A Hardball Reputation


I was paying Dickie Groniger the ultimate form of respect. But Mr. Kirk didnʼt see it that way.

1973. 6th grade. Last day of school. The annual softball game between home rooms. Mr. Kirkʼs class – with Dickie Groniger, against Mrs. Winderʼs class, with, well, me. And even though physically I was no match for Dickie, or Mr. Kirk, they had unknowingly met their match.

If ever there was a 6th grade kid whose name fit his reputation it was Dickie Groniger. Dickie. Groniger. Any one of those two names wouldʼve done it. But, he had both. He was intimidating. Hard. Dickie wore an army flak jacket for a winter coat. And everyone in the sixth grade wondered what he might have in one of those pockets. He had long wild curly hair. He was bigger than the rest of us. And he was clearly going to be in chin hair quicker by several years. He didnʼt talk much, and everyone knew he didnʼt really care for teachers.

I would never have taken on Dickie head-to-head. That wouldʼve been suicide. But when it comes to games, I donʼt lose often. What I did was instinctual, my own character flaw. And to this day I have it. My wife doesnʼt like to play board games with me. Our friends look on in amazement and say things like, “Wow, I had no idea he was so competitive.” My sister-in-law once scattered a Monopoly game across the room instead of conceding to me. As for me though, I donʼt see it. I donʼt think Iʼm that competitive. I just like a little situational strategy. And that brings me back to the 6th grade.

Here was Mr. Kirkʼs mistake: He designed a softball game that had a fatal loophole. The rules were that everyone in the class had to bat, regardless of how many outs had been made. Everyone got to make an appearance at the plate in every inning. And, the game would end when the last batter of the game – Dickie – batted.

Softball is a game of situations. And here was the situation that day. Mr. Kirkʼs team was up to bat for the last time. My team - apologies to Mrs. Winder, but I think even she watched the whole thing with a sense of bewilderment, it was definitely my team – had taken our last at-bat and was up by 2 runs. Mr. Kirkʼs team had the bases loaded. Dickie Groniger coming to the plate. Mr. Kirk figured he had set it up perfectly.

I was the catcher. And when I saw Dickie stepping to the plate with a smile on his face, and looked over at Mr. Kirk – who was doing a really poor job of trying to suppress his smile, it motivated me. It was obvious to me what the situation called for. I called, “Time out!”I walked out to the mound. Walked straight up to our pitcher, Paul Taylor and said to him, “Paul, weʼre going to walk him. Iʼm going back behind the plate, and youʼre going to pitch me four in a row way outside. Weʼll walk in a run, but weʼll win by 1.”

It was against every Little League baseball principle weʼd ever been taught, and Paul looked confused, but then my strategy dawned on him, and he just nodded. Never said a word.

When I walked back behind the plate, I stole a look at Mr. Kirk. His smile started to show some strain. I donʼt think he knew yet what I was up to, but he had an idea it was something underhanded. Of course, he screamed and stormed the field when I stood up with one arm outstretched like I was a motorcycle rider signaling a turn and Paul pitched the first one outside.

Iʼd never seen Mr. Kirk move so fast – he was a big man with one of those guts that forces a person to walk with their legs a little wider to support the changing center of gravity. He came out and told me in no uncertain terms that we were not allowed to pitch outside on purpose. And, that I had to stay behind the plate and could not move outside to give Paul a target. And, with that, he walked back behind the fence to watch what he hoped would be Dickie Groniger smashing a game winning home run.

I may have my previously mentioned character flaw, but I was raised to respect teachers and do what I was told. So, I walked back out to the mound where Paul Taylor was looking kind of scared. And, I looked Paul in the eye, and said, “Paul. Roll it over the plate. Whatever you do, donʼt let that ball even bounce. Just roll it to me.”

I went back behind the plate, and squatted down and again glanced in Mr. Kirkʼs direction. He had regained his smugness right up to the time Paul rolled the ball to me. Then Mr. Kirk lost it. But he knew heʼd been had and he just couldnʼt say anything before Paul had rolled four balls over the plate, and Dickie walked to first in his flak jacket.

We intentionally walked in a run. The game was over. We won. Mr. Kirk smoldered. Mrs. Winder looked bewildered.

And perhaps because he didnʼt have to live up to all those bad-boy expectations, Dickie Groniger looked over at me and barely. Just barely. Smiled.