in the next game. I was going to start! I told
everyone the great news, and several of my family members made a special effort
to make it out to the ballpark to see me play.
There I was in the outfield, making spectacular
shoestring catches to save base hits, making unbelievable leaps against the
fence to save home runs. I could see my family in the stands cheering me on.
It was a close game, but I got on base every time I
went to bat. I was doing my part to help the team. Then, bottom of the ninth,
two outs, bases loaded, and I hit a grand slam to win the game!
Only none of that happened.
When I showed up at the field that day, my name
wasn’t on the list of starting players. I asked the manager about this, and he
said he would get me in after the first couple of innings. But he didn’t. I sat
the bench the whole time.
So embarrassing. It just wasn’t right. I can
remember the shame I felt, thinking about having to face my family members
after the game. I was supposed to have started, and I didn’t even get to play.
Not one inning. Not one minute.
To my eleven-year-old self, it was just about the
worst thing that could have happened. It
was a pivotal event. At the end of the game, without saying a word, without
waiting for the post-game team meeting, I walked away from the dugout and never
catcher’s mitt went on a shelf in the closet and stayed there for a long, long
Baseball was over for me, but during my fifth and
sixth grade school years, I’d developed another interest: playing drums.
My band director for sixth grade must have seen
something he liked, some spark of talent, because he would often spend extra
time with me, sometimes to the point of being late for his next class. He was a
very special teacher, one that I’ll never forget. The next year, when I started
going to the junior high where he taught, I was the only seventh-grader in
advanced band, and by mid-year I was the #1 player in the drum section. I’d
finally found something I was really good at.
And I met another very special teacher that year.
Mr. Rhodes taught social studies, and my best friend
Bob and I had him at different times of the day. Bob and I had been working on
our own, putting together a humor magazine called The Mag. Typing paper, rubber stamps, hand drawings, just goofing
around at home and making each other laugh.
But that was about to change.
We both liked Mr. Rhodes, and we always talked about
how cool he was, and on some days we would stop by his classroom after school
and try out some of our jokes on him. I don’t think we even knew it at the
time, but he happened to be the teaching adviser for the school newspaper, and
eventually he offered to publish some of our stuff. Suddenly our crazy jokes
and drawings were being seen by hundreds of other students!
Near the end of the school year, Mr. Rhodes invited
us to pizza and a movie with the rest of the newspaper staff, and on another
occasion he took Bob and me out for a milkshake. He was the coolest teacher
we’d ever had, but at some point he made the announcement that he would not be
returning to our school the following year, that he would be moving out of
state. Bob and I kept in touch with him by mail for a while, but eventually Bob
moved to a different part of town and we didn't see each other as often and, well, so it goes.
Fast forward forty-some years.
I’d been able to reconnect with a lot of old friends
on Facebook, and one night I decided to search for Mr. Rhodes. I found a guy I
thought might be him, and I sent a message, and eventually he wrote me back.
It was him!
We started chatting via email, and I soon discovered
that Mr. Rhodes—my former junior high social studies teacher—had been the
Executive Director of the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame and Museum, and that he
was the current Team Historian.
My mind started racing.
The Cincinnati Reds.
And I still had the catcher’s mitt my mother bought
for me when I was ten.
And here it is now.
Thank you for arranging to have my childhood glove
signed by all-time favorite baseball player, Mr. Rhodes. You’re still the
coolest teacher I’ve ever had.