My Uncle Patsy squatted down on the sidewalk in front of our house in Port William as I fired fastball after fastball to him.
Patsy had skills as a catcher, having played baseball during World War II, and was as tough as they came. He wasn’t wearing a mask, and one of my pitches bounced off the sidewalk and hit him squarely in the side of the head. He never rubbed his head.
“Get the ball up,” he growled, as a red welt began to form near his right temple.
“Did that hurt, old timer?” Patsy’s friend, Thurmond Wical, a former professional baseball pitcher, asked with a smile as he approached us on the sidewalk. Thurman watched me throw and told Patsy he wanted me to go to Wilmington and play on his Little League baseball team.
We knew that was impossible since the Wilmington Recreation League was exclusive to Wilmington residents at the time. “Let me see what I can do,” Thurman said.
A week later, Mr. Wical returned and said Ebby Sims, director of recreation, approved my application to play in Wilmington and I would start a game the following evening on my new team. Little did I know at the time how eventful that summer would become, and how it would enrich the rest of my life.
Our team did very well and soon found ourselves playing in the championship game.
My mother was a deeply religious woman and went to daily Mass at St. Columbkille for many years of her adult life. She often took me along.
One hot, summer morning in August my mother and I were sitting in our regular pew when a man’s voice whispered in our ears. “Mrs. Haley, I’m afraid it is going to take more than prayer for Haley to beat our team tonight at the park.”
“Wait until they see Pat’s fastball, and they might wish they had said a few prayers, too,” my mom surprisingly replied, without looking up from her prayer book.
John Smith smiled and turned back toward the altar. He knew his son, Mike, was pitching against our team for the Little League baseball championship at the City Park later that evening.
Mike and I had been friends since the first grade of catechism, but John was a jokester. He made our attendance at church that morning sound like we were praying to St. Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes.
Another friend, Mike Cowman, came into my life a couple of years earlier when we were in the fifth grade. The New Antioch Red Raiders had ridden into town for a basketball game against the Port William Bulldogs, and Mike, even then, had perfected his soft, high-arching shot from around the key.
That same summer, I met Dave Carter for the first time at the Little League diamond. When we started the seventh grade at Denver Place School, Dave played wide receiver during recess and one day asked me to line up beside him. I had never played a game of football in my life.
As the dust of the game settled, he came up to me and hit me in the shoulder. “A little practice will do you good,” he said, good-naturedly.
Mark Lane had played in the summer baseball league, too. He was on an opposing team and was a feared home run hitter. Mark and I soon became good friends.
Mark, Dave, the two Mikes and I attended seventh grade together at Denver Place. Later in the year, we played against each other on intramural teams at the old junior high school. The following year, in eighth grade, a new, young assistant varsity football coach, Jim Knowles, became the basketball team coach.
Thirty young men shot foul shots, dribbled, passed the ball and shot jumpers under the watchful of Coach Knowles. “Smith, Cowman, Carter, Lane and Haley will be our starting five,” Coach Knowles announced.
The next day, Coach Knowles told us we were now a team. We went undefeated that year. Little did any of us know this was a “team” that would last a lifetime.
Our friendship grew strong over the years, and our high school years were good to us all. We each earned multiple high school athletic letters, still proudly displayed on our varsity ‘W’ jackets.
Mike Cowman has been a highly successful farmer in Clinton County. Mark Lane excelled at business, owning his own company for many years. Mike Smith is a professional engineer and founded the successful Mannik & Smith Group, Inc. of Toledo. Dave Carter shined as an entrepreneur and is now retired, living the good life in Texas.
We all have done many things throughout our lives, but our eighth-grade basketball team has remained close for 60 years.
In early 2020, we plan to meet at Mark’s home in Nashville, and I’m certain eventually someone will say, “Do you remember the time …?”
That’s what old friends do.
Pat Haley is former Clinton County commissioner and former Clinton County sheriff.