This originally ran at The Classical in 2013. I dusted it off, updated it a bit, and present it here because I think it captures Mom, Dad and my childhood in their own unique ways. Thinking a lot on those days gone by.
R.I.P. to all three.
Down five runs to the Yankees, the Chico’s Bail Bonds Bears have loaded the bases with the anti-murderer’s row of Miguel, Ahmad, and Ogilvie. Up to the plate steps the center fielder, number three, the best athlete and baddest mother in the area, Kelly Leak. Opposing manager Roy Turner decides to go all Buck Showalter v. Barry Bonds and have Leak intentionally walked. Beloved crusty drunken Bears coach Morris Buttermaker screams, “You’re putting the tying run on first base, you imbecile…”
I have no idea how many times I’ve watched Bad News Bears except to say that I know just about every line and still got a distant but familiar preadolescent tingle at the moment we first lay eyes on Amanda Whurlizer selling maps to star’s homes. The movie came out in 1976, when I was five, and while the Bad News Bears is not 100% kid-friendly, it’s clean if not-at-all-sober, and so I was allowed to watch it at a young age. Basically, I’ve been revisiting the Bears’ follies throughout my entire sentient life.
The Bad News Bears isn’t Goodfellas, Dr. Strangelove, or Apocalypse Now, other movies I’ve seen multiple times that deepen my understanding of what movies can be and do with each viewing. It’s a straightforward sports tale built around the underdogs: a fat kid, a gross eater, and a would-be tough guy with a major Napoleon Complex who ends up going head first into a garbage can. It has more in common with childproof junk like Little Big League than it does with, say, Sugar, but what it lacks in nuance it makes up for in heart, soul, public child abuse, and a truer-to-life ending than I’d ever wish for my own kid. Bad News Bears is a “classic,” not a classic.
But I love it, and I bet you do to.
Yes, Bad News Bears retains it watchability in part because it is a product of 1970s Hollywood. It’s dank and dirty and mean and wildly funny in a way that present-day studios, loath to offend any quadrant, would never let into, let alone out of, production. No movie today would ever get made with Tanner Boyle summing up his squad as a bunch of “Jews, spics, niggers, pansies, and a booger-eating moron,” which is exactly as fine as you want it to be, but makes the movie seem even older than it is — a missive from a more impolite and impolitic era that still looks strangely like our own. The foreign-seeming crudity makes me laugh and cringe in equal measures, which is to say that it still works. But, upon this viewing, another remark jumped out, one I’d never taken notice of before.
As Leak and Wurlitzer go zipping by on his hog, Cleveland, the by-the-rulebook no-fun-of-any-kind league manager, says to Turner, “I can’t help it. I really hate that kid.”
I really hate that kid.
I rewound to make sure I’d heard Cleveland correctly. I had. I can’t fathom how that note of adult anger, aimed at a 12-year-old boy, escaped me all these years. It should have grabbed me by the throat and yanked me back to Billings, Montana circa 1983. That’s because in many ways, I was Kelly Leak.
The Yankees catcher stands and gives the intentional walk sign. As the first pitch sails by high and outside, Leak sighs as if to say, “You’re up five and won’t give me a chance to hit? You call this fair play? This is the North Valley league, not the goddamn World Series.” After the second pitch is taken, Leak looks over to the dugout where, after double-checking the score, his outside-the-box manager Buttermaker gives him the hit sign. The orchestral score starts to slowly build as Leak steps in, waits for his pitch, and swings away…
I should start by saying that I was not and (lord knows) am not Kelly Leak in terms of athletic ability. I was not the best player on any team, in any sport, I ever played. In fact, as far as baseball goes, I started out having a lot more in common with Timmy Lupus than any other Bear. In 1979, I was a second-grader playing my first year in the “minors,” the generally-8–10-year-old division in the Western Giants Little League. In my first game, I got beaned, twice. In the same spot. It left a mark. The pitcher of record was Shawn Wandler, an elementary school fireballer of local renown. He and his twin sister were two of the best players in the league; they would be elevated to the “majors” the following season and anchor the Leo’s Upholstery dynasty.
At that moment, I didn’t know any of that, or care about it. I was in pain, crying on first base and wanting to be anywhere else in the world. Like say the Central Park bathroom, which was conveniently located all the way across the park. It was the only place where a young lad could poop, which mysteriously, my body dictated I do every game thereafter, right about the time my mandated innings arose.
I was so scarred I didn’t sign up for Little League in third-grade. Come fourth-grade I was bigger, no longer petrified, and so I rejoined the minors, playing for Kwik Way with my little brother, Matthew. I can’t recall our record. I think we were decent, and I held my own. The only thing that jumps out from that year is we had a kid name Danny Hernandez on the team. He was trouble.
