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He put the punch in punchless season

Wed., July 14, 2010

Howie Stalwick survived his lone American Legion season. (Christopher Anderson)
Howie Stalwick survived his lone American Legion season. (Christopher Anderson)

I look back on my only season of American Legion baseball as one of the most enjoyable summers I ever experienced.

I also look back on my only season of American Legion baseball as one of the closest encounters with death I ever experienced.

I played on the Queen Anne Merchants in Seattle in 1973. At 5-foot-6 and 125 pounds, I was far too small, weak and lousy to play Legion ball. However, my team was indescribably awful, so I batted leadoff, started at second base or in left field and pitched.

Yes, pitched. I can honestly say I was the greatest 5-6, 125-pound pitcher in American Legion history. Of course, I presume I was the ONLY 5-6, 125-pound pitcher in American Legion history.

One night late in a pathetic season that I played a prominent role in making pathetic, our coach spared me the indignity of embarrassing myself on the mound by permitting me to embarrass myself at second base against the league champions from West Seattle.

The game was well out of hand midway through the game when a humongous All-Metro League football lineman named Ron Maas blasted a double that crashed off the left-field wall before our left fielder could even contemplate the possibility of turning around to pursue the ball.

Maas, like many rivals I faced over the years, was not particularly fond of the way I played the game. I sprinted to and from my position between innings, raced to first on walks or when hit by a pitch, dove for every ball within the same area code. I did all this for one very simple reason: It kept people from focusing solely on the fact that I was incredibly tiny, helpless and just plain awful.

Back to my story. Maas slid in safely at second, the throw arrived a half-second later, and I softly laid a tag on him just in case he stepped off the bag. No harm, no foul.

Or so I thought.

Maas, who had made his disdain for me known during various “discussions” we had held over the years when he was playing first base and I somehow managed to defy all odds by getting on base, rose to his feet and shoved me in the chest with his massive arms. I also seem to recall my mother’s virtue being called into question.

Maas, his face covered with a smirk, barely bothered to glance at me during the whole process. That’s how unconcerned he was about any possible consequences. Maas, you see, was listed at 6-4, 225 during the football season. I know. I looked it up.

Little did Maas know that, in addition to being the world’s smallest and worst American Legion baseball player, I was also the world’s smallest and worst Junior B hockey player. The dumbest, too.

This would explain why, after Maas shoved me on this hot and humid night and my team was getting crushed yet again during a long and forgettable season, I calmly turned to the umpire, asked for time, laid my glove down on the infield dirt, walked up to Maas and, after he instinctively raised his fists to defend himself, I landed the single luckiest punch in the history of mankind.

Right between his fists. Right on the tip of his nose. Instant blood. Instead breakage. Instant pandemonium. Instant celebrity for me, as it turned out, among teen-agers on Queen Anne. For a couple of weeks, anyway. Best of all, the umpires and players broke things up so quickly, Maas never got a chance to come after me and presumably shorten my expected lifespan by a substantial number of years.

Funny, the things you remember, right down to the smallest detail, nearly 40 years after the fact. The lessons learned from succeeding and failing in American Legion baseball have had a much larger impact on my life than a lucky punch thrown in anger at the age of 18. To this day, however, teammates and fans that were at the game bring that story up somewhat regularly when I visit Seattle.

I’ve got to admit, it’s better than only being remembered as the smallest and worst player in American Legion history.

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