Burton on the Bay

 Vol. 10, No. 33

August 15-21, 2002

Current Issue

Sk8Boarding On the Edge

Dock of the Bay
Letters to the Editor
Burton on the Bay
Chesapeake Outdoors
Not Just for Kids
Eight Days a Week
What's Playing Where
Curtain Call
Music Notes
Sky Watch
Bay Classifieds
Behind Bay Weekly
Advertising Info
Distribution spots
Contact us

Benchwarmers at the Bat

And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere people shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville — mighty Casey has “Struck Out.”
—“Casey at the Bat”:Ernest Lawrence Thayer, 1888

At some time after my first reading of memorable Casey’s memorable embarrassment when I was in the seventh grade at Chepachet Grammar School, I read two subsequent versions, neither by Thayer. In one, Casey didn’t strike out. I believe it was called Casey’s Revenge, and naturally the ball sailed out of the park. The author, I can’t recall.

The other long rhyme told of an aged Casey, still hiding out since striking out at Mudville that day, coming to the plate from the stands as a replacement play in a tight ball game — and naturally walloping the ball to Kingdom Come. After rounding the bases to wild applause, Casey doffed his cap to the fans to reveal gray hair, and ’fessed up to being the mighty Casey.

I can’t remember who wrote that verse either, or what it was called, though I think it was titled Casey Some 20, 30 or 40 years later. I was an adult when I ran across the latter two poems in some obscure anthology, but how I wished at the time that I had read them before or immediately after reading the original Casey at the Bat.

It would have saved me so much sorrow. What was I then? Probably 12. And to this day I can vividly remember my introduction to Casey.

Meeting Casey
I was seated in the second row of grammar school, which was too close to Henry Hopkins, who taught seventh and eighth grades in a single classroom. I was close enough that stern Mr. Hopkins noted that instead of reading the assigned history lesson, I was instead absorbed with All Quiet on the Western Front, which was tucked inside the American History book.

Mr. Hopkins wasn’t one to appreciate individual creativity. The agonizingly dull topic of the week was the War of 1812, and I knew all I wanted about it. A few days earlier, I had spotted the real action book about World War I in the tiny school library. It fascinated me, but not Mr. Hopkins.

When caught red-handed by Mr. Hopkins, who was known to put a switch to the legs of errant students, I mumbled something about liking to read “different things,” to which he responded something along the lines of “I’ll give you something different to read.”

He went to his desk, returned with a fat volume of poetry — and who needs to be reminded what reading poems is like to a restless boy who didn’t want to be in school in the first place. I was to read a dozen poems, then write a report on each. But that wasn’t the worst part.

Everyone heard Mr. Hopkins’ punishment. I knew what my schoolboy chums would think, and I
knew I’d never hear the end of it: ‘Billy Burton is reading poetry! Ha ha; ha ha!’

It was within the book I was handed I found “Casey at the Bat.” I’d never previously heard of the doings at Mudville that fateful day, so as I started to read the 53 long lines about the legendary slugger, my hopes were building up for an exciting climax with Casey tearing the hide off the ball.

If it weren’t for the other fellows in the seventh and eighth grades girding to razz me at afternoon recess, it wouldn’t have been a bad assignment once I’d found a verse about baseball.

Everyone who has ever played or even watched baseball on TV should read it. It’s corny, but it’s an illustration of life and those who live it with a cocky attitude.

It isn’t until the last five words that the reader has an inkling of Casey’s downfall. Thayer was a master at suspense, but obviously the Mighty Casey was about to become the biggest hero Mudville ever had or would have.

When I read those last five words, I was devastated. How could Casey strike out? Mighty Casey — and after Flynn let drive a single and Blake tore the cover off the ball. So there was Blake safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third, two outs, the last inning, and Casey at the Bat.
I knew better than to include Casey’s non-exploits in my subsequent report for Mr. Hopkins, but I regaled my fellow students with the story at recess, and I’m sure some later sneaked that book out of the library. I was vindicated, but for ages that poem haunted me. Poor Casey.

Striking out can be worse than having a big red pimple arise on the tip of the nose the evening of the prom; worse even than your mother kissing you goodbye as you board the school bus.

Pity the Kid
That’s why I thought of Casey the other day when I read in the Maryland Gazette that to keep their jobs, Anne Arundel County youth league coaches must now let everyone on a team play a specified length of time in every game. No full-time bench warmers.

In baseball and softball, every kid’s playing time is long enough for one time at bat, and three outs on the field. Horrors.

I got to thinking about some small and skinny kid, as I was in grammar and early high school, to satisfy the new edict, having to have his time at bat in late innings … and the bases are loaded, two outs and down a run or two.

Most of the good players who started have been benched to make room for the non-stars. Parents and siblings (maybe even a girlfriend) are looking on. The pitcher still throws at 90 mph. The team needs the win to get the crown. And there at the plate is the substitute kid who can’t hit squat.

Tell me, now. What could be worse? With all that tension, with even his sister tossing the ball to him underhanded, he couldn’t even foul the ball. Naturally, he strikes out, and he has to go to school the next day and face his chums. He, like Casey, can’t hide forever.

It’s as in W. W. Jacobs’ classic short story, “The Monkey’s Paw.” Don’t ask for something, for you might get it — and what you get can be worse than if you didn’t get it.

You want to play, not sit on the bench. The coach wants to keep his job. And the other team wants to win.

So after, you’ve whiffed, unless you promptly move to Kalamazoo or Timbuktu, no matter how successful you become, for the remainder of your days, you’ll be called Strikeout Jones. Warming the bench would be better. Even so that smooch from your mother as you board the school bus.

Young Fun
But, seriously, the new county policy isn’t all that bad. It’s a start in getting away from the prevailing insidious thinking that everyone has to be a winner and that sports are played to win, not for fun. There’s enough of that in real life (and the pros) once play days are over.

Youth is meant to be enjoyed to the fullest; the real competition will come later. The parents of the gifted players who make asses of themselves cheering and jeering in the stands might not like it, nor teammates nor coaches. But let’s face it. The purpose of youth leagues is — or at least should be — to have fun. They’re not supposed to be intensive, no-nonsense training for a clean-up spot some day in Yankee Stadium.

And for the non-star kid who misses the ball by a country mile (“and now the air is shattered by the force of Casey’s blow”), there’s some consolation in what happened at Mudville the century before last. Even Mighty Casey has struck out. Enough said. …

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly