Michael's Monthly Column "Throwing My Loop"



     The highway sign flashed by so quickly I almost didn’t see it.  I had a number of performances scheduled in and around the mid and deep south the last couple of weeks, and I was in a hurry.  There were people to see, books to sell, and things to do.  August is always our busiest month, and I was a busy man.  Schools to visit in Oklahoma and Louisiana, a retreat scheduled for some fifty college counselors in Mississippi, an Agri-business convention and corporate outing in Kentucky, and when all that was done, I looked forward to coming home to my loved one, and to be with our horses.  

     As soon as I arrived at Johnson Farms after the long swing, plans were to jump right back in the truck, load the horses, and tear down the highway again to see if we could place at the next roping.  And the words on the small blue sign said…
See the boyhood home of the Commerce Comet. 
I looked at the dash clock trying to estimate how long I had to make my next destination, and thought, “No, I need to go on,” but my right foot made a completely independent decision to remove itself from the accelerator, and the big Dooley coasted to a slow stop.  I sat there staring straight ahead.  The Commerce Comet…and my mind drifted back to a time long ago. 

     My Daddy and I lived for the weekend in 1955.  I was seven and he was a young forty.  At 2:00 P.M. each and every Saturday afternoon, we adjusted the rabbit ears on that small 13-inch black and white screen, and heard the magic words from Mel Allen and Red Barber, “Look at those arms, Mel  - look at those arms.”  And my father and I would peer down into that little snowy screen to see a small figure striding to home plate, and the goose bumps rose on our own arms as thousands of stadium fans roared for the one they called the Commerce Comet.  The kid from northeastern Oklahoma, No. 7, the great Mickey Mantle.  No. 7 with arms like John Henry, the steel driving man, No. 7, with the broad shoulders that tapered to a slim waist just above the legs that could take him to first base in the unbelievable time of 3.1 seconds.  The man who could crush baseballs almost six hundred feet, and run like the wind in a spring storm.  “See the boyhood home of the Commerce Comet,” the sign called to me again.  “Yes,” I thought.  “I’ll take the time to see where he lived.”  Somewhere in heaven my Dad smiled. 

     But it wasn’t that easy to find.  Driving around I stopped at four busy stores, and   when I asked directions, people seemed confused.  Some had never heard of him, and that was the most unbelievable thing to me.  “You don’t know where No. 7 lived, and you live in the same town?  Don’t you go over there every night and just sit and look at the old home place?”  Apparently they didn’t because each young person I asked either didn’t know, or couldn’t quite pinpoint the exact location.  At last, I spied an elderly gentleman sitting in a car down in the middle of the older section of Commerce, Oklahoma. 
     “Do you know where Mickey lived?” I asked.
     He turned slowly with a smile on his face, and I knew he had been asked the same question many times before.  “Just down the street,” he said pointing.  “Last house on the right.” 

     The neighborhood had seen better days, and I was expecting the Mantle family’s former home to be in a sad state.  To my surprise, the last house on the right was newly painted, and surrounded by a good size yard.  The kind of place Hollywood might pick for a movie about the life story of someone who would grow up to be bigger than life.  A swing set was in the yard, and a plastic bat rested on the grass with a wiffle ball by its side.  I wondered if there was something magic in that ground that might produce another like him.  Then I knew that was impossible.  There would never be anyone like him.   

     And sitting there on the side of the street looking at the place where No. 7 began his road to glory, I thought about my Daddy.  He was our little league coach, and harder on me than any other player.  But all the kids loved him so, and ‘til this day, men who are 50 and 60 years old still tell me he was one of the best things ever in their lives.  He was a great coach, fiercely competitive, and he would let us do most anything to get better, but he had one rule.  And that rule was never to be broken.  The rule was you could have anything in his duffel bag except one thing.  You could use any bat, ball, catcher’s mask, shin guards; anything you wanted was yours – except one thing.  You must never touch the game ball.  That was forbidden. 

     The holy relic - the game ball - rested in a blue and white Rawlings box hidden deep in the recesses of his old army bag, and was shrouded in soft pure white tissue paper.  The ball was replaced each week, and used only on game nights. And if any human, little leaguer, or living creature touched this ball, the consequences would be unspeakable.  And we never did.  All the years my Dad coached, and for all the miles we traveled in his old Plymouth station wagon packed with kids, no one ever touched the game ball.  Except for one time… 

     We were in the outfield shagging flies; my Dad was out in the parking lot retrieving something from the car when we saw the devil himself.  He was not a player, and certainly not one of our team members.  He was 10 years old, and from the outfield, you could see he was dirty.  His bare feet were filthy, his ragged pants were held up with a cotton string, and his shirt was a torn rag.  Blond hair covered his darting shifty eyes, and our hearts went cold as we realized what he was doing.  He was rifling through the bat bag, and we knew…he was stealing the game ball. 

