But the bottle rocket’s lifespan is too short, so kids burn ants with a magnifying glass, set off roman candles, a brick of firecrackers. Ignite a few more bottle rockets. Raid the dumpster of its day old candy. Sprint to the other side of the railroad tracks where the empty baseball diamond comes into view, eat the candy and toss wrappers at seagulls.
Someone has an older brother who buys them beer. They wander to the abandoned boat house, make a fire and chisel their names into the wall. And then the night gets old and so do they.
Growing up is not an exact science. There’s no caterpillar cocoon butterfly phases marked by time, but humans build artificial milestones anyway; sweet sixteen, the drinking and driving age and presto abracadabra we’re instantly mature and responsible. It’s an insult to the turtle’s beautiful pace.
Baseball is a little less predictable. Prospects are sometimes seasoned in the minors or sometimes a flock of shortstops kick up major league soil. The teenagers flash brilliance and growing pains right before our eyes.
Joe Nuxhall will always be baseball’s fountain of youth. He was 15 years-10 months, 11 days when he first pitched for the Cincinnati Reds. It was June 10, 1944, the long days World War Two… a shortage of players.
Nuxhall came into the game against the St. Louis Cardinals, trailing 13-0. The first batter-George Fallon grounded out to the shortstop. One out. A walk to opposing pitcher Mort Cooper was followed by an infield fly. Two outs. Then the wheels fell off.
Nuxhall walked a second batter. Stan Musial stepped to the plate. Nuxhall later said, “I was pitching against seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders, kids 13 and 14 years old… All of a sudden, I look up and there’s Stan Musial and the likes. It was a very scary situation.” (wikipedia)
Musial singled. The bases became loaded. Nuxhall became loaded, probably sprouted some acne too. He walked the next three batters, gave up a two run single, five runs in all and a trip to the showers and a trip to the minors where he spent the next 8 years minus a hiatus to finish high school.
Nuxhall didn’t return to the major leagues until 1952, but wound up pitching 16 seasons compiling a record of 135-117 with a 3.90 ERA.
Maybe this calling up teenagers is a desperate act, done out of necessity. Some say it messes with a kid’s confidence; that he shouldn’t be rushed into failure too soon. He needs a season or two hitting .380 in the Texas League or a pitcher’s equivalent.
But there’s nothing more exciting than youth; a million miles from the mountain peak or the dreaded other side decline. The Milwaukee Brewers selected Robin Yount with the third pick in the 1973 draft. The golden-haired shortstop made his major league debut the following April. He was 18 years young and remains the youngest player to ever hit a home run.
The Brewer’s were in their fourth year of existence; had nothing to lose. The decision to insert “the kid” as Yount came to be called throughout out his 21 year hall of fame career was not so radical.
But the decision 40 years later to give Khris Davis left field….that is radical. Davis, at 26 years old is a grandfather compared to Yount or Nuxhall, but the Brewers have plenty to lose and yet, they traded Norichika Aoki and moved Ryan Braun to right field to make room for a guy with 136 career major league at bats-13 home runs.
Davis stands in the on deck circle slicing the air with a tilted head and open mouth. He looks like he’s sculpting something only he can see. Then he walks to the plate and hits the ball high and deep, to the opposite field, sometimes on the line, up the middle…..
He’s Khris Davis, the one with the K in his name and he’s got me feeling young.