Jude Hardin

Author, Drummer, Turtle Whisperer

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Location: United States

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Glove

In 1970, when I was in the fifth grade, I decided I wanted to be a baseball player, and I decided the position I wanted to play was catcher.

Why catcher?

Because, in my eyes, the coolest guy in all of sports was a catcher.

His name was Johnny Bench, and he played for the Cincinnati Reds.

My grandfather and I watched the Reds on television every chance we got, and we also listened to a lot of the games on radio. Every time Bench stepped into the batter’s box, I just knew he was going to hit a home run. And many times he did just that! He was a great hitter, but it was his defensive play behind the plate that really impressed me back then. The quickness on snagging foul tips, the arm strength and accuracy in picking off runners, the masterful pitching calls. He was the best, and I wanted to be just like him.

I can remember checking a book out of the library on the rudiments of playing the position, and I can remember hours on the front lawn with an older cousin who knew how to pitch. Someone in the neighborhood sold me some beat-up gear for a couple of bucks, a mask and a chest protector and a set of shin guards, and I thought I was on my way.

Then I got the glove.

I can’t remember for sure, but I think it was for my tenth birthday. There was a sporting goods store within walking distance of where I lived, but they didn’t have any catcher’s mitts. I think we looked in the Yellow Pages and called around and finally found a place that wasn’t too far away, and my mother drove me over there and bought the only one they had in stock, which happened to be just right for me.

I started practicing more with my cousin in the yard, and I can remember him telling me that I was a really good catcher. All I needed was a chance, I thought. A chance to play on a real team.

And the summer after fifth grade I finally got that chance.

I tried out for one of the local little league organizations and was assigned to a team called The Orioles. Unfortunately, the position of catcher had already been filled. Maybe next year, I thought. I played outfield and first base, gaining some valuable experience, even though we ended up in last place. I think we only won one game the whole season, but I was one of the best players on the team, and I got to start every game. The losses were frustrating, and my prized catcher’s mitt wasn’t getting any use, but I was still having fun.

Fast forward to the summer after sixth grade. Different league, different team, still no chance of being the catcher. The position had been taken. Disappointing, but okay. I would play outfield, or wherever the team needed me.

I was still only eleven at the time, but some of the boys had turned thirteen already. These guys were good. They were stronger than me, and more experienced, and the team manager didn’t seem to care about anything but winning.

So I ended up sitting the bench for the first two or three games.

Then, after practice one day, the manager told me that he would be starting me in the next game. I was going to start! I told everyone the great news, and several of my family members made a special effort to make it out to the ballpark to see me play.

There I was in the outfield, making spectacular shoestring catches to save base hits, making unbelievable leaps against the fence to save home runs. I could see my family in the stands cheering me on.

It was a close game, but I got on base every time I went to bat. I was doing my part to help the team. Then, bottom of the ninth, two outs, bases loaded, and I hit a grand slam to win the game!

Only none of that happened.

When I showed up at the field that day, my name wasn’t on the list of starting players. I asked the manager about this, and he said he would get me in after the first couple of innings. But he didn’t. I sat the bench the whole time.

So embarrassing. It just wasn’t right. I can remember the shame I felt, thinking about having to face my family members after the game. I was supposed to have started, and I didn’t even get to play. Not one inning. Not one minute.

To my eleven-year-old self, it was just about the worst thing that could have happened.  It was a pivotal event. At the end of the game, without saying a word, without waiting for the post-game team meeting, I walked away from the dugout and never looked back.

My catcher’s mitt went on a shelf in the closet and stayed there for a long, long time.

Baseball was over for me, but during my fifth and sixth grade school years, I’d developed another interest: playing drums.

My band director for sixth grade must have seen something he liked, some spark of talent, because he would often spend extra time with me, sometimes to the point of being late for his next class. He was a very special teacher, one that I’ll never forget. The next year, when I started going to the junior high where he taught, I was the only seventh-grader in advanced band, and by mid-year I was the #1 player in the drum section. I’d finally found something I was really good at.

And I met another very special teacher that year.

Mr. Rhodes taught social studies, and my best friend Bob and I had him at different times of the day. Bob and I had been working on our own, putting together a humor magazine called The Mag. Typing paper, rubber stamps, hand drawings, just goofing around at home and making each other laugh.

But that was about to change.

We both liked Mr. Rhodes, and we always talked about how cool he was, and on some days we would stop by his classroom after school and try out some of our jokes on him. I don’t think we even knew it at the time, but he happened to be the teaching adviser for the school newspaper, and eventually he offered to publish some of our stuff. Suddenly our crazy jokes and drawings were being seen by hundreds of other students!

Near the end of the school year, Mr. Rhodes invited us to pizza and a movie with the rest of the newspaper staff, and on another occasion he took Bob and me out for a milkshake. He was the coolest teacher we’d ever had, but at some point he made the announcement that he would not be returning to our school the following year, that he would be moving out of state. Bob and I kept in touch with him by mail for a while, but eventually Bob moved to a different part of town and we didn't see each other as often and, well, so it goes.

Fast forward forty-some years.

I’d been able to reconnect with a lot of old friends on Facebook, and one night I decided to search for Mr. Rhodes. I found a guy I thought might be him, and I sent a message, and eventually he wrote me back.

It was him!

We started chatting via email, and I soon discovered that Mr. Rhodes—my former junior high social studies teacher—had been the Executive Director of the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame and Museum, and that he was the current Team Historian.

My mind started racing.

The Cincinnati Reds.

Johnny Bench.

And I still had the catcher’s mitt my mother bought for me when I was ten.

And here it is now.

Thank you for arranging to have my childhood glove signed by all-time favorite baseball player, Mr. Rhodes. You’re still the coolest teacher I’ve ever had.