     In an instant, the entire team was off like a herd of horses in hot pursuit of this evil creature.  We had seen murderers like the low-lifes who shot people in the back in Roy Rogers and Gene Autrey movies, and even Mr. Barton’s gang who beat up Gabby Hayes when the good guys were not around, but never had we witnessed anything so blasphemous as the theft of the most sacred object in all of Little League Baseball. 

     He ran but he couldn’t hide.  Once we reached the parking lot, his bare feet were no match for our shiny new cleats.  We overtook him easily, and even though he struggled, cussed and spit at us, we wrestled the prize away from him.  We had him dead to rights.  No jury in the world would convict us if we killed him right there.  Roger and Ronnie started to beat him up, but I said, “No, let’s do this right.” The mob wanted blood, but they turned stone cold silent when I said, “Let’s take him to my Dad.”
     “It would be better for him if we killed him right here,” said one.  “But you’re right, we’ll let “Coach” handle this.”
     And the posse brought him in…alive.  We wanted him alive to stand trial for the worst of all crimes.  We caught him red-handed, and we had proof.  He was guilty all right; there was no question about that.  I was holding the game ball, and my Daddy would know that only someone from the dark side had done this foul deed.  None of his players were capable of such a thing. 

     My Dad had arrived at home plate at the same time Ronnie and Roger roughly pushed the future convict down at my Dad’s feet.  He was a pitiful sight.  Filthy and in rags, we knew he wasn’t our kind.  Staring down at him, we had no room for pity.  All the ten year olds in the group knew you had to be tough on crime.  If you had mercy on these people there was no telling what might happen next. And we also knew he was about to face a man that considering the nature of the offense, would show no mercy.  If you touched the game ball, my Daddy would make Hangin’ Judge Roy Bean look like a wimp.  We didn’t know what the judge would do, but we knew it would be bad.
     “You think he’ll hang him? whispered first baseman, Dwight Harmon.
     “Naw,” I whispered back, “he’ll probably just whip him good.”
     “I hope so,” said Dwight, and the group murmured agreement like mobs in front of Marshall Dillon’s office always did. 

     My Dad reached down and lifted the little boy to his feet.  His huge hands gently brushed the hair from the child’s dirt streaked face, and my Dad looked at us.  We stared back.  My father shook his head a time or two, and looked at the boy again.  Then…he turned to the duffel bag, and reached far down into the bottom where we had returned the Holy Grail to its rightful resting place.  He pulled the ball from the bag, and slowly removed it from the box, then unwrapped the pure white tissue paper.  The sphere shined like snowy silver in the sun.  He bent over low and whispered something in the child’s ear that we couldn’t hear.  The boy looked up at my Dad, and then…my Daddy put the new baseball in his small hands.   

     In an instant, the boy was in a dead run down the third base line, clutching the ball to his chest.  We turned to pursue, and in a quiet voice, my Dad said, “No.”  We froze. 

     We watched him run, his bare feet churning.  Down the left field line, he ran as fast as he could, and finally just as he reached the outfield fence, he stopped. Turning to look at my father, he held the baseball high above his head, and waved to my Dad.  My Dad didn’t wave back, he just smiled.  Then, the boy disappeared behind the fence. 

     And sitting on the side of the street, looking at the old home place of the Commerce Comet, I thanked the Lord for No. 7, and for my Daddy, a` man who taught me a lesson.  I didn’t get the lesson then, but I get it now.   

     The old fellow who had given me directions a short time before drove up alongside.  “I see you found it,” he said.
     “Yes,” I said, “and thank you.”
     “Brings back a lot of memories, doesn’t it?  Thinking about him,” he said, pointing at the house.
     “Yes, it does,” I said.  “It certainly does.” 

     Back on the road that never ends, I found myself not in such a hurry as before.  I drove along watching the Oklahoma sun go down, and just as I was leaving Miami, I  thought about a time when life moved at a slower pace.  In the fifties in Texas when No. 7 was young, and so was I.  And I thought about the lesson my Daddy taught me, one that he learned from another.  I didn’t get the lesson then, but I do now. 

                                           What you do to the least of these, you do to me.
                                                                                Matthew 25:40 

                                                                                     Michael Johnson

See all Michael’s books, tapes and CDs at michaeljohnsonbooks.com.
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Reflections Of A Cowboy, at fine bookstores.

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