John Sheppard posted a nice Little League photo the other day, complete with 70s bright colors and high pants, which made me think a bit about my brief experience in Pee-Wee League back in the day. I forget when this was, but I’m guessing maybe third grade, and it was yet another one of those things where my parents really wanted me to experience different things besides the Apple II and/or determine if I was gay by forcing me to play sports. And given my lack of any hand-eye coordination or motor skills, I’m surprised they didn’t just give up and start buying me Cher albums and teaching me about flower arranging.
Pee Wee League was one of those things that not only made me feel bad about my inability to do something that so many other people could do easily, but I had kids making fun of me well into high school due to my inability to throw a ball long distances when I was a little kid. I know parents think these things will toughen up their kids, and teach them about teamwork and discipline and how to oil a leather glove. I guess one of the other things was that I was supposed to learn all about the national past-time and develop a love for the game. Honestly, I couldn’t name more than five baseball teams back then, and at the time, I was far too preoccupied memorizing random statistics about Star Wars characters than infielders and outfielders. This is probably best proven by the fact that I had about a dozen baseball cards, but I had every single one of the first two series of the Topps Empire Strikes Back Cards. (Insert speech about how I wished I sealed that shit in a vacuum-packed safe so I could put them on eBay and finance the down payment on a beachfront house, instead of randomly losing them all or accidentally covering them with peanut butter.)
Each of our Pee-Wee League teams had a corporate sponsor (if you consider “corporate” to include local car washes and septic system pumping companies) and a name of a real major league team. My assigned team was the AstroBowl Astros, sponsored by a local bowling alley, with a nod to the Houston MLB team, and featured orange hats and t-shirts. We didn’t wear the pants or the cleats or any other gear. I think there was a concerned mother freakout about wearing a cup, which happened when this kid named Skip ended up sliding into home plate ball-first and doing some damage to the yet-functioning family production units. I distinctly remember my mom’s hysterics, leading to a hand-off to my dad, who spent his childhood in the protection-free fifties, when you could still buy Jarts, M-80s, and small-caliber firearms at the local soda stand. The closest thing he knew about protection was when he got a CB radio so he could protect himself from speeding tickets on the highway. My dad grudgingly took me to Sears, where we silently walked to the athletics department and found that all of the various supporters and protectors were, at the smallest range, made for kids roughly twice my age or size. I think I could have used the smallest cup in stock as a batting helmet. Dad basically mumbled, “Son, be careful, and don’t tell your mom,” and that was that.
Somehow, I got put on a team that made the Bad News Bears look like the Yankees with a two billion dollar salary cap. Every kid who could not play was on the Astros. Most of the kids at school got onto cool teams, like the Dodgers, the Yankees, or the Cubs. (Yes, the Cubs were a good team; we were 100 miles from Wrigley Field. Despite the fact that they were a horrible team during that era, at least they were recognizable.) The only things I knew about the real Astros were Nolan Ryan, and the fact that they played in their namesake dome on their namesake artificial turf. That wasn’t much to go by.
I ended up as the catcher. When you have an adult pitching and the catcher doesn’t call pitches, this was where a coach parked their worst player, which happened to be me. I could barely throw the ball back to the pitcher. I could not infield to any extent, but it usually didn’t matter. The best strategy for the opposing team was to hit it anywhere in the outfield, and run in every single person on base while I sat and watched them cross the plate, because it would take about 45 minutes for someone to retrieve the ball and throw it home. I remember one game, against the faux Dodgers team, which had all of the jocko guys in it, when the score ended up being like 78 to 2. It was like a basketball game between the Harlem Globetrotters and a bunch of geriatrics who were off their meds.
