June 3, 1959: A lean boy with sandy hair and gray eyes, 11-year-old Roscoe Swift lived in a nine-room stucco house with his mother's parents. The 45-year-old house was in Dogtown, a couple of miles south of Richmond proper.
Roscoe's grandfather was a semi-retired architect. His grandmother taught children to play the piano. Their yard had two apple trees, a cherry tree, a plum tree and three grape vines in it.
His mother lived in her studio apartment over a garage that accommodated two cars and his grandfather's seldom used workshop. The garage was about 30 yards from the house.
She was a sometime freelance commercial artist who preferred to work at night and sleep in the day. When the weather didn't suit her mood she wouldn't venture outside. Her drinking habit wasn't referred to as "alcoholism." There were spells when Roscoe wouldn’t see his mother for a week, or so.
When Roscoe was two years old his mother and father had split up. His father went back in the Army and subsequently died in a helicopter crash somewhere in Korea. Since his mother refused to talk about his father -- she had destroyed all photographs of him right after their separation -- the boy's soft-focus picture of the dead man had been pulled out of the air.
When his mother wasn't within earshot his grandmother would sometimes say, "Your Dad had a wonderful smile." His grandfather told him his father had frequently gotten preferential treatment when he was in the Army, because he was a "pretty damn good outfielder."
Roscoe liked to hear his grandfather chuckle and remind him, "Don't you forget, during the war your father played on the same baseball field with some big leaguers."
When he imagined his father, rather than in an army uniform, or a coat and tie, Roscoe usually saw him in a Depression Era baseball uniform, like what he'd seen Lou Gehrig and Dizzy Dean wearing in old newsreel footage he'd seen on television.
For almost as long as he could remember Roscoe had been testing himself, as part of his training to be a hero. He had inhaled many a biography and adventure story about heroic figures. He had put himself through ordeals and attempted more than his share of daredevil stunts. At summer camp he had won a Sharpshooter patch from the National Rifle Association, which he kept with other small treasures in a hidden cigar box.
On this day a new test of Roscoe's mettle had arrived in the form of the biggest baseball game of his career. Patting the Ted Williams baseball card that he’d slipped into his back pocket, before he left for school, he walked toward the batter's box.
Mostly, school was easy for Roscoe. He took pride in being able to turn in papers first and, of course, with every question correctly answered. His difficulties in school stemmed from his class clown inclinations and his quick temper. History was his favorite subject and he liked current events. Still, baseball was what mattered most to him. During baseball season, using the box scores in the morning newspaper, he routinely calculated the up-to-date batting averages of his favorite Major League players before he went to school.
Two of the school's fifth-grade classes had finished the 18-game season tied, forcing a playoff game to decide the championship. Following lunch, all four fifth-grade classes at Gittes Creek Elementary had been given the afternoon to watch the two teams settle the issue. Which was a treat, because all the previous games had been played during recess, within that time frame.
Students with no taste for baseball had the option of watching a black and white 16mm documentary film about Jamestown's 350th anniversary. Thus, there was a pretty good crowd for the title game.
With one out, Roscoe's side was two runs down. As he took his practice swings, he reminded himself of the situation. Bottom of the last inning. Men on first and third. "No grounder," he said to himself, silently, as he knocked red dust off his canvas sneakers with the bat ... as if they were baseball spikes.
A group of some 20 men of all ages, fathers, uncles and a former minor league ballplayer who owned a nearby gas station added a measure of authenticity to the crowd. Girls from the two classes in the championship game were acting as cheerleaders. No one could remember that ever happening before, but it suited Roscoe just fine.
In 1959 baseball was still unquestionably America's National Pastime. In Dogtown, even fifth-grade baseball in the last week of school, was important.
Swift stood in the batter's box on the first base side of home-plate. Originally trained as a right-hander, he had decided that if Ted Williams -- the best hitter in the game -- batted left-handed that was good enough for him. Besides, to Roscoe, for some reason a good southpaw swing looked better to him. He’d been practicing batting left-handed for a couple of months in neighborhood pickup games. Finally, the switch had to be tested in a situation with something more on the line.
Standing crouched and barely touching first base, Roscoe’s best friend on the team, Bake, cheered him on. "Pick out a good one. Hit your pitch, Number 9."
Even though the boys weren't wearing uniforms with numbers on them, during games most of the starters on Roscoe's team called one another by the numbers they would be wearing. Since Bake's favorite player was Willie Mays, he was called "24," or "Number 24."
