Growing up in southeastern Michigan there was one certainty in life for a young boy that was nuts about baseball: you were a Detroit Tigers fan.
My childhood dream was to be like my hero, Al Kaline, and someday play for the Tigers. My Dad would take us to Tiger Stadium (Briggs Stadium when I first started going to games) several times a year and my man Al would never let me down. We never attended a game that he didn't get at least one hit.
I ate, slept and drank baseball. If there was a game in the vacant lot next door I was involved. When we couldn't find a game my best friend and I would play whiffle ball or stoop ball. When we played whiffle ball we had to bat just like the players in our line-up. I had Kaline, Willie Horton and Dick McAuliffe down pat. We played organized ball too, of course. First, it was t-ball, then Little League and then Babe Ruth League. I still had my dream of playing for the Tigers and was doing well at each level of play. Then things changed.
My Dad got a new job during the summer in Green Bay, Wisconsin. This wasn't bad as far as football was concerned, since we moved there during the Packers' "glory years", but the city high schools didn't have baseball teams! I remained behind in Michigan when my parents and brother moved so that I could finish playing in the state Babe Ruth League tournament. Our team finished third in the state and played well even in the games we lost. I even pitched a three hit shutout that we won 6-0.
When the tournament was over it was time to move on to Wisconsin.
Even though the high schools didn't have baseball teams, there was a strong American Legion baseball program during the summer which I signed up for the minute it was possible.
Our coach was a man named Bob Ohm that knew a lot of baseball and taught each of us the fundamentals as well as more advanced baseball techniques. I was fortunate to start at shortstop for him for
three years. My final year of Legion ball was when I was eighteen years old and I had a great season. I had hits in every game and at least two in all but one game. This enabled me to win the batting title with an average of an even .500, which established a new record (which has since been broken).
If things were tight and it was my turn to hit, our coaches wife would do her best Flip Wilson impersonation and shout out: "Hit that ball Willie, hit that ball". When I stopped laughing I would usually step back into the box much more relaxed than I was before. During this final season
we went up to Marinette to play a double header. There were scouts from four major league clubs there to see a left-handed pitcher from Marinette and myself. This was it! My big chance! Holy cow!
Well, as the two ball games progressed I hit the ball very well getting five hits in the two games. Unfortunately, I also made four errors at
shortstop. The final error actually drew laughter from the crowd. There was a ground ball hit sharply up the middle and I closed on it from my position at shortstop. Just as I was reaching for the ball it hit a pebble and skidded low and back toward me. I stepped right on top of it, did a half turn and fell on my fanny. After the game the scouts were nice and still talked to me, but I only heard from or saw one of them after that day...
The one that did come back saw us play a game in Green Bay in which I had three hits. Unfortunately, I also had two more errors, including hitting the first base coach right in the middle of the back with a throw as he tried to get away from it. My dream of playing professional baseball was doomed. That year, even though I won the batting title, led
our league championship team in runs and runs batted in as the lead-off batter, and played every game at shortstop, I made the all-star team as
a left fielder because my fielding had been so terrible.
I was crushed at the time about the loss of my dream, but God has a way of letting us know what he really wants us to do. All the while I was playing and practicing to achieve my dream I was also coaching at a lower level. Today, I am a middle school teacher and I coach three sports at the high school level. I also have a beautiful wife, four
kids and two grandchildren. The relationships that I have enjoyed with the students and athletes through the years and today are things that you can't put a price tag on. My dream was to play baseball with the Tigers, but to be able to help mold young lives is beyond a dream -- it's a calling. Now I just want to be the most positive influence on these young people I can be. I thank God for pointing the way.