1958, Munich, Germany: Samuel Smart, an American military dependent, was not the fastest, best fielder, or batter on his Little League team, the ‘NCO Cadets’. He was one of the most intense and was nicknamed “Sammy Hustle” by his coaches. Regardless of inning or score Sammy would hustle on and off the field between innings – often arriving at the bench from his Center Field position before his 1st or 2nd basemen teammates.
6th inning, 2 out, runner on 1st, Sammy at bat: Opposing pitcher with blazing throwing speed for a 12-year-old already had 10 strikeouts. Sammy liked to hit pitches that were a little ‘high & inside’. The Pitcher knew this and immediately got two called strikes on ‘low & away’ pitches. Although Sammy disagreed with the calls at 0 – 2 he knew that showing upset with the Umpire was futile.
Sammy fouled-off the next ‘low & away’ pitch – driving it outside the Right Field Foul Line. He did the same with the next two pitches. Still at 0 – 2, the Pitcher threw a low inside pitch pushing Sammy outside the Batter’s Box. Count 1 – 2. Next pitch was a low screamer about to catch the outside edge of the Plate. Defending the Plate Sammy swung at the last minute and again drove the ball to the far right.
The Pitcher persisted with low-outside pitches. Each time Sammy fouled the pitches beyond First Base. With seven foul balls to the right both teams and the parents in the stands were becoming edgy. The fielders began fudging over toward the Right Field Foul Line. A ball thrown ‘way outside’ moved the Count to 2 – 2.
Sammy was not trying to hit foul balls. He was only trying to ‘stay alive’ at the Plate by taking the decision out of the Umpires hands and waiting for a Walk or ‘his pitch’.
Three more line-drive fouls outside the First Base Line. The Right Fielder moved to stand on the Foul Line. The Center and Left Fielders moved whole positions to their left.
Two more ‘low & away’ pitches – two more fouls. Sammy’s teammates on the bench began clapping and stomping their feet. They were joined by most people in the stands.
The Pitcher let a ‘wild-one’ go way inside – Full Count, 3 Balls – 2 Strikes. Two more outside pitches. Two more foul balls outside Right Field.
After throwing 19 straight pitches the weary-armed Pitcher delivered his 20th pitch. It sailed-in like a beach ball ‘high & inside’. With all of the focus like a warrior in battle Sammy swatted the pitch down the 3rd Base Line. As the 3rd Baseman had, many fouls before, moved far inside the Base Line neither he nor the Left Fielder were anywhere near the driving ball.
Sammy tore around 1st, heading for 2nd. By the time the Left Fielder retrieved the ball it had rolled all the way to the Fence. Erectly occupying 3rd Base Sammy stood as if this were completely normal.
40 years later, back in the USA, I happened to get a phone call from one of my fellow players on that Little League team. We had not talked or communicated in any way since that 1958 season. After a brief ‘catch-up’ and without any prompting we fell into reminiscing about Sammy Smart’s 6th inning ‘at bat’. Neither one of us could remember who won the game or even who the other team was. However, with crystal clarity we each remembered the exact pitch-count and how Sammy prevailed after fouling-away 14 pitches. We confided that it was one of our favorite childhood memories.
After that season had I moved back to the US and never saw Sammy or any of those teammates again. Yet, countless times I shared this story with future teammates, friends, and colleagues.
For me it has always been an inspiring story about ‘never giving-up’. It still is. Through all of Life’s ‘ups and downs’ one of my practices encourages me that, “When I’m focused, at some point, a floating beach ball will come my way that I can smack all the way to the Fence.” Since I never know when that will be I must ‘Keep Swinging!’.