Everyone who's ever played Little League baseball knows about The Monster.
The physical talent level of kids in the post-T-ball, pre-Babe Ruth years of Little League is, for the most part, even. Sure, there'll be the one kid who can catch pretty well, the one kid who tracks down fly balls, and the incompetent head case who gets relegated to right field in order to cut down on the number of inside-the-parkers he gives up. But everyone has roughly the same size and strength. We're all just learning here, right?
AP Photo/Tom E. Puskar
A growth spurt at the right time can turn you into a Little League slugger.
You hear that, Scott? I hate you, and I know where you work. Watch your back.
All Little League Monsters share two qualities in varying degrees:
1. They're the only kid on their team who can hit legitimate home runs.
Most Little League home runs are inside-the-park jobs, aided by four or five errors from the defense. Monsters hit those, of course. But they also jack a few real-life shots, as well. Little League fences are only about 200 feet away from home plate. For ordinary people like you and me, that might as well be center field at the old Polo Grounds. But not for the Monsters. It's as if each batting order had eight Julio Lugos batting around one Barry Bonds, at his head's widest circumference.
2. Monsters' fastballs are lightning-fast, but they have no control.
Getting hit by a pitch sucks. It's hard enough to actually make good contact with the ball without worrying about whether it's going to break your nose. This is the secret weapon of all Monsters. I vividly remember my final at-bat in my last Little League season, when I was 12 years old. The opposing team brought in a highly evolved Monster who could reach speeds somewhere between Nolan Ryan's best fastball and a 10-megajoule naval rail gun. Needless to say, his first pitch was 2 inches over my head. The next three were roughly in the same spot, but I swung at them nonetheless. We were down by eight runs already, and I was too young to die.
The toughest Monster of my Little League career was a tall, gangly kid with a blond mop-top named Kyle. He was my athletic nemesis, as much as a no-hit/decent-field kid can have a nemesis. Whenever we faced off, he would either: (a) strike me out, or (b) plunk me. I had a lifetime OBP of around .500 against him, but that came at the expense of various important parts of my anatomy. He was terrifying. Every time he wound up, it looked as if he were about 3 feet away from me, and his fastball (when it wasn't, literally, the last thing going through my mind) actually had a bit of movement on it, so hitting it was out of the question.
It's fitting, then, that my team played his team in our town's championship game one year. My memory of the particulars is hazy, but I'm pretty sure my team was the Red Sox, and his was the Cubs. Make of that what you will.
Anyway, my team was down by four runs in the final inning of that game. The other team's starter, who had pitched a pretty good game up until that point, faltered and loaded the bases with two outs.
I strode to the plate. The other team's manager called a timeout and went to talk to his pitcher. He signaled to the dugout, and out strode Kyle.
Now, I possess a realistic assessment of my strengths and weaknesses. My strength, in this case, was a pretty good batting eye, whereas my weakness was everything else. I stood in the on-deck circle, going through scenarios in my mind, and finally coming to the conclusion that I was going to have to take one for the team. As Kyle threw his final warm-up pitch, I strode to the batter's box, confident in my ability to endure a bit of temporary pain for a chance to extend the inning for the top of our lineup. (Did I mention I was at the bottom of the lineup? That should be obvious by now, but I feel it's pertinent to the story.)
AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar
Little League fireballers can make kids cower in the batter's box.
My plan was suddenly out the window. Teeth chattering, I inched to the back of the box and tried desperately to compensate. Strikes one and two came, perfect meatballs down the middle. Any other time, I might have swung at them, except for the fact that they were bracketed by two pitches which seemed destined to render me unconscious. Somehow, I worked the count to 3-2.
Every kid dreams about this, right? Bottom of the ninth, two outs, bases loaded, full count? I resolved to swing at the next pitch, so long as it was a strike. I'd like to say I glared at Kyle when I got back in the box, but it was probably more like a squint.
Kyle wound up.
He threw the pitch.
The ball crossed the plate -- at my ankles.
That last part is very important, because the ankles, traditionally, are not part of the strike zone. I read Ted Williams' book on hitting, you know. You're not supposed to swing at a pitch that's 2 freaking inches off the ground, regardless of the count. That's good baseball.
Consequently, you can imagine my surprise when the umpire's hand came up and he shouted, "STRIKE THREE!"
I couldn't believe it. I turned to argue with him, but it was futile -- the other team had already surrounded its own personal Monster, trying gamely to toss him in the air. I slumped off the field, sat against a fence and stared into space. I was the victim of a sports movie cliché -- and not even a good one. My life, such as it was, was over.
Later, my dad bought me pizza, and it turned out that my life wasn't quite over. I haven't talked to Kyle since, but I don't harbor any grudges. I wish nothing but misery and despair for that umpire. (At my ankles, you Mr. Magoo reject!) But I'm sure, if Kyle and I met today, we'd be cool.
At least until he beans me again.
Joe DeMartino is an editor for ESPN.com.