The Dogtown Hero
June 3, 1959: For as long as he could remember Roscoe had been in training to be a hero.
He had tested his nerve with many a daredevil stunt. At summer camp he had won every patch available from the National Rifle Association. And, he had listened attentively to his grandfather's words on being honest, fist-fighting and baseball. On this day his true test had arrived -- the biggest baseball game of Roscoe's career and the contest was on the line.
The situation: bottom of the last inning, men on first and third. With one out, his side was two runs down.
Roscoe Swift, a lean boy of eleven with sandy hair and clear blue eyes, lived with his mother and her parents in Dogtown, just south of Richmond, Virginia. Actually, his mother lived somewhat separately in her studio over the garage. She was a sometime commercial artist and didn't venture outside in any weather that didn't suit her; sometimes she wouldn't answer the phone or the door.
When Roscoe was two his mother split up with his father, who went back in the Army and subsequently died in a helicopter crash in Korea. And, since his mom refused to talk about his dad -- she destroyed all photographs of him -- the boy's blurry picture of the man had been pulled out of the air. His grandmother always said his father had "a wonderful smile."
School was easy for Roscoe. He took pride in being able to turn in a paper first and get every question right. Most of his trouble stemmed from his bad temper, which prevented him from getting good grades in conduct. Baseball was what mattered to Roscoe. During baseball season he routinely calculated the up-to-date batting averages of his favorite Major League players before he went to school.
Two of the fifth-grade classes had finished the year tied, forcing a playoff game to decide the championship. Following lunch, all four fifth-grade classes at Gittes Creek Elementary had been given the afternoon to watch the two teams settle the issue. Students with no taste for baseball had the option of watching a documentary film about Jamestown's 350th anniversary.
Thus, there was a pretty good crowd for the title game.
As he took his practice swings, Roscoe reminded himself of the situation. "No grounder," he thought as he knocked red dust off his sneakers with the bat, as if they were spikes. "Drive it out of the infield. No double play."
A group of some 15 men, fathers, uncles and a few old ballplayers from the surrounding area added a measure of authenticity to the crowd. Girls from the two classes involved were acting as cheerleaders. No one could remember that ever happening before. In 1959 baseball was still unquestionably America's National Pastime, and in Dogtown even fifth-grade baseball was important.
Swift stood in the batter's box on the first base side of home-plate. A natural right-hander, he had decided that if the best hitter in the game -- Ted Williams -- batted left-handed, that was good enough. Roscoe had been practicing swinging left-handed for months in neighborhood pickup games. Finally, he had to test it in a real game that mattered. This was it.
His best friend on the team, Bake, cheered him on as he stood touching first base. However, several of his teammates implored him from the bench to bat right-handed, since the season was on the line. Butterflies the size of eagles disquieted Roscoe's stomach.
Stepping out of the box, the batter took three slow and deliberate practice swings. He looked at the crowd on the third base line. The cheerleaders were chanting, "Ros-coe, Ros-coe, he's our man. If he can't do it, nobody can."
His grandfather, who had taken the afternoon off for the first time in Roscoe's memory, stood in the shade of a large oak tree with the other men. Narrowing his gray eyes beneath the flat brim of his straw hat the old man watched the game, as only he could.
On the first base line, the other team's cheerleaders and fans booed and hooted at Roscoe. Thinking of Williams, he dug in and did his best to ignore them.
However, there was a particular girl, with a strawberry-blonde ponytail and lively blue eyes, cheering for the other team. Her name was Susie and he always noticed her. This time was no exception. The best thing to say never came to mind when she was near. She made him feel short of breath. So he watched her from a distance with a sense of longing he could neither understand nor ignore.
Although Susie was calling for his downfall, he was glad she was there.
Back in the box, Roscoe shifted most of his weight to his back foot and turned his front foot thirty degrees toward first base. Relaxing his hands, he squinted his eyes and squared his jaw.
The pitcher threw the first pitch outside and in the dirt. It got by the catcher but a no-stealing ground rule didn't allow the base-runners to advance.
Sure the next pitch would be across the plate, Roscoe leaned back harder and prepared to cut the ball in half. The pitcher went into his stretch as the infielders behind him chattered encouragement.
Roscoe took a big roundhouse swing.
Roscoe heard the laughter from his opponents and their classmates. Nonetheless, he didn't look at anyone on either baseline. He knew he'd shut his eyes as he'd swung the bat. His cheeks flushed as he pulled his baseball cap's brim down on his brow. Again, he relaxed his wrists and fingers and leaned back. He took in a deep breath and let it out slowly.
"It only takes one to hit it!" Bellowed his grandfather through cupped hands.
Working from an exaggerated full stretch, the pitcher confidently cut loose with the same pitch -- a fastball. Swinging from his heels, Roscoe rolled his wrists and tagged the ball sweetly.
Over the second baseman's glove the ball left the infield with dispatch. It was still rising as it split the seam between the right and center fielders. They chased it down the grassy slope and all the way into the winding trickle of a creek that bordered the schoolyard.
The utter perfection of the bat's perfectly-timed kiss on the horsehide's sweet spot resonated through his body. Roscoe heard the furor as he ran like a monster was chasing him. Rounding third base, he nearly caught up with Bake.
"Slow down, they haven't even found it yet," Bake advised over his shoulder with a sarcastic chuckle.
Roscoe's euphoric classmates were jumping around wildly. His grandfather smiled as he waved his straw hat. Teammates, suddenly champions, were pounding him on his back as he approached home plate. Meanwhile, his capacity to comprehend the moment was red-lining.
He looked at Susie on the quiet side of the field. The way her head tilted to the side, the position of her limbs, something about her stance or gesture made him feel disoriented. It was as though he was viewing the event from a number of different angles, simultaneously. He felt both inside and outside the scenario.
Roscoe's mind raced and the rest of the world seemed to slow down. As he strained to pull all the elements together he heard an explosion.
For the first time in his life all that Roscoe surveyed seemed absolutely vivid. He rode the moment like an expert surfer on a perfect wave as he crossed home plate. It hadn't occurred to him to lope around the bases, almost nonchalantly, a la Teddy Ballgame. As far as the ball rolled, he could have but he'd been too excited.
More importantly, he had remembered to not tip his cap. If the batting king and ace fighter pilot of the Korean War, Ted Williams, No. 9, never tipped his cap to the public on his home run trot -- which he never did -- that was more than good enough for Roscoe, who was soaring above his dark doubts.
He was up there where a real hero doesn't have to tip his cap, or sit quietly at his desk until the last bell at school rings.
Later, when Roscoe asked around, he found out no one else had heard the explosion that to him had sounded so clear. Rather than ask too many questions, he put that mystery in the hidden place with some other mysteries.