Reflections – Jim Gibbons

FEAR STRIKES, OUCH!

MY FATEFUL ENCOUNTER WITH THE WATERBURY WIZARD

It was my most anticipated boyhood day, surpassing any birthday or Christmas for its’ limitless joy potential. I was to meet my exalted idol, Boston Red Sox Outfielder, Jimmy Piersall #37.

I was born in the Boston suburb of Malden into a family of rabid Red Sox fanatics. When I was four we moved to Meriden, Connecticut a trek from the epicenter of Red Sox worship to central Connecticut where fan allegiances are split between the sainted Scarlet Hose and the demonic New York Yankee “Evil Empire.” The city adjacent to Meriden is Waterbury, known to some as “The Brass City,” but forever enshrined in my mind as the birthplace of James Anthony Piersall. Known as the “Waterbury Wizard,” Piersall was a superb athlete who led his high school to the 1947 New England Basketball Championship. A year later he was signed by the Red Sox and in 1950 became one of the youngest players to reach the majors. Both Casey Stengel and Ted Williams said he was the best fielding outfielder they ever saw. Piersall enjoyed a 17 year career in the majors.

A fellow Little Leaguer came to games wearing butter soft Wilson baseball gloves inscribed, “Jimmy Piersall Personal Model.” These were in sharp contrast to the cheap gloves composed of two inflexible slabs of unknown substances laced together and shipped from exotic lands that I and most my buddies wore. When I asked where he got his gloves, my friend said his father was Piersall’s advisor and close friend and Jimmy often visited their home bearing gifts of used baseball equipment. When I mentioned I was a humongous Piersall fan, he said Jimmy was visiting his father next weekend and suggested I come meet him and possibly have a catch.

In preparation for the big day, I practiced throwing and catching until my arms ached and my glove hand was permanently scarred by the semi- plastic lining of my neon orange colored glove. I imagined myself performing before an assembled multitude throwing a dazzling array of curve, knuckle and fast balls to a shocked Piersall while leaping unbelievable heights and stretching into previously unseen positions to catch his feeble returns. I was sure my skills would so impress Jim that he would run to the nearest phone alerting Red Sox brass of this young baseball prodigy who must be signed immediately before another club grabs him.

The big day finally arrived and found me nervously pacing outside my friend’s house while indoors Piersall conferred with his confidant for what seemed like days. When he suddenly appeared, my mind instantly went blank and my body limp. I barely heard him introduce himself and ask if I would like to have a catch. I said and did nothing except let my jaw drop, my eyes glaze and my entire countenance turn to stone. Next, I vaguely remember holding up my glove to catch a perfectly thrown ball. The ball landed squarely in my glove’s pocket and instantly bounced to the ground. I remained immobile until I heard people yelling for me to pick up the ball and throw it. I finally did but my throw sailed ten feet over Piersall’s head. While known for his death defying, home run robbing, dives into stands and bullpens, Piersall made no such attempt to grab my erratic toss before it landed in a thorn encrusted rose bush. He simply turned to me and uttered, “Good job kid. Keep working to improve your game and have fun.”

In a second Piersall was gone leaving me completely humiliated. I had failed at what I perceived to be my major league tryout. Even worse, I disgraced myself in front of my idol. My friend try to console me then and years later saying I in no way contributed to Piersall’s nervous breakdown as documented in the book and movie entitled, “Fear Strikes Out.” Pearsall did not like being portrayed on film by Anthony Perkins stating, “He throws like a girl and prances around in the outfield like a ballerina.” When I saw that quote I often thought he first saw that sorry performance on the day of our catch.

As with many childhood experiences, that memorable day has developed a rosier patina with time’s passage. After all, how many kids get to spend time and have a catch with their idol? I have learned that perceived heroes are mere mortals facing the same life challenges as everyone else. And finally over time, I came to realize that while life offers tremendous moments of joy such as seeing the emerald fields of Fenway for the first time or playing the happy games of our youth, it also presents real challenges such as coping with sickness, adversity, fear and failure and when faced with these trials the need to step up to the plate and do as Jimmy told me, “keep working to improve your game and have fun.”