Hernandez was the rebel Kelly Leak, angry as hell, from the rough-and-tumble Section 8 houses on the other side of Broadwater Avenue. He was a tough kid who got thrown out of the Western Giants for giving a Kwik Way teammate, one the size of Tanner, what was either an upper or a downer; some sort of non-performance-enhancing, non-legal pill, anyway. Later that summer, under the (false) belief that the Sauers had ratted him out, he came after Matthew and I with an aluminum bat. I immediately ran home. Matthew followed, but not before a neighborhood parent came out and kept him from a beating. Dad asked why I didn’t stay to protect my brother. I guess he missed the part about the aluminum bat.
Leak connects! Driving a ball to deep right-center, all the way to the wall as the horns blare. He takes a wide turn at first, sprinting to second. The bases are cleared. His fellow Bears are going bananas. Turner screams to get the ball to the plate…
Come fifth grade, I was ready. I went through tryouts and got selected by the Elk’s Club, a solid team whose manager lived around the block. Coach Sobek had a large Mormon clan, and I would be joining his two boys, Dane and Sasha, on what was shaping up to be a contending squad. I was iffy on the Latter-day Sobek boys — they had a clubhouse above their garage where they filled Pabst shorties with pee and dared each other to drink them. Still, I was fired up. I was headed to the majors.
I went through two weeks of practice and was slated to be the Opening Day first baseman. I was thrilled. And then, I was gone. I said in many ways I was Kelly Leak, but the similarities can be stripped down to two exacting parallels. We’ll get to the second example later, but the first one is that I know what it’s like for a young boy to be a pariah. I wasn’t the on-my-way-to-a-life-of-criminality Leak — I didn’t smoke, ride a Harley, hustle adults at air hockey, or give out Mama’s Little Helpers. Personality-wise, the Bear I had (and still have) the most in common with was the lazy, schlubby half-soused wiseass Buttermaker; even in my youth, I had numerous Matthau-ian attributes. But I was hated, in some sense, from as far back as I can remember.
In a class of class clowns, I was the clowniest. I was suspended, usually more than once, every year from second grade through my senior year of high school, when I was even expelled for one hour. (Long story short, I was a fuck-around, and our principal was nuts. He committed suicide via carbon monoxide in his van the following year down by Duck Creek amidst rumors of financial and underage improprieties. )
This isn’t to say I didn’t deserve what I got. I was a non-stop pain-in-the-ass; not an angry kid, but one relentlessly devoted to doing whatever amused me whenever I found it amusing to do it. This wasn’t a one-man show, and I’d argue I caught too much heat, but — if not necessarily in the coolest way — I was the one your parents warned you about. So much so, that our high school guidance counselor, a nun mind you, told another student that if he decided to go to Marquette, he should ask to live in a different dorm than mine. Otherwise, he was just asking for trouble. I can’t exactly say she was wrong on that front, but for the record Sister Valerie, I graduated with a 2.7 in Communications & Rhetorical Studies and nobody can take that sheepskin away from me. (Actually, Marquette probably could because that major no longer exists, but we count Joe McCarthy and Chris Farley as fellow alums, so I think I’m fairly far down the revocation list.)
My parents let it be known that if they got a call from that school again, I would not be playing baseball for the Elk’s Club. I still remember how upset poor Miss Hagan was that she had to make the call, knowing I was done for the season. I also remember one of my boys, probably future renowned stand-up comic Auggie Smith, requesting “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” as our afternoon sing-a-long song on that fateful day. Told you I wasn’t alone.
Coach Sobek came by the house, unsolicited, and asked my parents to reconsider. I choose to believe that he thought I’d be a valuable addition to the team, and was not concerned that he had to fill a roster spot right before Opening Day. My parents held steadfast, as they should have, and the lingering memory is my teary Mom saying, “I don’t know what we can do to change your behavior. You wanted to play baseball so badly.”
I wept. I shouted. I threw my mitt. I slammed my door.
I went back to Catholic school and finished out the year in relative peace.
The Yankees center fielder throws it on a hop to the cutoff man as Leak touches third and heads home. The second baseman spins and rifles the ball just as Leak starts his slide into the plate…
So now, it’s sixth-grade, my last year to play in the majors. I was really looking forward to it. I was big enough for my age and the Elk’s Club wanted me back at first. Most importantly and miraculously, I had managed to stay out of trouble in school that spring. What happened next though, will forever remain a Sauer family mystery. Until his death last summer, Dad swore he was told that I didn’t have to tryout again for the majors. Whether he got misinformation, or misunderstood that information doesn’t matter. But I skipped tryouts, which was a violation of the rules, and so was sent back to the minors. I was embarrassed and thought about quitting, but I was assured that in a couple of weeks there would be “call-ups” and I’d finally get to wear the uniform of the majors. (The minors were tee-shirts only, the big boys and girls got pants and stirrups.)
