A Bad Throw And A Throwback

By: Don Ward
By: Don Ward

Saturday night I threw out one of the ceremonial "first" pitches at the Sky Sox Game. I was terrible! But it reminded me of a time when I wasn't, a season 35 years ago, preserved for me by a generous coach.

Every Saturday home game is KKTV night at the Sky Sox. One of us from the station throws one of those pre-game pitches every Saturday. This past weekend it was me, and I kind of wish it hadn't been! I had plenty of distance, a little power, so it didn't loop, but I threw it 5 or 6 feet wide of the catcher. It was truly embarrassing. I probably would have done better when I was 8 years old.

In the summer of 1974 I was in Little League at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, not far from St. Louis. The league division for 7 and 8- year-olds was called the Atom League, and we were the Atom League Yankees. I don't remember much of it directly, but I can look back on all of it, in amazing detail, because of what our coach did.

Major Dick Auclair was a big guy who knew baseball inside and out, and it turns out he knew kids pretty well too. Legend had it that before he joined the Air Force, he had been a pitcher in the Yankees organization, heading to the "bigs" until a high-flying pair of opposition spikes tore up his leg as he covered home plate, and ended his pro-ball career. He knew how to pitch and he knew how to teach kids how to pitch. He taught me.

Our Atom League Yankees had a great season in '74. We went 9-2 in the regular season, tied for first, and lost a winner-takes-all title game to our rival Red Sox on July 19th, 35 years ago today. 

I started at 1st base that day, even made a great play on a foul ball near the dugout. I had an rbi double in the top of the first. I took the mound in the bottom of the second to relieve the coach's son Rich. I took over with two on base, and even a 2-0 count on the batter. I threw the next three pitches right by him for the out. I had two more hits that day, but I walked a few guys, and we had some defensive problems. The Red Sox won the game and the league.  The final score was 13-3.

Of course I can't remember all that, I was 8 years old! I just vaguely remember the game and the terrible disappointment when we lost. But I have all the minute detail I listed above because of what Coach Auclair did. He kept meticulous records of every game. He wrote up each one in narrative form, as though he was covering it for a newspaper. He typed up the box scores, and copied the official score sheets. In a military-green scrapbook binder, I have all of it now, because he documented it then.

To begin his entry for June 28th, 1974, Coach Auclair wrote,"It was Don Ward night at the ballpark as the Yankees ace hurler pitched a masterful game. Don had a total of 15 strikeouts in his six inning stint and only walked 3 Reds batters. In addition to his sterling moundsmanship Don carried THE big stick for his team, hitting a two run homer in the first and blasting a Ron Goslee fastball into dead center for his second hit of the night in the fourth."  At that time I still went by Donnie, but baseball was grown-up stuff so the Coach called me Don.

On June 13, 1974 the Coach wrote, "The Yanks held the Padres scoreless in their half of the first thanks to a sparkling double play by the Yanks all-purpose firstbaseman Don Ward. Ward made a leaping stop of a liner by the Padres' Shawn Burke and turned it into a twin-killing by tagging out the runner who had been on first." - That play I do remember even after 35 years!

There were some reminders that we were just kids. On June 19th, "Don Ward pinch-hit for Bart Edgett who had to make an emergency exit to answer nature's call.  Don responded with a resounding double to left scoring two runs." 

Coach Auclair had two sons on the team, Rich and Walt.  They were the real slugging stars for the Atom League Yankees.  Rich ended the season with an astounding .711 batting average and 27 rbi in 12 games!  Walt was right behind him with 20.  They're the only two kids I really remember very well, our families used to hang out sometimes outside of baseball times.  I don't know what happened to them.  Our parents kept in touch by Christmas card for a few years.  I'd kind of like to see them, except it would be weird.  They wouldn't be the 7 and 8 year old boys I played ball with for two summers, they'd be the 43 and 44 year old men I've never met. 

I don't know what became of Coach Auclair either.  I hope he kept coaching and kept documenting every little thing his young players did.  That way old, former players like me can look back and read about their own boyhood triumphs and let-downs. I found that scrap book because I knew there was a picture in it of me pitching (see below), and I wanted to write about pitching after my dismal pre-game performance.  I probably hadn't read the game summaries in 30 years.  It was a thrill to do so.  It was also a little sad to think I peaked at 8!  

The very next year, in the spring of '75 my family moved to England. I played in a league on a US Air Force Base there for a couple of years and did pretty well. Then I had a coach I didn't like (they can't all be like Coach Auclair) and I quit the team.  I never played organized baseball again, which is something I regret to this day.  If your kids are good at something, encourage them to stick with it!  I moved on to other kid things and did pretty well at those too (another blog another time).  When your kids are involved in something keep a written record of what they did and how they did it.  Record as much detail as you can to go along with the home video and digital pictures.  Sometimes even the visuals can't tell the story as well as the written word.   Your kids might really appreciate it in a few decades.  I can't express how wonderful it was to re-live the small but important part of my childhood in that scrapbook.

Below is that picture I was hoping to find.  It's me, mid-pitch from that season of '74.  I had what I can only describe as a "root-beer belly".  My Dad added a caption in the scrapbook.  "The Duck (that was my baseball nickname) on the mound. Fast he ain't, but don't plan on walking."  As evidence of that I'll leave you with my favorite quote from the coach.

We had apparently tried and failed to reverse a bad umpire's call from our half of the inning on July 12th, 1974.   Here's what Coach wrote about what happened next.  "Unhappy with the results Don Ward took the mound and threw nine pitches in the second inning - all were strikes and all three batters went down swinging in a hurry."

That's why I'm sure I could have done better with that Sky Sox first pitch.........when I was 8.

We'll talk again soon.




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