The 1983 Dodgers benefited from my veteran leadership. I wasn't the hitter that I had once been, but I could still pick it at shortstop. And I had learned a thing or two during my career that I could pass along to the kids on the roster. Actually, we were all kids. I was thirteen years old and in my fifth and final year at Mira Costa Little League in neighboring Manhattan Beach.
Those five years would turn out to be the entirety of my "career" as a ballplayer. The growth spurt that had made me almost athletic at the age of thirteen would prove to be a aberration. By the time I made it to high school I had returned to my accustomed roundish shape, and it was clear that I was better off writing about baseball than playing it. So I settled for becoming the sports editor of my high school newspaper.
I will always look back at my little league days, though, as something like a big-league career. After all, it's as close as I got. And I packed an eventful career arc into those five years. Indulge me while I relive them in a short recap:
1979 Red Sox. Tee Ball. I was a bench-warmer/"rover" (that's the bonus player who floats around at no discernible position because, well, someone paid for him to play so he's got to play). I don't remember much about this season because I barely wanted to be there. I wasn't even a baseball fan yet. My Grandparents, bless 'em, just somehow knew it was where I belonged. (Especially after that year at Ms. Billie's Tap Dancing Studio that we will not be talking about.)
1980 Dodgers. Not as exciting as it sounds. I still didn't really care. I was a few months away from the real Dodgers catching my eye and changing my world. The mental picture I get from this season is of sitting in the dugout having non-baseball conversations with a tomboy with big round glasses who was our team's co-bench-warmer.
1981 White Sox. Things start to get interesting, mainly because now I'm interested. Still not very good, though, so I don't land a starting gig. But when our third baseman gets hit in the face with a ball and the coach asks who wants to replace him, I make my move. I cleanly field my first two chances, throwing the runner out each time, which in this league was like channeling Brooks Robinson. So I Wally Pipped the kid and took his job. The coach came to realize that I knew what I was doing and I also became our primary third base coach, a fact that was mentioned in the big article in the community weekly newspaper when it reported our league championship.
1982 Phillies. This is the year I became a star. I played mostly first base and batted cleanup. At one time I knew my final batting average, but now I only remember that it topped .700. I never did hit a home run over the fence though. My biggest hit was a walk-off triple, which felt pretty damned good. I also vividly remember making a cool play at first base on an errant throw, coming off the base to make the catch and tagging the runner going by while in mid-air. Good times.
1983 Dodgers. This was the real deal, mainly because our kindly old coach had decided that it would be his last year and he bought us all custom big-league replica jerseys with our names on the back. It was so sweet! Getting into uniform for a game was like a religious experience. I played shortstop, and I played it well. (Although I did have a game where I dropped back-to-back grounders and I wanted to dig a hole in the field to hide in.) Unfortunately, I couldn't hit the ball to save my life. It wasn't until the end of the season and a trip to the optometrist that I learned what the problem was. The glasses came too late to help, but I'll always look back at that season as the most fun I'd had on a diamond. After all, I got to wear real Dodger Blue!
That's why when I think of the 1983 Topps set, this Mark Belanger card (#273) is the first thing that comes to mind. Like Belanger, I was a "veteran" slick-fielding, no-bat shortstop who wore #8 for the Dodgers, and whose career had come to an end. When I first laid eyes on this card, when the complete set arrived in the mail, I was still young enough to imagine that I could have a card like that of myself someday. And how cool is that?