I dutifully went back down and for that season, I actually was Kelly Leak, athletically-speaking. Almost every time I was up, I got an extra-base hit; more often than not, it was a home run. This isn’t braggadocio. It was an absolute absurdity. In the spring of 1983, I was 12. I’d hit puberty. I’m guessing I was 5’5 or so, and I was never all that skinny. I was the only one in the Western Giants minors with trace hair on the peaches. I was Mike Schmidt rehabbing in single-A ball. I was way bigger and stronger than Shawn Wandler was in 1979. And yes, I pitched.
In the minors, players pitched, not coaches. I walked a lot, but when I connected? There were no fences to speak of and the base-paths were I dunno, thirty feet apart? These were kids just starting out, with little skills to speak of, there were whole outfields of Timmy Lupuses. If it I hit it over their heads, I was home before the ball. At first it was kind of fun, aping Reggie Jackson, but like Mr. October, a lot of the fans — that is, parents — despised me. They didn’t even hate me because I treated Kate Fratt Memorial like my own private fun house, they hated me because I had a huge and unfair and obvious biological advantage and because I scared the shit out of their tiny little ballplayers.
Even then, I didn’t blame them. After a couple of weeks, it bummed me out too. I could live with parochial school parents telling their kids to stay away from me, that I was the cause of their offspring’s downfall. In reality, Cleveland wasn’t totally wrong about Kelly Leak. He was a punk kid, often up to no good, even if adults hating children is more ridiculous than letting a 12-year-old tee off on pitches thrown by kids four years younger. I knew some of my classmates’ parents were at least, partially right. I accepted as much; the one saving grace I had in the relationships with my teachers was that “I took punishment well.”
But these Little League parents? They didn’t even know me. They knew less about me than Cleveland knew about Leak. I didn’t want to be there, either. I wanted to be in the majors, stepping into the batter’s box and trying to hit a ball over an actual chain-link fence.
The 1983 championship game of the Western Giants minor leagues was played on the majors field. A tight contest, Sauer hit a couple of doubles, knocked in a couple of runs, but there were a lot of errors and it was tied going into the bottom of the fifth, the final at-bat. Down one with two outs in the books, first base was open with runners on second and third. Sauer came to the plate. The opposing coach called for an intentional walk, but after taking two pitches, Sauer decided to take his cuts.
The next two pitches were way outside, but he swung anyway, getting two strikes, a tactic he’d contemplated but hadn’t done on the sandy no-fence fields across the park. His teammates weren’t exactly cheering the move, but his coach wasn’t exactly calling it off either. The opposing coach, doing his best Roy Turner impression, angrily shouted, “Alright, if that what he wants, then pitch to him.” The fans in the stands started cheering for the cocky older kid to get what he’s got coming to him. It might not have been hatred per se, but the air was at least laced with schadenfreude. These parents wanted to see this sixth-grader whiff. Sauer’s parents couldn’t look. He stood in, waited for the pitch. As the ball came to the plate, he took as big an uppercut as he had all season…
You know how it ends. Kelly Leak gets tagged out at home.
He wanted to be the hero, so did I. There was no joy on my muddy side of the diamond.
Mighty Sauer has struck out.
I walked off the field, straight to our van, a pop-up camper attached to the back. I knew I let my teammates and coaches down, but at that moment, I didn’t care. I was angry at having been humiliated, not just that day, but all season long. A few of my friends were there, laughing it up like I would’ve wanted them to, but I wasn’t feeling it. Not just because I’d made a fool of myself at the plate, but because making a fool of myself as a permanent lifestyle had led me to that ill-fated point. Dad started to ask me what the hell I was thinking; Mom cut him off. We got in the car and left for the woods. Unlike Lupus, I couldn’t even tell the Yankees just wait ’til next year. I was too old for the majors. I never played organized baseball again. Hell, my dad didn’t even give me a celebratory beer. Later, I’d come to find out that Coach Sobek tried to call me up, but it was apparently against the league rules because I hadn’t tried out. Maybe Cleveland was running the Western Giants after all.
Nearly forty years later, I can still feel the wildness of that over-swing. I was too amped, I didn’t watch the ball, didn’t wait on the pitch, maybe for the first time all season. It was clearly a ball, and might’ve even hit the plate if I’d let it be, but I was going for it. I swung like one home run would change what everyone thought about me.
I swung like I was Kelly Leak.
I can’t help it, I really love that kid.