I think we did win one game, and it was against one of the best teams, maybe the Yankees. It was on a day of really shitty weather, where the temperature dropped to about 45 or 50, and it was raining on and off, and extremely dark. Because it was on and off, the officials kept deciding the game would go on, and then they would change their mind, and then it would be back. We only wore t-shirts, and maybe half of the team got the idea to put on jackets under their uniform shirts. But wet denim jeans are always horrible, and your hands would be absolutely freezing. The parents on our team were pulling all of this “toughen up!” bullshit, and pretty much every kid on both teams was crying or trying not to cry, but still streaming tears down their rain-soaked faces. The only parents there on average were the mothers, who were trying to act like the fathers and overcompensating with whatever macho bullshit they caught from TV. (This was in an era when the divorce rate was like 100%, and all of the dads were probably off either getting loaded or trying to fuck the non-baseball moms.) So for whatever reason, our team could withstand the pain way more than the fake Yankees could, because we had to put up with so much bullshit under normal operating conditions, we didn’t even care that our hands were turning blue. Even the kids that couldn’t hold a bat were popping off doubles and triples, and we ended up pulling in a 12-4 win over the best team in the league.
One of the big things about Little League is that when you win (and it’s not practically snowing out), you go get ice cream. You’d think that since we had our asses handed to us on a regular basis, we’d never see any dessert action, but our coaches were sympathetic, or maybe in that “nobody’s a loser” parental mindset, so they usually found out where the other team was going, and we’d go to the other place for celebratory losing treats. There were two ice cream places in close proximity: a Dairy Queen, right next to the Taco Bell on 33 where I’d work when I was 16, and a Tastee Freeze, which was right in front of our corporate sponsor, Astrobowl.
I think I liked Dairy Queen better at the time, and we went there more, because the winning team usually went to Tastee Freeze because it was a local institution, and I think we lost almost every single game. Dairy Queen was more of a restaurant, like McDonald’s, and it had a sit-down dining room with a solarium. It didn’t have as many ice cream types, but I always got the peanut buster parfait. Tastee Freeze didn’t have any seats, just a window where you ordered. Maybe it had some picnic benches, but I remember sitting on a curb when eating my ice cream most of the time, and I wasn’t into that as much. Looking back, I probably like the Tastee Freeze better, because the ice cream was a lot more “custom” and they added sprinkles and cremes and sauces and other toppings while you waited, instead of just pulling out plastic-wrapped, pre-extruded things made at the central office in Kansas or whatever. Tastee Freeze is more of a small-town memory to me, something I’ll never see again in the big city.
When I was in the 7th or maybe 8th grade, we had to go to AstroBowl for a couple of class periods of bowling. It was across the street from the Junior High, so this was built into the curriculum, since we all know that bowling is an important skill for finding a job and providing for your future. (It’s important to note that even to this day, you will get your name in the Elkhart newspaper if you roll a perfect 300. Bowling is a big deal in Indiana. Not as big as crystal meth or illegitimate children, but it’s probably in the top ten.) Anyway, when I went over there and made a fool of myself yet again in another sport-like activity, I saw that in the trophy case by the front door, there was a picture of my old Pee Wee League team in a frame, along with a couple of other baseball team pictures that the bowling alley apparently sponsored. I was probably eight or nine, maybe ten when I went through that experience, but even at the age of 13 or 14, it was like looking back into another world to see that picture. I don’t have a copy of said photo anymore, but whenever I think of it, I always wonder if it’s still in the trophy case, gathering dust..
Oddly enough, a quick google shows that AstroBowl is for sale. Take a look at those photos and you see that parts of Elkhart have changed absolutely zero in the 15 years since I have left. The bowling alley looked identical back in the day: 70s futuristic logo, Pepsi sign above the door, big double stripe on the side of the cinderblock building, and cracked up parking lot. I’m honestly surprised that the location hadn’t become a TGI Friday ten years ago. I don’t bowl, but it would be sad if the place got sold and became a Mexican bodega or something. Current price is $450K, if you want to relive that Ed TV show and move back to the small city.
[Note from 2020: the AstroBowl was a Mexican event center for a few years, then sat abandoned for a decade or so, until the city tore it down. It’s now a parking lot for school busses.]
My parents also made me play basketball in the 6th grade, which is an even bigger story. Maybe I’ll type that one up sometime.