He swings, then misses; swings, then misses; swings, then misses. Yet instead of being called out after three strikes, Abram Ratajczak of the Splendid Splinters is encouraged to remain in the batter’s box, where he repeatedly flails at the ball and, again, repeatedly misses.
For the sake of moving the game along – the first of the day at Hamilton Park, beginning in the warm 8 a.m. haze – Ringswald and coach Jake Panning, doing the catching, kneel at the plate next to Abram and break the news that he’ll have to let somebody else hit.
The red helmet bows. The boy, clutching the small bat that betrayed him, is crestfallen. Slowly he walks back toward the bench behind the chain-link fence on the first base side. He is nearly in tears when site director Joe Crouch meets him.
“You want to do some practicing out here so I can help you out with your swing?” asks Crouch, who also kneels to be at eye level.
Trying not to cry, the little boy nods.
That’s the vow the late Dale McMillen made when he formed the Wildcat Baseball League more than 50 years ago.
The story has been told and retold; of how McMillen, Central Soya founder and local philanthropist, was moved as he watched a couple disappointed kids leave the ball diamond after being cut from a Little League tryout. To assure that boys, and eventually girls, would not have to spend a summer without playing baseball, he formed the Wildcat League with one stipulation – that everybody makes the team; that everybody plays. Since the early 1960s, the organization’s mantra has outlived McMillen.
Counting Hamilton Park, there are 11 sites in and around Fort Wayne where Wildcatters gather every day – weather permitting – in June and July. Because ages of the players range from 6 to 15, there are four divisions. Each site has a director and paid coaches. For Ringswald, who will be a sophomore on the Indiana Tech softball team, this is her third year. It’s the first Wildcat summer for Panning, who will be a sophomore at Concordia High School.
Just as cicadas sing their song in August twilight, the familiar baseball infield chatter breaks each July morning at Hamilton Park.
Some are more enthusiastic than others.
The third baseman for the Bambinos, a wisp of a girl with a blond ponytail and pink glove, shouts the “hey, batter-batter” chorus with all she’s got. A few steps behind her is the barely visible left fielder who remains mum as he squats in the clover.
Crouch, a math teacher at Bishop Luers, stands near the bench as he directs both teams on and off the diamond.
He helps find gloves and hats for the outgoing players and shouts the batting order for the incoming players.
“Isaac, Seth, Vinny,” Crouch yells out the first three batters. Then comes a smaller voice from the bench: “Isaac, Seth, Vinny, My Face!”
“I don’t know why they say that,” Crouch says.
Everyone has the concept of how the game is played. After hitting the ball, the batters race toward first base. Most stay there, except for Jude, whose nubber goes toward the vacated spot where a second baseman should be. Jude flies into first base. Without breaking stride, he heads to second. As he picks up speed going to third, his intentions are clear: He’s going to score on the world’s shortest inside-the-park home run.
But Ringswald, who was finally tossed the baseball, intercepts him at the third base line. Like showing a vampire a crucifix, she holds the ball in her right hand and chases the boy back to third.
The ball the little Wildcatters use is the same size as a regulation baseball, but it’s made of hard rubber. “When they get hit with it,” Crouch says, “they’re a little less likely to go down for the count.”
The game goes on, and the Splinters score five runs in the first inning.
A few parents and even grandparents watch from the metal bleachers several feet behind the first base bench. Many are in lawn chairs.
Because of the 8 a.m. start, one small spectator, still in green pajamas with basketballs and footballs, sits with his mother.
A woman’s voice from behind hollers toward the diamond, “Jacob! Don’t throw rocks and dirt!”
As Crouch stands near the fence’s opening, one of the players – Jersey – shyly approaches him.
Although she doesn’t say it, she mouths, “I’ve got to go to the bathroom.” Crouch tells her she can go to the building far beyond center field. She decides to wait.
When Crouch took him aside after striking out, the coach showed him to step with his left foot, then swing; step, then swing.
With the same red helmet, his small hands choked up 3 inches on the same white bat, and with renewed determination, Abram positions himself in the batter’s box.
Ringswald lobs the ball underhanded. And as instructed, Abram steps, then swings – and misses.
The coach lobs another one, but again, the boy misses.
His eyes are locked, his grip firm. The large red helmet holds steady. And on the third pitch, Abram whacks a hard ground ball across the infield.
His teammates on the bench cheer. Crouch yells, “Way to go!” Even Ringswald walks from her pitcher’s position to give him a high-five as he triumphantly stands on first base, as though he just scaled Mount Everest.
Yes, everybody makes the team in the Wildcat League. Everybody plays.
And for this one morning, everybody hits.