Field of Dreams
August 19, 2014 | by Ross Kenneth Urken
Chasing down one grand slam.
It was my 3,664th day on Earth, as I later calculated, and I was in a Little League fantasy scenario in Princeton, New Jersey. Play-offs, bases loaded, up at bat against an intimidating pitcher with a gnarly high kick. For an instant, my Louisville Slugger met with the ball, the leather and rubber shape-shifting against the aluminum. A roper up the middle into deep center—I can still feel the smack off the fat of the bat. I’d hit an inside-the-park grand slam. This was my finest moment as an athlete. It’s forever seared into my brain, scored by the cacophony of yelping mothers and fathers loud enough to drive kids away from the ice-cream truck to investigate.
This year marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Little League’s existence, culminating in August’s Little League Baseball World Series in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Williamsport’s Carl Stotz founded the league in 1939 by rounding up his nephews and their neighborhood friends. With the added attention to Little League this year, I began considering my brief moment of glory and how many children over the decades have received such a jolt of confidence—or the opposite—on ball fields nationwide.
The league has since ballooned into an international behemoth, with more than two-hundred thousand teams in all fifty states and more than eighty countries the world over, from Uganda to Kyrgyzstan. Each year now, more than two million boys (and some girls) play ball—their teams often sponsored by local businesses and larger corporations—and get schooled in triumph and failure, sometimes life and death. (The year 1956 marked the first on-field death in Garland, Texas, when Jerry Armstrong hit the twelve-year-old Richard “Rick” Oden in the head with a pitch.)
Our own conquests may not occur in front of the forty-five thousand live fans and more than a million TV viewers the Little League World Series attracts, but they mold our characters nonetheless, before modest collections of parents and siblings. Still, I realized how little detail I actually recalled from my big day. Who was the pitcher? What was the weather like? How old was I exactly?
These questions presented something of a dilemma. We all have seemingly trivial moments of youthful triumph—the buzzer-beating basket, the game-winning goal—that surface in our minds with undue frequency. In that way, nostalgia can be depressing. We glorify a past that’s now unattainable, and that preservation seems to value it over future accomplishments. So, yes, I wanted to investigate my crowning athletic achievement. Just as much, though, I wanted to discover why I cared.
* * *
Princeton in springtime is a baseball fantasyland. The dogwoods and the white buds of the Bradford pears on Witherspoon Street always reminded me of the snowy landscape of Super Mario Bros. World Six on old-school Nintendo. As the baseball season moves deeper into summer, the whole town is drenched in a deep Crayola green.
In a scrapbook, I found a clipping from the Princeton Packet confirming that my grand slam, the apex of my sports career, was not entirely imagined. But the date was missing; I’d squared off the four corners of the yellowed scrap.
So I contacted a research librarian at the Princeton Public Library, which has the Packet archives on microfiche, and within twenty-four hours, boom: a PDF copy of the Friday, June 21, 1996 edition popped into my inbox. Given that play-off competition took place on Saturdays, my game would have been the previous weekend, June 15, 1996. I would have just turned ten, making me 4’9” and seventy-eight pounds. But that pitcher …
I tracked down Dana Flanders, a player from the opposing side mentioned in the article, on Facebook and politely interrogated him. He shot me back a message saying he only lived in town for two years and didn’t recall the game in the slightest. These memories are fragile. The crowd, in my mind, comes in splotches of color, as in a LeRoy Neiman painting.
Next I tried my father, the alliteratively named Irvin Urken. For him, the slam was confirmation of his advantaged gene pool. He’d have to remember the pitcher.
“I know who it was—the guy with the really high kick … ” he said. He paused searchingly. My father in those days ran the local hardware store, and though he knows faces, he can’t readily access names.
So we triangulated information, starting with the company of the pitcher’s father. A few minutes poking around the Internet, and voilà: it was Jonathan Lauri. For more intel, I contacted my teammate and lifelong friend Eli Obus.
“I remember Lauri’s kick was something like a less extreme version of El Duque,” he wrote, referring to Orlando Hernández Pedroso, the former Yankee pitcher who burst onto the scene two years after the Lauri incident.
I texted my friend Will Barrett, who recalled my grand slam and described Lauri as a power pitcher, like a Roger Clemens. And then, the embers of my memory stoked, I recalled that Henry Kerins, who now lives in Beijing, was on Lauri’s team.
“He had a very high and slow windup, and his leg would extend and slide through the sand on the mound as he released,” Kerins wrote. Also on the team with Kerins was Charles Mostoller, who told me he played catcher for Lauri’s “very hard but wild pitch.” Mostoller, in turn, sent me to Simon Landau, another catcher for Lauri. This is the midnineties, and we’re trying to have a synapse fire.
“Too bad we didn’t have smartphones and YouTube then,” Landau wrote. “Your slam could have lived forever.”
At last, I friended Lauri on Facebook. He’s now a lawyer in Central Jersey.
“I unfortunately have zero memory of that game,” he wrote. “I wish I did. Maybe the only way my brain could cope with a grand slam was to black it out lol. I wish we still had these memories.”
But what was the origin of that epic kick?
“I remember being taught that a high leg kick allowed you to generate more power,” he wrote. “I also used to throw my hands back over my head, as the older pitchers used to do, because I remember thinking that this old-school style was ‘cool.’ ”
And with that, things come into focus. It’s forty-six feet from the back of the plate to the front of the pitcher’s rubber. Lauri throws at sixty mph, giving the batter 0.52 seconds to react. Lauri is on the mound, feeling the laces for a two-seam fastball. I tighten my Mizuno batting gloves on the Slugger. He checks the signs, lifts his hands above his head, and brings his left knee high to his chin. Then he fires a pitch down the center, groin-high.
There’s something instinctual to a batter’s reaction, like the cremasteric reflex. I hear the Slugger’s clangor, feel the satisfying thwack. Lauri lurches his head back as the ball zips by him. It rolls among clovers and blades of grass. I am running home. I am, for that moment, the Sultan of Swat.
Ross Kenneth Urken is a writer in Manhattan. Read more of his work here.