However, a couple of Roscoe's teammates were imploring him from the bench to bat right-handed, like usual, since everything was at stake. He ignored them but butterflies the size of eagles were disquieting Roscoe's stomach.
Stepping out of the box, the Roscoe took three practice swings. Three because it's the square root of nine. He looked at the crowd standing along the third base line. The cheerleaders for his side were chanting, "Ros-coe, Ros-coe, he's our man. If he can't do it, nobody can!"
His grandfather, who had taken the afternoon off, stood in the shade of an ancient oak tree with the other men. Peering under the flat brim of his straw hat Rocsoe's first baseball coach watched the action, as only he could.
The other team's cheerleaders and classmates booed and hooted at Roscoe from the first base line. He dug in and did his best to put them out of his mind. However, there was a particular girl with a strawberry-blonde ponytail and lively blue-green eyes cheering for the other team. Her name was Susie and he never failed to notice her.
The best thing to say to Susie never came to mind when she was near. Sometimes she made him feel short of breath. So Roscoe mostly watched her from a distance ... frequently with a sense of longing that baffled him. Although Susie was calling for his team to lose, that very second, he was thoroughly glad she was there.
Back in the box, Roscoe shifted most of his weight to his back foot and turned his front foot thirty degrees toward first base. Relaxing his hands, he jutted his chin out and squinted like he was aiming his .22 caliber rifle.
The pitcher threw the first pitch outside and in the dirt. It got by the catcher. But the ground rules didn't allow stealing bases, so the guys on base stayed where they were. Sure the next pitch would be across the plate, Roscoe leaned back and prepared to cut the ball in half.
With the infielders behind him chattering like magpies, the hurler went into his stretch and fired the pitch. Roscoe liked it and took a big roundhouse swing.
Roscoe nearly lost his balance as the sudden explosion of laughter from his opponents and their classmates pierced his armor of concentration. Nonetheless, he didn't look at anyone on either baseline. He knew he'd shut his eyes as he'd swung the bat.
Roscoe felt his cheeks flush as he pulled his baseball cap's brim down on his brow. Again, he relaxed his wrists and fingers.
"It only takes one to hit it!" Bellowed his grandfather through cupped hands.
Roscoe leaned away from the pitcher, to put more weight on his back foot. He remembered to take a deep breath, which he let out slowly as the pitcher confidently cut loose with another fastball. Swinging from his heels, Roscoe rolled his wrists just exactly as his weight shifted toward the pitch. The bat tagged the ball, righteously.
The perfectly timed kiss on the baseball's sweetest spot resonated through his body. The ball left the infield with dispatch. After clearing the leaping second baseman's glove by two feet it took a sharp nosedive and evenly split the distance between the two pursuing outfielders. The furor Roscoe heard as he rounded first base seemed like it was far away.
He ran like a monster was chasing him. Just before he rounded second base the ball plopped into the trickle of a creek that bordered the schoolyard. He almost caught up with Bake.
"Slow down, man," Bake advised over his shoulder, "those goons haven't even found it yet."
His grandfather beamed as he waved his hat back and forth over his head. His euphoric classmates were yelling and jumping around wildly. Teammates, suddenly champions, were pounding Roscoe on his back as he crossed home plate.
Roscoe looked at Susie on the quiet side of the field. The way her head tilted to the side, the position of her limbs, something about her stance, or her gesture, made him feel disoriented. It was as though he was viewing the event from different angles, simultaneously. He felt both inside and outside the scenario. His mind raced as everything seemed to be moving in slow motion.
Straining to pull all the elements together, to grasp and make sense of all he was sensing, Roscoe heard an explosion.
Then he felt a strange calm. All he surveyed seemed extra vivid. It occurred to him that he hadn’t loped around the bases, a la Teddy Ballgame. He'd been far too excited to feign nonchalance. More importantly, Roscoe had remembered to not tip his cap. If the batting king and ace fighter pilot, Ted Williams, never tipped his cap to the public on his home run trot that was good enough for Roscoe.
Roscoe was in a dimension where ballplayers don't have to tip their caps, not to anyone. As his teammates sang his praises, his haunts and familiar doubts were not in the picture.
Meanwhile, Susie had vanished. That disappointed him. When it became evident to him that his teammates hadn't heard the explosion, it puzzled him.
Detaching from the team's celebration scene for an instant, Roscoe relived how perfect it felt hitting that baseball. Left-handed.
* * *
All rights reserved by the author. The Dogtown Hero with its accompanying illustration are part of a series of stories called Detached. Three remaining stories will be added, eventually. Links to the five others which have been finished
A Perfect Rainy Day
The Freelancer's Worth